Russia’s Communist Party (KPRF) occasionally takes its role as the main opposition party seriously. Its MPs voted against the constitutional amendments in 2020. They also came out against proposed changes to the pension laws and also opposed a law that would give former presidents legal immunity.
Sometimes the Kremlin returns the favour. The Kremlin is known to pressurise KPRF leadership when its membership gets a little rowdy. It also created the party ‘a Just Russia’ to attract other left-leaning voters away from the KPRF, lest it actually became attractive to voters, or indeed decided to be a full-time opposition party. This was confirmed again recently when former presidential candidate and member of Moscow’s Duma, Pavel Grudinin was barred from competing in 2021 elections for having foreign assets.
Truth be told, the KPRF is the only party that has ever come anywhere close to a real opposition party. Unlike most parties, systematic or liberal, it has a longstanding history pre-dating the Russian Federation. It has achievements to take ownership of and a dark past to overcome. Even in the most democratic of countries, it requires seismic changes for a new or smaller party to emerge as genuine contenders for government. Even then, timing is everything.
Although since the mid-late nineties the KPRF has never looked like winning, it has attracted new voters recently. In 2018, Grudinin increased the KPRF vote share. Much of this was in the Far East and Siberia, where the party even won a surprise gubernatorial election. A slither of those voters were tactical liberals, like in the Moscow Duma elections 2019, but they were also the young. Recent research also shows that the KPRF’s YouTube channel attracted the third highest traffic in the 2018 election, behind only Alexei Navalny and pro-Kremlin channels.
As bne IntelliNews contributor Mark Galleotti recently noted, the KPRF has done its job in the systematic opposition rather successfully the last twenty years. It soaked up older voters still nostalgic for the USSR as well as general leftist voters. They stood behind red banners, Stalin billboards and laid carnations at the Mausoleum, regurgitating the same talking points – pensions, the Great Patriotic War and education. All, it must be said, are popular topics among ordinary Russians. The KPRF also steered clear of United Russia’s (UR) core voters – government employees and public sector workers, and those living in small one company towns.
Now UR sits at 25% in the polls. The KPRF are at 10%, which would be enough to deny UR its super-majority. Some of those younger communists have ties to Alexei Navalny. In Moscow and Kazan, and Khabarovsk in 2020, communist lawmakers were among those arrested. This upcoming generation has no memory of Soviet socialism. The 1990s for many is also a distant memory and the economic woes of today pale in comparison to 1998, 1993, perestroika or even the 1950s. They do, however, reflect much bigger trends among Russia’s youth.
In one survey of Russian youths’ political views, social democracy was the favoured political ideology (28%); those identifying as ‘Russian nationalists’ came in second (19%), followed by communists (11%) and liberals (12%). Moreover, research carried out by CEPA also revealed that the young were much less paternalistic, civic engagement was low, and had lower expectations of support from the state (CEPA, 2020). Only 27% of younger respondents said that they could not live without state support, opposed to 70% among older age groups. Support for Putin was also dropping, which can be put down to wider sources of information, openness to the world and knowledge of foreign languages.
The long decline in living standards and an increase in the retirement age is manifesting far quicker in the young than in the older generations. Andrei Kolesnikov told Vedomosti that today’s state capitalism is viewed as unfair, be it wealth distribution, access to resources or justice. Their lives are less settled than the elder generations, many of whom inherited flats and property from the Soviet collapse.
On paper, at least, the KPRF has fertile grounds for cross-over appeal. Yet unlike other communist parties in the former Soviet bloc, the KPRF never moved away from its Soviet legacy. Those parties rebranded as ‘social democrats’ either by name change or assuming softer leftist policies; the KPRF did neither. In so doing it failed to respond genuinely to Russian’s social and economic injustices. All it did was mobilize its core voting bloc.
The destruction of Navalny’s political organisation and liberal schism aids the party somewhat, as well. With no genuine opposition or even social-democratic party to challenge them, systemic or otherwise, those voters either stay home through disillusionment, split their votes across the liberal opposition, or vote KPRF tactically.
The KPRF has an opportunity to redefine itself from this election onwards. It’s not exactly a now or never moment, but to morph into genuine opposition Russians might consider voting for, it needs to start offering those younger voters something they yearn for. If it doesn’t, they will just as quickly look elsewhere. Despite increasing its overall vote share in 2018, it still fell in 18 regions – including Zyuganov’s home region.
Once the younger more energetic wing of the party outnumbers the party elite accustomed to a certain lifestyle in the ‘fake opposition’, Zyuganov and others will have an unenviable decision to make. It won’t come before the Duma elections; there is simply too much to be done. There is also no guarantee Zyuganov, or others, will move the party in a new direction. He was very critical of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and is no fan of Navalny. Street protests have been petitioned by the KPRF, though these likely won’t turn out numbers beyond the party faithful.
Don’t expect much, but there is wind in the red sails. The party is more interesting than it has been for years.