Russia's Communist Party, which proudly bears the hammer-and-sickle mantle of its Soviet predecessor, has recently discovered a surprising new mission: to champion democracy and civil society against the encroachments of an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.
"It may sound ironic, but in today's life the KPRF (Communist Party) has become the main defender of all those ideals that were declared by the democrats in 1991," when the USSR collapsed, says Viktor Peshkov, a leading Communist Duma deputy and candidate in next Sunday's parliamentary elections. "We stand for democracy, pluralism, freedom of the press, and private property while the state is moving to limit all of those social gains."
Used to winning the votes of the quarter or so of Russians nostalgic for Soviet times, the decade-old KPRF now finds itself fighting for its political life against the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, a new rival created by the state to back President Vladimir Putin. Recent opinion polls suggest the Communists' support may be collapsing, especially in conservative rural Russia.
United Russia's tactic is to seduce the communists' traditional constituency by appearing more like the old Soviet Communist Party than the KPRF does. The pro-Kremlin party has stolen the Communists' anti-big business slogans, its posters feature Soviet-era icons like dictator Joseph Stalin and cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, and its attack ads slam the KPRF for including rich businessmen among its candidates.
Experts suggest that the KPRF's predicament is largely due to its failure to reject its Soviet past and wholeheartedly embrace modern, European-style social democratic ideas. But many also worry that a KPRF defeat Sunday could demolish the last serious check on resurgent Kremlin power.
"If the Communist Party disappears, we will be left with a virtual one-party system," says Alexander Yurin, director of the Institute for the Development of Electoral Systems, an independent think tank. "The KPRF is needed by society, if only because it represents the only systematic opposition."
An opinion poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency in mid-November found United Russia far ahead with 32.7 percent support, compared to the KPRF's 14.3 percent. The two liberal opposition parties, Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, trailed behind with 7.5 percent and 5.2 percent respectively. Conducted among 6,000 adults in three cities, that survey drew doubts from many experts. Still, a more methodical nationwide poll in early November by the independent VTsIOM-A agency found Communist support at 23 percent, about 6 points behind United Russia.
Reestablished a decade ago after the USSR ended, the Communist Party has coasted to a No. 2 finish in virtually every presidential and parliamentary election since then, largely on the strength of its famous name. The core supporters are pensioners loyal to their Soviet roots, jobless industrial workers, rural poor, and, in recent years, urban middle-class professionals whose hopes were crushed in wild post-Soviet swings such as the 1998 financial crash.
The KPRF's politics are an odd mélange of orthodox Marxist rhetoric, nationalism - with the occasional flicker of anti-Semitism - and new-style social democracy. While its program still describes socialism as the ultimate goal, it pledges to stimulate the growth of small business in the short term. Mr. Peshkov insists today's Communist Party differs from its Soviet predecessor in at least three key points: respect for private property, the upholding of free speech and political choice, and the championing of religious liberty. "The KPRF has people from all walks of life in its ranks, with many different viewpoints," he says."We are a party rooted in democratic ideas and practice. Without rejecting Soviet history, we have learned its lessons," he says.
Frustrated young voters
"Five years ago any youthful person who said he supported the Communists would be regarded by his peers as a weirdo," says Ilya Ponamaryov, the under-30 director of the KPRF's information center and one of its top campaign managers. "Today he's seen as an honest person."
Mr. Ponomaryov says young Russians are turning to his party out of anger and frustration. "To achieve any degree of economic success today, you must go to work for one of eight big oligarchs," he says. "Bright young people resent the lack of opportunities, and are ready to vote for a party that aims to break the stranglehold of the oligarchy and supports the growth small and medium business."
Ponamaryov admits the party is "experiencing major troubles in its election campaign," however. But he blames it on United Russia's massive advantage in "administrative resources" - three Kremlin ministers and 30 regional governors top its candidate list - and the state's near-total control over Russia's major TV networks.
Some experts agree. "Television coverage of the campaign basically consists of six or seven positive references to United Russia each hour, plus two negative references to the Communists," says Mr. Yurin. "In the regions, all local bosses are forced to sign up with United Russia under pressure. It's just understood that they must cooperate."
Left-wing critics say some of the struggling party's troubles are self-inflicted and that KPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov, a lackluster politician who has lost two presidential elections, refuses to adopt fresh approaches or admit potential rivals into his inner circle. Alexei Podberyozkin, head of the small Socialist United Party and an estranged supporter of the KPRF, describes the KPRF as "ossified," adding: "They have driven out so many allies, and lost a lot of influence as a result."
The large number of wealthy businessmen topping the KPRF's candidate list - an issue played to the hilt by state TV - may have alienated a lot of the communists' traditional supporters. Party leaders insist that the five millionaires on the ticket are all genuine left-wingers who support the KPRF's vision of breaking Russia's big oligarchic empires and letting small business flourish.
But even some KPRF-friendly critics suggest otherwise. "It is well known that a place on the party's ballot costs up to $2 million," says Vadim Gorshenin, editor of Pravda.ru, a website created by former journalists of the communist newspaper Pravda. Rich businessmen want seats in the Duma to lobby for their own selfish imperatives, not to improve society, he argues. "How can bankers and tycoons back the KPRF line when they have their own business interests to consider?"
A drubbing at the polls Sunday might force change for Europe's last unreformed and unrepentant Communist Party. "The KPRF will have only two choices: change or disappear," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Center for Globalization Studies, an independent left-leaning think tank. "A real shakeup might be just what it needs."