The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) has long been considered little more than part of the country’s fake opposition, playing its role in a stage-managed theatre of politics. Yet now there is speculation of some kind of alliance with Alexei Navalny, the poisoned opposition firebrand. Even Gennady Zyuganov, the 76-year-old leader of the KPRF and for years a man seemingly comfortable with his political emasculation, is talking about fighting back against Kremlin oppression. Are the Communists re-awakening?
The real answer is that there are, in effect, three ‘parties.’ There is the traditional rump KPRF, the ‘veterans,’ largely made up of older voters united by a nostalgic vision of the Soviet Union that never was. They are especially concerned with pensions and other social benefits, and protecting victory in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) against a largely-imagined enemy who would question Soviet heroism. As such, their views tend to chime with that president Vladimir Putin, but they question his alliance with the oligarchs and sentimentally cling to their red flags.
Then there are the ‘careerists’, leaders like Zyuganov and his 70-year-old deputy Ivan Melnikov and the younger machine politicians who aspire to succeed them. They have long since abandoned any thoughts of winning power and instead seem to a large degree comfortable with their roles as pretend opposition leaders. However, they are fully aware that a pragmatic Kremlin will only buy them off – both personally and politically – so long as they command a certain share of the electorate. In other words, they still need to convince people to vote for them.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there are the ‘progressives’, a younger generation of activists who joined the KPRF not out of Soviet nostalgia or simple careerism. If you are unhappy with the status quo, but want the structure of a national political party rather than the street activism of civil society (or Navalny’s followers), then the KPRF offers some kind of a home. This cohort is hardly monolithically Marxism-Leninist, ranging from serial-detainee Sergei Udaltsov (who has since backed away from his youthful Stalinist leanings and advocates a populist interventionist line) to liberal leftists like Evgeny Myshayev, a local councillor in the Strogino neighbourhood in Moscow who emerged as a thorn in the leadership’s side.
This generation is rising, and if the ‘veterans’ still outnumber them, the ‘progressives’ have energy on their side – and a growing ability to make connections. Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ programme, essentially encouraging tactical voting for whoever is best placed to unseat candidates of the Kremlin’s United Russia bloc, has often worked to their advantage. In last September’s local elections in Moscow, for example, 35 of the 45 candidates Navalny endorsed were Communists, while this September’s heavily-rigged regional elections saw several Communist candidates who would have received this support smeared or blocked from standing.
This is a potential alliance that would make sense. Navalny is not so much a leftist as a moderate right-wing liberal in European terms, but has links to ‘progressives’ like Valery Rashkin, head of the KPRF for Moscow city. Besides, he and the ‘progressives’ share a common enemy in the Kremlin.
Furthermore, the KPRF retains the only truly national political machine not directly controlled by the Kremlin. It is, however, constrained by caution from the top and the conservatism of the ‘veterans.’ It also suffers from a widespread perception that it is, indeed, a party of old men under the thumb of the Presidential Administration.
Conversely, Navalny is still in the process of trying to build a national machine, hobbled by both the government’s repeated refusal to allow him to register a political party, and also the way the state media – when it talks about him at all – presents him as an amateurish and opportunistic outsider.
The two complement each other well, something Navalny has noted. The KPRF has the machine and the solidity, while Navalny can bring energy and enthusiasm. No wonder the political technologists in the Presidential Administration are worried, seeing the increasing public cynicism towards United Russia.
So too is Zyuganov, though. On the one hand, the KPRF’s main rival as sanctioned opposition party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) seems currently in favour, and was awarded a larger proportion of the vote in the regional elections. This reflects a wider, genuine shift in national politics: if Russians are going to support a fake opposition party simply to make a point, at least the feeling is that the LDPR has some life in it.
On the other, the ‘progressives’ present the ‘careerists’ with both a threat and an opportunity. They are clearly impatient with the current party leadership. Indeed, this was one of the reasons why Pavel Grudinin, a 57-year-old businessman who used to be in United Russia, was the KPRF’s token candidate for the 2018 presidential elections. The thought of Zyuganov standing again – this would have been his fifth presidential bid – was just too embarrassing for many.
An energised KPRF would be a more dangerous one for the Kremlin, though, which would, the logic goes, have to cultivate the ‘careerists’ who control it all the more enthusiastically.
Hence Zyuganov’s recent appeal to ‘stop the law enforcement agencies from being turned into a political weapon,’ and claim that an ‘information war’ has been unleashed against the party, as well as his opposition to Putin’s constitutional reforms. He is no fan of Navalny’s, but at a time when the Kremlin is standing up new parties, in part to cannibalise the KPRF’s vote, Zyuganov must find some response.
Does the KPRF have one last life? It remains to be seen whether the ‘careerists’ will be able to exploit and eventually co-opt or control the ‘progressives,’ or whether they will be faced with a choice of either living up to their promises or being replaced. The prospects for the party’s revival are not that good – but it probably is its last chance for any relevance or future.