Luke March. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 53, Issue 2. March 2001.
It has long become common for analysts to predict the demise of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and its irrelevance as a political organisation. The CPRF in turn has repeatedly confounded such analyses. In 1993 Richard Sakwa came to the understandable conclusion that communist groups in Russia were ‘part of an exhausted tradition nursed only by the old generation’, just before the CPRF re-entered parliamentary politics in the Duma elections of December 1993. After the party’s defeat in the presidential elections of 1996 and repeatedly throughout the period of the 6th Duma (1995-99), analysis focused on its future organisational and ideological viability. A common assumption was that the CPRF had reached a ‘crossroads’ by the summer of 1996, and thereafter might split, or turn itself into a non-communist organisation (either social democratic or nationalist), or both. Yet, having neither split nor renewed itself ideologically, the party actually achieved a better result on the party list vote in 1999 than in either parliamentary election before. Moreover, soon after this election, the party obtained the re-election of its candidate Gennadii Seleznev as parliamentary speaker, and a significant number of parliamentary committee chairmanships. So was there any real substance to such rumours of the CPRF’s difficulties? What was the real significance of the communists’ election performance? How did this influence the prospects of the party’s evolution?
This article seeks an explanation of the CPRF’s long-term development up to 1999 by focusing on how an ‘anti-system’ communist party aims to achieve its ends in a pluralist system. The CPRF’s ideology, culture, structure and much of its mass membership and electorate are anti-system in orientation. Yet the CPRF’s elite made the transition to a within-system opposition within the parliament of 1995-99, and this was marked in the conduct and aftermath of the 1999 elections. The contradiction between within-system orientation and anti-system party formation means that the party is passing through a multi-faceted crisis affecting its ideology, strategy, organisation and social support which it must surmount before it may evolve significantly. The 1999 Duma election results proved to be mixed for the CPRF. They showed the party consolidating, but not radically extending, its electorate and have diminished the CPRF’s influence within the Duma. Although the CPRF has reached a new level of integration with the political regime that helps to preserve its influence, this may well exacerbate the long-term crisis tendencies within the party.
The CPRF as a ‘Conservative Communist’ Party
Understanding the CPRF as a ‘conservative communist’ party helps explain not just how the party sees itself but how it acts politically. It is suprisingly uncommon to hear the CPRF’s ideology described as communist. Rather, it tends most commonly to be described as a nationalist or quasi-fascist party. For example, Geir Flikke is not alone in asserting that the CPRF ‘adheres to a purified nationalist ideology’. Also still common is the idea that the party is potentially social democratic.
The party is certainly very divided over ideology and tactics. Joan Urban and Valerii Solovei’s three-fold division of the CPRF’s ideological tendencies into anti-bureaucratic ‘Marxist reformers’, traditionalist ‘Marxist-Leninist modernisers’ and Gennadii Zyuganov’s ‘nationalists’ (or in Sakwa’s more fitting term, ‘statistpatriotic communists’) is still a persuasive broad categorisation, confirmed by party sources and the author’s own research. However, the party in the aggregate still has elements of belief in common, and can justly be called ‘conservative’. First, CPRF leaders insist that their aim is to conserve communism, preserving historical continuity with the best of Soviet tradition whilst eliminating its worst features. This, as Sakwa notes, faces the party with the curious dilemma of trying to conserve a tradition which is itself revolutionary. Second, this dilemma has strengthened the post-Brezhnevite use of communist ideology, whereby communism is increasingly justified by its symbols, institutions and as a national tradition, rather than primarily by its theoretical validity or teleological aims. Most party tendencies share a deep emotional attachment to the symbols and institutions of Soviet power, as well as to the communist name.
So, in an attitudinal sense, the CPRF is not a revolutionary party. Revolutionary fervour has somewhat subsided and since 1991 post-Soviet communists have existed in a state of ‘post-traumatic shock’. Zyuganov’s deputy Valentin Kuptsov has even noted a general ‘loss of historical optimism’ afflicting the party. Within the CPRF itself the clearest cleavage is a socio-cultural division between moderate and radical conservatives. This division crosscuts the ideological positions within the party and is ignored by Urban and Solovei in their discussion of party tendencies. As noted by M. Steven Fish, the crucial cleavage in the Soviet system was a top-down division between the party-state apparatus and society. This is replicated in the CPRF in a top-down division between the ‘moderates’, predominating in the higher party echelons and represented by the party bosses Gennadii Zyuganov and Valentin Kuptsov, and the ‘radicals’, who tend to predominate in the lower echelons and the rank and file. The moderates tend to have a more bureaucratic and pragmatic attitude towards ideology and political change typical of the nomenklatura. Their conservatism approximates to that of Robert Peel, as they face the dilemma of how to reform and conserve simultaneously. The radicals in turn tend to be both more ideologically orthodox and more militant, as well as being suspicious of the intentions of the ‘nomenklatura’ in the upper echelons. But even most of these ‘radicals’ are conservatives by age and inclination, supporting party unity and not the activities of the radical communist parties headed by Viktor Anpilov and Viktor Tyul’kin.
