Is the specter of communism haunting Russia again? Not since the election of 1996, the only post-Soviet presidential race in Russia to result in a runoff, has the country’s Communist Party seemed like a real threat. In more than two decades since Vladimir Putin first took the helm, it has played the role of pliant opposition, helping the Kremlin to maintain a facade of democratic choice. The future looks less predictable.
Gennady Zyuganov, the 77-year-old former Soviet ideologue who unsuccessfully challenged Boris Yeltsin back in 1996, remains in charge and unwilling to embark on radical adventures. But more assertive voices are also emerging, speaking up on corruption, social justice, the treatment of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and, over the past two weeks, electronic voting fraud.
At a time when discontent has few outlets in Russia, the party has become one, catching the attention of voters beyond red-flag-waving pensioners. It made an impressive comeback in September‘s parliamentary election, winning nearly 19 percent of party-list votes, compared with a meager 13 percent in 2016. Even accounting for the favorable effects of a tactical voting campaign spearheaded by Navalny, that’s a step up. Despite an electoral system skewed toward the ruling party, the party added 15 seats to its State Duma total, more than any rival bloc, and will bring in outspoken voices like Oleg Mikhailov from Komi Republic, a harsh critic of the local Moscow-appointed governor who demands a better fiscal deal for the energy-producing region.
Long a biddable opponent, the Communist Party is looking a little more troublesome. In one of the most telling episodes of the past two weeks, party officials angry at electronic votes that conveniently erased the party‘s electoral lead in Moscow races called a rally in the capital “for fair elections.” Zyuganov was not present. He was instead at a meeting with Putin and other State Duma party leaders. The leadership is not yet for turning.
But even well before September’s legislative poll, more critical voices were rising in an otherwise unreconstructed Communist Party universe.
There‘s popular strawberry tycoon Pavel Grudinin, who ran against Putin as the Communist candidate in 2018. He talked up the social infrastructure for workers on his farm and the need to learn from Soviet mistakes; on the campaign stump at one point, he compared Putin’s lengthy rule to Leonid Brezhnev‘s stagnant years. He did better than the Kremlin had anticipated, with the result that despite being third on the Communist Party list, he was barred from running in the most recent election - ostensibly because of foreign assets, which he says he no longer holds.
There’s also 36-year-old Nikolai Bondarenko in Saratov, in southwestern Russia, with a 1.6 million-plus YouTube following and a record of openly challenging United Russia officials. He once tried to live on 3,500 rubles a month (roughly $50) to showcase meager pension increases, documenting the experiment; earlier this year, he was detained for attending a demonstration in support of Navalny. Bondarenko sought to take on Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin in the legislative elections, but was shifted to a less controversial constituency.
Neither Bondarenko nor any other upstart is about to take control of the ultra-hierarchical Communist Party, much less challenge Putin. For now, the party‘s leadership remains aligned with the Kremlin under Zyuganov, a hardliner who has argued for re-Stalinization but has also found a comfortable niche as in-system opposition, happy to raise occasional domestic concerns for its base and to steer clear of more contentious issues like foreign policy. Despite his age and fading personal popularity, he isn’t about to relinquish control.
But the rise of these voices and the discontent with living standards that they have been able to harness represent a threat -- one the Kremlin will need to modulate. As Tatiana Stanovaya of political consultancy R.Politik points out, the aim here will not be total destruction, as it was with Navalny, but instead a weaker and tamer party, back in its subservient role. For instance, while the likes of Grudinin, even more dangerous for not being radical youths, were conspicuously sidelined, the Kremlin has avoided other confrontations. When party officials rallied against electoral fraud in Moscow last weekend, police merely used blaring music to drown out the speakers.
It‘s still a challenge for the Kremlin to navigate. The Communist Party is heterogeneous, and some cohorts of potential supporters can eat into the Kremlin’s electorate. It‘s also a party whose entrenched social and historical roots make it impossible to smear as “foreign influenced,” and one that is involved in administering large chunks of Russia. It commands instant recognition from voters in a country where nostalgia for the Soviet Union runs deep. A harsh crackdown could easily backfire.
As Mark Galeotti, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, explained to me, the party possesses the only powerful political machine in Russia that does not depend on the Kremlin. Whether it can find a leader who can harness that reach and operational capacity is less clear.
The Kremlin is unlikely to take chances. The more outspoken members of the party will find themselves under pressure from both Putin and Zyuganov. Moscow will watch for opportunities to engineer what happens when Zyuganov decides to pass on the baton, ideally pushing the party toward its more useful, hardline heartland and away from social democratic territory. Rebels would be consigned to the regions. That’s the plan, at least. But as 2024‘s presidential election approaches, Russia’s Communist Party may not perform according to plan.
Clara Ferreira Marques
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.