Russian Communists in tailspin

Russia's struggling Communist Party plans to bring its supporters out in force on May Day.

Russia traditionally celebrates its laborers on May Day. And this year, it will be no different. Its beleaguered Communist Party Â- long billed as the party of the workers Â- says it will fill the streets on May 1 with its supporters. They plan to demonstrate that the old party is still strong, despite a Kremlin-ordered purge that stripped away its Duma powers in early April.

But experts say the Communist Party, known by its Russian initials KPRF, is facing a crisis that will force it to fundamentally reinvent itself or finally tumble into history's dustbin.

The party, which vowed to go into "tough opposition" this month after the Duma's pro-Kremlin majority deprived it of most of its parliamentary chairmanships, may have run out of options. "As a symbol, communism has ceased to whip up emotions in our society," says Vladimir Kostyushev, vice president of the Russian Association of Sociologists. "The time has passed when the Soviet system could possibly be restored, in any form, and therefore you can no longer mobilize people either for or against it. It's time for something new."

The KPRF remains Russia's largest political organization, and regularly draws about a quarter of the popular vote, but analysts say the party is being marginalized by a Kremlin that no longer needs it Â- and by Russia's rapidly changing society. "The KPRF's traditional supporters are people who grew up in the USSR, have done badly in the past decade, and feel nostalgic for Soviet social security," says Iosif Skakovsky, spokesman for the St. Petersburg chapter of the Union of Right Forces, a liberal party. "To put matters bluntly, their faithful electorate is dying out and everyone else is sick of their old slogans."

Ironically, former President Boris Yeltsin helped maintain the party's credibility by repeatedly provoking political confrontations with it. "Yeltsin loved to pretend the Communists were a deadly dragon, and he was the only heroic dragon-slayer who could save Russia from them," says Valery Solovei, a senior analyst with the Gorbachev Foundation, a think tank run by the former Soviet leader. "In fact the KPRF is a very law-abiding organization that prefers to cooperate with power, not oppose it."

When President Putin arrived in power two years ago he struck a deal with the KPRF, giving it 10 of the parliament's 29 prestigious chairmanships in exchange for a political truce. But since then, Putin has angered the Communists by moving to enact a liberal social and economic agenda. Last year the president also convinced several centrist parties to merge last year, forming a pro-Kremlin mega-party, United Russia, which now utterly dominates the Duma.

After being tossed into the political wilderness, Communist leaders say they will now revert to the Party's political traditions. "We are the party of socialism, and Russians have always supported this goal," says Ivan Melnikov, a KPRF leader who lost his post as chair of the Duma's Education and Science Committee in the purge. "When necessary, we can bring people into the streets to back our demands. We are taking on the role of tough opposition, and it's a role we understand very well."

Mr. Melnikov says the party will peacefully parade its forces on city streets across Russia on the traditional labor holiday next week. "All these rumors of the KPRF's demise are hugely exaggerated, and you will see that on May Day," he says. Polls show the KPRF retains the support of almost a third of regular voters, but that picture may be deceptive, say experts. "The social landscape has changed in the past decade, and the communists may find it hard to talk in the new language of alienated, unemployed, disaffected youth," says sociologist Mr. Kostyushev. "The old core of Communist voters is dying off, and will be gone within a decade. There is also no lack of opposition among impoverished Russians, and a wave of new radicals is emerging. There are skinheads, fascists, even hard-left activists in this wave, and it could become very dangerous for the Russian state. Maybe Lenin and Trotsky could have harnessed this energy, but our ossified, aging Communists? I don't think so."

A better way, championed by some supporters of the KPRF, might be to follow the example of some successful Eastern European ex-Communists and become a new-look socialist party. "This party has deep roots in Russia," says Alexei Podberyozkin, a Duma deputy and head of Spiritual Heritage, a left-wing nationalist movement. "On the centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, don't be surprised to see it sitting in the Kremlin again."

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