Moreover, the party is ‘communist’ in many more senses than is generally realised. Above all, there is a continued commitment to various elements of the Marxist-Leninist theoretical heritage, especially those teachings about the exploitative and divisive nature of capitalism or the colonial aspirations of imperialist powers, which are considered highly relevant to post-Soviet Russia. The CPRF’s programme, as will become clear below, is Marxist-Leninist in its strategic aims and guiding philosophy. Internal party discourse is still strongly tinged by Marxist-Leninist theory, as the CPRF’s propagandists have made clear.
Vital too in uniting the CPRF is the adherence to communism as an ideology of organisation. Organisation and structure have been described as the raison d’etre of post-Leninist communism. One significant aspect of this is the self-perception of communism as a ‘moral community’ of believers, a sub-culture traditionally imposing both high activism and loyalty. This sense of ‘communist sub-culture’ is evident both in the CPRF’s reverence for marches and rallies, in the premium still placed on selflessness for the cause, and the internationalist sentiment which is still strong in the CPRF, though diluted by its patriotic slant. Second, the cult of discipline and unity in communist parties has traditionally been not just a formal aspect of party organisation but a key principle internalised as a code of ethics. In the CPRF the maintenance of discipline, the respect for higher authority and unwillingness to risk unsanctioned activity, together with the aspiration for consensus and conflict-avoidance, remain paramount.
Finally, whatever the CPRF’s ideological and tactical manoeuvres, it has always sought to maintain the notion that ir is an anti-system party, seeking an alternative to liberal democracy and capitalism. From the beginning of his post-Soviet political career Zyuganov sought to bridge the disagreements between communists and their national-patriotic allies with what Sakwa calls ‘rejectionism’ of key features of modernity by the appeal to traditionalism and national exceptionalism. Hence Zyuganov’s insistence that Russia is a separate civilisation, diametrically opposing the alien liberal democratic values of the ‘anti-national regime’ which the ‘reformers’ allegedly seek to graft onto Russia. Although many analysts are fight to observe that Zyuganov’s ideas have more in common with Russian conservative nationalism than Marxism-Leninism, his ideological hotohpotch is still consistent with late Soviet ideological practice. ‘Official’ Marxism-Leninism was inherently flexible over tactics bur was always consistent in its ‘philosophy of certainty’—the conviction that it was an alternative system of thought which would sweep all other ideologies away. In the late Soviet period, apart from certain inviolables such as Soviet dcmocracy, state planning and teleology, Soviet communist ideology came to be defined more by what ir opposed than by what it espoused, maintaining the goal of a distinct (however vague) alternative to capitalist society. Zyuganov’s ‘rejectionist’ anti-Westernism, anti-liberalism and anti-capitalism play a similar role in defining the ideological enemy, whilst the CPRF’s dogged adherence to the ideas, name and symbols of the communist epoch preserve the party as the guardian of an entire ‘social cosmos’ which the ‘reformers’ have allegedly sought to destroy.
The ‘Crisis’ of Communist Opposition
We can now begin to understand the crisis which confronts the CPRF. Marc Lazar and Martin J. Bull have noted that ‘crisis’ was a truly apt term to describe the ‘chronic weakness’ through which the communist movement in Western Europe passed in the 1980s. This was an intense crisis which encompassed simultaneously the ‘societal’ dimension of communism (party links with society and electoral performance) and the ‘teleological’ dimension of communism (party ideology, strategy and organisation), presaging an inexorable decline in party support, structure and identity? The primary crises in the ‘societal’ dimension were a decline in electoral performance, particularly among the young, and a loss of social support among trade unions and traditional communist ‘red belt’ areas. Behind these serious problems lay a shift in European political culture—the decline of the traditional class identities of industrial society-which fundamentally challenged the communist parties’ collectivist, working-class identities. The teleological crisis of communist parties was inextricably linked with the degeneration of both Marxism-Leninism’s coherence as a viable alternative and the Soviet Union’s image abroad, and manifested itself in an internal identity crisis within these parties as they sought to redefine their relationship to Moscow and the Marxist-Leninist heritage.
