Russian communist party set for generational change

By Toni Michel Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/18 21:18:39

Shake-up ahead for Russian Communist Party

In the first half of 2017, media reports on Russian politics in the West and elsewhere focused heavily on mass rallies all over the country on March 26 and June 12 that were called by the anti-corruption activist and barred presidential candidate Alexey Navalny. 

Much less coverage was awarded to efforts by some in the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), the nominal main opposition force in Parliament, to launch an official investigation. Such things are usually interpreted as attempts to channel popular discontent into avenues control led by the Kremlin-loyal “systemic opposition.” And yet, given the current politisation in Russia and the prospective departure of the ageing Communist leader, the KPRF could soon become a transformational force in Russian politics.

In the 1990s, the KPRF was the main challenger to former president Boris Yeltsin and thoroughly dominated the Duma, Russia's legislature. The party's leader Gennady Zyuganov, who still heads the KPRF today, even came within reach of the presidency in 1996. However, the Communists began to lose their clout and began to be marginalized by the rising United Russia.

Over time, Zyuganov and the KPRF began to play the role of nominally opposing the government in the Duma while not seriously challenging the status quo on the national level.

Much to the liking of the Kremlin, Zyuganov himself ran for president repeatedly and provided a predictable and easy opponent to be comfortably beaten by Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

In some regions, however, where the KPRF had inherited the extensive party infrastructure of the Soviet Communists and where the economic situation remains dire, the party became a strong and independent political force.

The mayor of the third largest city, Novosibirsk, and the governor of the Irkutsk Region are both Communists. In national politics, though, the KPRF has established itself to represent a core electorate of about 15 percent of voters and made no serious effort to expand their electorate even though their core message centered around a strong welfare state and, paradoxically, conservative values could potentially resonate with many more Russians.

There are signs that the status quo might now be about to change. A strong factor is the economic situation and the extreme wealth gap that stems from low oil prices and sanctions as well as from reform inertia.

As living standards fell and the ruble devaluated, more and more people got disillusioned.

The issue of corruption especially fueled popular anger when patriotic mobilization around the incorporation of Crimea began wearing off.

Furthermore, regional administrations with strong Communist representation starkly feel the pressure on the federal budget with less and less subsidies being returned to regions that usually have to transfer up to 60 percent of their locally generated income.

With a poor showing in the 2016 parliamentary elections that saw the KPRF lose 50 Duma seats, the 2018 presidential elections looming and pressure for reform and generational change unanswered during the two-decade inner-party dominance of the aging Zyuganov, conditions appear ripe for change.

A petition that found more than 10,000 supporters accused the party leader of "collaboration with a rightist regime," called for his resignation and replacement with Valery Rashkin, the outspoken head of the powerful Moscow KPRF whose populist appeal would be less comfortable for the Kremlin. Speculation is moreover rife about a voluntary departure of Zyuganov in favor of the 39-year-old Yury Afonin who would represent a fresh face, is not associated with factional conflict, and has inner-party support. Finally, the Communist governor of Irkutsk, Sergei Levchenko, would be a credible candidate for his campaigning skills and governing experience. 

The departure of the political dinosaur Zyuganov would represent a shake-up of the Russian political landscape. A new and younger Communist leader could translate grassroots disillusionment with stagnation into populist policies at the national level. For this reason, the Kremlin is reportedly keeping a close eye on the succession question and is looking for a "systemic" candidate who can also arouse some interest in the 2018 presidential election to raise turnout. The question is to which degree a new Communist leader would be willing to play Zyuganov's hitherto assigned role, especially as he would have to sharpen his profile and solidify his standing within the party, including its disillusioned regional branches. Many have predicted the slow demise of the KPRF after the fall of the Soviet Union as well as in the 2000s. Now, a fresh face could well signal the return of more competitive politics to Russia.

The author is a graduate of Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and an analyst of post-Soviet affairs. Jiang Yuan, graduate of MGIMO and analyst of post-Soviet affairs, contributed to this article.

Newspaper headline: Shake-up ahead for Russian Communist Party

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