Analysing how communist parties behave in pluralist systems not only shows the difficulties of overcoming this crisis bur is of great relevance in understanding the particular problems confronting the CPRF ever since it decided to participate in a ‘bourgeois’ system after its refoundation in 1993. Like the British Labour Party at the turn of the 20th century, the CPRF has faced the choice of being ‘his Majesty’s opposition’ or ‘opposition to his Majesty’, that is between within-system and anti-system opposition. As Giovanni Sartori argues, within-system opposition parties form ‘responsible’ alternative governments which do not seek to act outside the ‘rules of the game’, and confine their opposition to constitutional and legal forms. However, anti-system opposition parties have very little chance of being called on to govern, tend to behave less responsibly and may make wild promises. Their actions need no acceptance of ‘rules of the game’, limits of the constitution or legality. The communist parties of Western Europe long tended towards this type of opposition. As ‘foreigners encamped in a hostile country’, they followed Lenin’s dictum ‘the worse, the better’—all policies were seen as class actions, and so anything the ruling class did was to be condemned, anything done in the name of the working class was to be approved. They preferred obstructive or non-committal opposition, refusing all but temporary compromises with the ruling regime. Using bourgeois parliaments as ‘tribunes’ for ideological demagogy and denunciation of their opponents, they offered purely demonstrative non-constructive demands meant to destabilise and ruin the capitalist system.
However, for communist anti-system parties, long-term participation in pluralist politics is deeply problematic. The purity of the ‘philosophy of certainty’ was easier to maintain when stipulated by a communist regime in a closed society where ideology acted as a ‘state religion demanding universal obeisance’. But non-coercive and pluralistic polities demand a different role for ideology where persuasion and securing the consent of would-be supporters and social groups becomes all-important. The demands of electoral politics place a premium on tactical flexibility and compromise that may feed into strategic changes. However, such tactical compromises raise acme difficulties for communist ideology, and challenge ir to renounce some of these characteristics of its ‘philosophy of certainty’ without destroying itself altogether.
Such difficulties are shown by the experience of Eurocommunism. This movement, promoted from the 1970s primarily by the Italian, Spanish and French Communist Parties (PCI, PCE and PCF), amounted to communism’s acceptance of pluralism, often with ambiguity or reluctance (particularly in the case of the PCF), and the gradual breakdown in coherence of communism itself. Eurocommunism marked the congruence of two major changes. First, in response to the above crisis phenomena, Eurocommunists sought to reorientate themselves from Soviet towards national development and to seek alliances and support beyond the traditional working class. This led to tactical changes: after long periods of post-war ambivalence, there was the final acceptance of the legitimacy of electoral politics and evolutionism as a means of creating a non-capitalist society. Second, these tactical changes eventually fed into theoretical changes, such as the rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the acceptance of pluralism. Such theoretical changes began to weaken the Eurocommunist critique of capitalism, thus eroding the distinctiveness of their ‘extra-systemic’ vision and thereby the ontological distinction between communism and social democracy. Eurocommunist parties such as the PCI became grudgingly reabsorbed into national policies and ‘what had been regarded as the transition found itself elevated to the status of settlement’; with their tactics becoming their aims, Bernstein’s dictum ‘the ultimate aim of socialism is nothing, but the movement is everything’ came back to perplex the communist movement. Apart from Leninist organisational structure and the communist name their policies and practice became de facto almost indistinguishable from those of convinced social democrats. Indeed the PCI long used democratic centralism and party unity as a way of ‘isolat[ing] hermetically the Marxist sub-culture’, to contain party debate over the divergence between party programme and practice and to maintain for party members the increasingly illusory image of a revolutionary party.
Crisis and the CPRF
The particular crisis affecting ex-ruling communist parties in post-communist systems has specificities: one can obviously speak of a general crisis of political parties in countries once dominated by the CPSU, with most fragmented in ideology and organisation and having to consolidate in rapidly changing conditions. Compared with these, communist parties such as those in Russia and Ukraine may appear relatively strong, owing to the ideological and organisational capital inherited from their past. Nevertheless, it is precisely this inheritance which marks the crisis of conservative communism. Like the Eurocommunists, parties like the CPRF are increasingly riven between loyalty to the past and adaptation to a ‘bourgeois’ system, trying to use ‘systemic’ methods without weakening their critique of the system and to remain true to radical extra-systemic ends. Yet, because the political system is developing rapidly and their ideology is losing its dynamism simultaneously, this makes defining a coherent ‘anti-system’ position still harder and leads to a more intense crisis than gradually confronted the Eurocommunists over the space of decades.
Crisis Tendencies in Social Support
The CPRF’s problems in social support are many. These result from the party’s ideological nature and commitment to a mass party formation. The CPRF is still an ideological party, ‘the party of the communist idea’. All other Russian parties show ‘charismatic’ elements, but among the CPRF electorate support for the party programme is far higher than support for the party leader. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On one hand this guarantees a relatively consolidated party and stable electorate. On the other it limits the opportunities the CPRF can gain in Russia’s fluid political system.
The ideological nature of the CPRF has been reflected clearly in the make-up of its electorate. The problem, as analysts have noted, is that the CPRF vote has too hard a core and too hard a ceiling? Its supporters are the most strongly ideologically committed in the Russian electorate, which even in conditions of widespread voter volatility has guaranteed the CPRF a core vote of 15-20%. Yet these attitudes (mainly evidence of a Soviet-era value culture) are polarising and perceived negatively by much of the rest of the electorate, which regularly expresses nostalgia for Soviet times without a desire to return to communism.41 The long-term polarisation of Russian politics into ‘reform’ and ‘anti-reform’ camps resulted in a relatively stable ‘ami-reform’ camp with an absolute maximum vote of roughly 40% (that which Zyuganov obtained in the elections of 1996). This vote guarantees the party a strong position in the Duma contest bur seems insufficient to win a presidential election outright.
The CPRF’s inflexibility also pervades its party structure. Its adherence to an attenuated post-Soviet form of ‘mass party’ is evident, based on a nation-wide presence of 27 000 primary party organisations in all of Russia’s 89 regions, and a committed activist core. As Maurice Duverger, Neil McInnes and others have shown, communist mass parties based on relatively rigid institutions like democratic centralism are electorally inflexible. Indeed, the CPRF seems caught in a ‘classic constitutional bind. Like so many communist parties before ir seems unable to come to power through pluralist politics at all—a problem of which it is keenly aware? The more it compromises in order to reach power, the more it upsets its core supporters and risks a party split, but the more it cultivates these supporters, the more likely ir is to remain in an electoral ghetto. This was a significant factor in the CPRF’s defeat in the 1996 presidential election. The party’s inability to provide a coherent campaign message, to create a genuinely broad electoral coalition, to use the media pro-actively and, finally, to change strategies mid-campaign contrasted with El’tsin’s flexibility in all these areas. El’tsin of course was unencumbered by a rigid party organisation.
It is certainly true that the CPRF greatly broadened its support in most social strata in the years 1993-95. Ir ceased being simply the party of ‘losers’ of transition and became the party of the ‘relatively deprived’, increasingly representing managers, the military-industrial complex, educational and white-collar workers who had experienced a decline in positions since the Soviet era bur were slowly adapting to post-Soviet conditions. A symbol of this change was the party’s courting of ‘red businessmen’ such as the ‘red millionaire’ and Casino owner Vladimir Semago and the ex-head of Gosplan Yurii Maslyukov, who became major sponsors of the party. However, such advances should be qualified: support for the CPRF remained heavily drawn from the most marginal and excluded strata of the population—those on lower incomes, ordinary workers, rural voters and the less educated, particularly those in the ‘red-belt’ areas south of the 55th parallel. In the 1996 election more than 60% of CPRF voters were 50 and over, and pensioners comprised a third of Zyuganov’s vole.
Other long-term trends suggested that the communist party model itself was in serious difficulty. Party membership appeared to be in slow decline by 1999, despite membership gains among the middle-aged. The CPRF maintained a commitment to the priority of ‘vanguard’ forms of non-parliamentary activity over parliamentary politics? Yet some 60% of party members remained over 60 and declining national demonstrations seldom mustered moro than a third of the party’s membership.54 Any attempts to regain influence over personnel, institutions, property and capital that the CPSU had lost in 1991 were vitiated by the centrifugal tendencies in Russian society. Of most concern to the party were its weak links with ideologically important groups such as workers and youth. The party long acknowledged that the ‘vanguard was lagging’ and had little confidence in its ability to call the workers to the barricades, to provoke or lead social protest. Many post-Soviet trade unions remained ‘transmission belts’, more representative of management and the regime than workers they purported to represent? The largest union, FNPR (with 95% of union members), repeatedly resisted the CPRF’s attempts to politicise it and sought alliances with centrist blocs such as Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) in 1999 while decrying the CPRF’s inability to exchange abstract slogans for concrete proposals? The youth problem also remained critical. The Komsomol (which the CPRF helped recreate in early 1993 and allegedly numbered 21 000 members) split permanently from the CPRF in 1997 over tactical differences, supported Anpilov’s radical ‘Stalinist Bloc’ at the 1999 elections and even later made overtures to Edinstvo. The loss of such a radical organisation might not be grievous in electoral terms, but indicated the problems the CPRF had in keeping even the most doctrinaire youth.
Crisis Tendencies in Ideology
The CPRF has tried to adapt to electoral politics without compromising its anti-system ideology. Communist parties often sought to participate fully in pluralist electoral politics through non-communist fronts and blocs, which allowed them to extend their electorate beyond the party faithful whilst preserving the integrity of their ideology from the taint of multiparty politics. The front strategy was controversial, however, because it involved a constant tension between the needs of the party and those of the bloc. The CPRF has taken this to extremes by the promulgation of two contradictory, intertwined, though analytically distinct ideologies side-by-side. These are its public and party ideologies.
This is the ideology propounded by party leader Zyuganov and other ‘statist-patriots’ such as Yurii Belov and the non-party academic Aleksei Podberczkin, a close colleague of Zyuganov until his split from the CPRF in 1999. Ir appears in Zyuganov’s writings, the electoral platforms of the various national-patriotic blocs from the National Salvation Front of 1992 to the National-Patriotic Union of Russia (NPSR) of 1996 and the electoral platforms of the CPRF itself. This ideology is regarded by many analysts as the CPRF’s ideology. It is not. It is an ideology designed to reinvent the communist idea for public consumption and the non-communist electorate. This distinction is made clear by CPRF party members, who regard Zyuganov as fulfilling a specific task. In view of the parlous state in which the party found itself in the early 1990s, he was delegated by the CPRF leadership to the express task of finding new allies and broadening alliances in the public sphere, particularly among the nationalist electorate. His strategy is supported by party members for tactical reasons as an attempt to win allies in the highly unfavourable but temporary conditions of the ‘national-liberation struggle’. Problems arise, however, because although Zyuganov assures the party that this is a tactical manoeuvre, and asserts that class is to be supplemented, not replaced, his statist-patriotic orientation is part of his basic beliefs, and he has increasingly sought to make it the party’s ideological cornerstone. Zyuganov’s strategy has made committed converts in the party, but they appear relatively few.
The basic contour’s of this ideology are well known. In both form and language it is derived from 19th century Russian conservative thought, the anti-fascist fronts used from 1942 onwards by the Comintern, the national-communist ideology of the Great Patriotic War, and the electoral front strategies of the Western European communist parties after World War II. The common thread running throughout is the attempt to downplay ideological differences and the doctrine of class struggle for the sake of uniting disparate class forces against a common enemy. The unifying idea is ‘state patriotism’. This is an updated form of national bolshevism which, as often in the Soviet era, is used to justify many of the same de facto goals as communism, such as state power, empire and collectivism, but from a different national-patriotic perspective, thereby maximising alternative sources of support while minimising ideological compromise. All social forces are to rally round in defence of the Russian/Soviet state and civilisation as the bulwark against encroaching Western values.
Of the two ideologies, it is that expressed in the party programme which is considered the basis of the party’s activity and a statement of its main strategic tasks. It is not considered ah electoral document, but an objective evaluation of the political situation. However, balancing the strategic and ideological aims of the programme and the tactical aims of party platforms has been extremely problematic. Moderates in the party leadership have been trying to orientate the party towards participation in electoral politics since the elections of 1993, and to seek new allies and tactical approaches in the absence of class activism. But such changes have invariably affected ideology. Party critics alleged that in orientating the party towards parliamentary politics, and allying with nationalists even on a temporary basis, the party was prioritising ‘bourgeois’ tasks. The first party programme of 1995 had to make many concessions from the moderate leadership to the radical party base and party theorists, particularly the traditionalist ‘Marxist-Leninist moderniser’ tendency. It limited the tasks of the ‘national-patriotic front’ politics to a temporary first stage in a three-stage transition to communism. ‘Developing Marxism Leninism’ and ‘dialectical materialism’, not ‘state patriotism’ were reaffirmed as the party’s guiding stars. The programme couched tactical changes in a more palatable theoretical language for the benefit of party activists. It represented an eclectic mix of the least controversial viewpoints of each party tendency. Whilst this achieved a balance of interests within the party, it showed how controversial and interlinked were ideological and tactical change and that Zyuganov’s new orientation was far from universally popular.
Developments within the party since 1995 have confirmed this. The party has increasingly said totally different things to its core membership and wider electorate, and tensions between party and public ideology have become ever more apparent. For example, the platform for the parliamentary elections in 1995 made no reference at all to socialism or Marxism-Leninism, and only referred to the existence of a separate and recently adopted party programme in passing. Still more controversial were later electoral platforms of the national-patriotic bloc such as Zyuganov’s 1996 electoral platform and that of the NPSR. Populist patriotism dominated and there was no mention of programmatic aims such as socialism, restoration of the USSR or nationalisation. After the 1996 election defeat, party leaders urged theoretical renewal of the party in a more moderate direction, drawing on both patriotism and social democracy. Yet the 1997 party programme contained only minor changes, and those in a more orthodox communist direction. The more the leadership engaged with post-communist politics, the greater the dissonance of public and party ideologies. Critics increasingly asserted that, in Zyuganov’s hands, the reorientation towards national development, evolutionism and pluralism implied by ‘state patriotism’ and parliamentary politics made communism increasingly eclectic. It weakened ir as a comprehensive world-view and destroyed its class critique of the capitalist state, thereby replicating the effect of Eurocommunism. Party theoreticians and activists continually demanded that the party link communist ideology and practice.
So the CPRF’s ideological incoherence exceeds even that of more orthodox communist parties in the Czech Republic and Ukraine. These have defined a strongly class-based and far less nationalist position which has monopolised the left niche of the political spectrum and ceded the centre ground to more moderate leftist forces such as the Czech Social Democrats and Oleksandr Moroz’s Socialist Party of Ukraine, competition with which keeps them more consolidated than the CPRF. Yet, even these parties have suffered problems as they approach political success, with the Communist Party of Ukraine (Renewed) now staking a claim to the CPU’s niche after its presidential election defeat in 1999, and the Czech communists struggling to find a strategy to capitalise on improving opinion polls. The CPRF, able to capitalise on ‘state patriotism’ for historical reasons, and with aspirations to unite forces beyond the leftist niche, has to tack continually between its leftist and more centrist supporters, and risks pleasing neither.
Crisis Tendencies in Strategy
Linked with such ideological changes was the absorption of the CPRF into the Russian political system that began to break down its viability as an anti-system force. There were several stages to this process, leading to serious strategic indecision in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of 1999. The party largely avoided facing serious problems over its participation in the ‘bourgeois’ fifth Duma of 1993-95, simply because of the relatively small size of its faction (48 members). This allowed ir to avoid sharing responsibility with the regime, much as the similarly sized Yabloko faction did in both the fifth and the sixth Duma. The CPRF used the Duma as a ‘tribune’ for its non-constructive opposition. It sought to combine an image of responsible law making (which would both boost its ‘democratic’ respectability and minimise the likelihood of a ban) with implacable opposition to the regime (to preserve its ‘anti-system’ image in the eyes of the electorate). The CPRF’s principled and largely uncompromising position allowed ir to disseminate the party message consistently and adhere steadfastly to positions despite government pressure to break ir down.
Yet the mere fact of participation in the Duma, where the majority of contentious issues were resolved through compromise and bargaining, tended to foster dialogue and contacts both between opposing factions and between legislative and executive power over a shared aversion to repetition of the events of 1993. Lenin had insisted on the need for communists to remain true to their revolutionary purpose ‘through all compromises’, but it was not clear that the CPRF was so steadfast. In the absence of extra-parliamentary possibilities most CPRF Duma deputies from the fifth Duma accommodated to new realities and sought to maximise the parliamentary possibilities of the party.
The moderate-radical division in the CPRF was exacerbated by the increasing long-term incorporation of the higher echelons of the party within the regime, and there was increasing divergence over the nature of opposition. Moderates, owing to their nomenklatura mentality, manifested tendencies towards ‘constructive’ opposition and ‘strategic compromise’ with the regime, in order to ‘save what [could] be saved’ of Soviet values. The radicals in contrast were unwilling to take upon themselves even symbolic (in their terms ‘moral’) responsibility for reforms. In their opinion the Duma was to be used only for anti-bourgeois agitation. Any constructive compromise strengthened the new political order and would lead to the collapse of the CPRF’s rating amongst its electorate. Moreover, the size of the CPRF’s representation in the sixth Duma (157 seats) started new problems: would the party promote compromise or conflict with its new-found strength? The CPRF largely avoided the implications of this dilemma until the latter stages of the 1996 election campaign. In search of a moderate electoral image, it refused all demonstrations of its faction’s strength apart from the denunciation of the Belovezha accords of 1991.
However, with the election over, the CPRF faced new challenges. After defeat it was always likely that the overriding unity would begin to splinter, and that competing party groups would begin to seek blame for the defeat. Michael McFaul and Nikolai Petrov note that the 1996 election marked the end of the ‘polarisation period’ in Russian politics and the victory of anti-communism. This implied a decline in the unifying salience of the ‘reform’ versus ‘communism’ polarity, resulting in much ideological and electoral realignment. As a consequence, divisions within blocs such as those between moderates and radicals should become stronger. The end of polarisation would pose significant problems for a party such as the CPRF whose very identity was predicated on anti-system unity. Moreover, the closer the CPRF got to power, the harder debate over the issue of opposition and strategic and tactical options became to subordinate to party unity.
Acceptance of the 1996 election result meant that the CPRF crossed the Rubicon into constructive behaviour. It refused the urging of party radicals to make mischief such as a no-confidence vote. The 1996 election results increased the party’s demoralisation, showing that it lacked majority support even among workers, whereas the regime was stable and had some popular support and vitality. A symbiotic relationship between regime and opposition further developed during the 1996 elections. Contacts made during the election campaign made it clear that whatever the crisis tendencies in their own electorate, the communists would not be allowed to win a presidential election. So their only way to achieve influence was to extend their long-tried practice of a ‘creeping coup’ to win sympathetic allies within the regime (such as Chernomyrdin) and to use parliamentary pressure to wring concessions from the executive. Thus the communists offered power-sharing initiatives such as the ‘government of popular trust’ and ‘round tables’ with increasing frequency in the two years after the election as a way of insulating both the regime and themselves from the instabilities of a new election which some unpredictable figure like Aleksandr Lebed’ might win. The political elite’s need for stability was satisfied by the CPRF’s moderation and the communists were guaranteed the position of the official opposition. This process was observable in the regional elections of 1996-97 when both regime and opposition refrained from an all-out battle.
The party’s new orientation was most obvious in its interaction with the Chernomyrdin government in the state Duma. Landmark decisions were the CPRF’s confirmation of Chernomyrdin as Prime Minister on 10 August 1996 and the decision of the CPRF’s ally, Aman Tuleev, to become minister for cooperation with CIS countries. He became the first CPRF ally to enter government with the full approval of the party leadership and without any government concessions over policy to the CPRF. In December 1996 the 1997 budget was approved by the CPRF faction, as were all subsequent budgets in this Duma. Simultaneously, the party leadership began to focus on changing the party’s anti-systemic stance towards the regime. Thus leaders began to talk more and more of the CPRF as part of the ‘systemic opposition’ in a ‘two-party system’. Towards the end of 1996 the leadership sought to make this palatable to the membership by concocting the compromise formula ‘responsible but irreconcilable opposition’—responsible for affairs in the country but irreconcilable to the course of the regime. By explicitly defending the interests of workers and state within the new political system, the leadership was increasingly moving the CPRF towards a more genuine parliamentary and within-system party and a much less traditionally communist party.
However, from late 1996 until late 1998 the CPRF’s ‘responsible but irreconcilable opposition’ phase was reduced to incoherence by a combination of party dissent and the poor leverage that the party could exert on the regime through either mass demonstrations or the powers of the state Duma. Initially, the wave of gubernatorial elections starting in 1996-97 and the formation of the more moderate and centrist National-Patriotic Union of Russia greatly increased the incorporation of the CPRF in the regime, and thereby caused major problems. There was no strong correlation between these gubernatorial contests and the national elections held in 1995 and 1996. Local politics and personalities tended to prevail over ideological cleavages, party affiliation and socioeconomic issues, a tendency that led to the dilution of polarised politics at the local level. There was a strong tendency for the apolitical economic manager (the khozyain or ‘boss’) to prevail in many areas. Recognising this, the CPRF tended to support pragmatic ‘managerial’ candidates irrespective of their ideological purity to increase leverage at local level. Such candidates included Vadim Gustov in Leningrad, Leonid Gorbenko in Kaliningrad and Valentin Tsvetkov in Magadan. The communists sought the agreement of the local industrial and financial elite, even in ‘red belt’ areas like Smolensk. Moreover, they did not make much effort in ‘lost causes’ like Saratov, often seeking a role in the local power structure in exchange for not running a strong campaign.
Yet it was the poorer areas that tended to elect more radical governors and these were the most dependent on the centre for subsidy, often making radical turnabouts in their opposition behaviour. This tendency for formerly radical governors (such as Aleksandr Rutskoi in Kursk, who left the NPSR and repeatedly denounced communism and his former communist colleagues) to turn loyal to the regime when faced with the ‘exigencies of power’ and financial dependency meant than many of them were in practice little different from centrist or industrialist managers. So whereas the NPSR achieved the election of 19 ‘ideologically conscious’ governors in 1996-97 (out of 47 claimed by the opposition in total), the number of those who strongly supported the CPRF in 1999 had dropped to 10. In many regions, governors pushed CPRF activists into local government, forcing them to become de facto executives.
The incorporation of the CPRF in the regime led to tension between party leadership and regional leaders, threatening a fracturing of the CPRF electorate. For example, many CPRF supporters defied their leadership to vote for Aleksandr Lebed’ as governor of Krasnoyarsk. It fomented an increasing backlash among radicals within the CPRF that checked its moves towards programmatic and tactical innovation and forced it into increasing zigzags. An increasingly vocal set of radicals criticised the CPRF’s weak parliamentary opposition to the regime, its ideological leanings towards ‘Christian democratic’ and ‘social democratic’ ideas, and demanded the removal of leaders such as Zyuganov and Podberezkin. This effort culminated in the formation of a ‘Leninist-Stalinist platform within the CPRF’ in 1998. This opposition’s strength was more apparent than real, but it forced the CPRF into numerous about-turns, as the party tried to combine an increasingly rhetorical and empty radical opposition with de facto but unacknowledged weak opposition. Under pressure from the radicals from 1997, the leadership sought to reiterate its hard-line credentials to avoid serious threats of a split. In late 1997 60 of the CPRF’s 89 regional organisations pressed for an end to compromise, even at the expense of Duma dissolution. The CPRF was, however, unwilling to countenance this. Its leadership knew the importance of the Duma to party funding and election campaigns and was quite aware of the limitations of the Duma’s leverage when compounded by the size of the CPRF’s parliamentary fraction. It was too small to threaten the existing government with obstruction, yet too large to avoid sharing some responsibility for key government decisions such as the budget.
In fact, the CPRF fraction was placed in a complex double-bind. The Duma’s leverage was blunt and could lead to crisis. Duma dissolution, as threatened by a CPRF-inspired no-confidence motion in late 1997 or during the confirmation of Sergei Kirienko in 1998, would achieve little in terms of changing government policy. In fact it might give the government carte blanche to rule by decree until new elections, even permitting the sale of farmland and the break-up of natural monopolies, policies the communists had long fought hard against. But backing down looked like sharing responsibility for policies such as El’tsin’s summary appointment of Kirienko, which emphasised the CPRF’s impotence and caused dismay amongst its electorate. The constant lack of government concessions to the communists meant that the CPRF’s opposition policy was in crisis as it contemplated its election campaign for 1999. As even Zyuganov acknowledged, the party and its fraction were increasingly split into a radical ‘left’ wing whose concerns were voiced by Chairman of the Duma Security Committee Viktor Ilyukhin and a moderate ‘right’ whose views were most clearly expressed by Duma chairman Seleznev, both of whom publicly challenged Zyuganov’s leadership—Seleznev even hinting at bidding for the presidency. Fraction discipline was weakening, with repeated expulsions and defections of members from the party line and the party itself. Zyuganov’s leadership lost authority as radicals called on the party to put the Duma fraction in order or ‘die as an opposition organisation’.
The party, however, did get a significant boost to its fortunes from the August 1998 crisis and the damage this did to El’tsin’s authority. The CPRF took a cautiously supportive stance toward the relatively popular Primakov government, which contained communist Yurii Maslyukov and Agrarian Gennadii Kulik. It sought to claim credit for ‘leftist’ policies if they succeeded, and to be able to dissociate itself from independent communists such as Maslyukov if they failed. Yet the increasing vociferousness of the CPRF’s radical wing, shown starkly by the overt anti-Semitic statements of radicals Makashov and Ilyukhin in autumn 1998, limited any dividends. Although Zyuganov belatedly denounced their statements as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘incorrect’, the communist-dominated Duma refused to reprimand either. This seriously damaged the CPRF’s image as a moderate political party, and was criticised by Yurii Luzhkov, the Federation Council and many other political leaders. Moreover, the CPRF’s association with the Primakov government ultimately confirmed that the Duma was only strong against a weak president and was weak against a strong president. When El’tsin returned from recuperation and fired Primakov in May 1999 the blow to the CPRF’s prestige was compounded by its failure to impeach the president, one of the party’s long-declared aims.
The 1999 Election Campaign
The CPRF’s election campaign thus began in extremely unpromising circumstances, with the CPRF threatened by a severe ideological and strategic crisis. How did the CPRF aim to deal with this and to what extent did it succeed?
The Reassertion of Party Discipline
The overriding concern of the CPRF throughout the run-up to the election was to strengthen party unity and end the fragmentation of the party to right and left. In 1995 the CPRF had run independently of other anti-government forces in order both to maximise its leverage over its allies in the state Duma and to attain the role of backbone of the opposition for the presidential campaign. Such a policy was intensified in 1999, with a still keener concern to preserve the CPRF’s hegemony over the opposition niche. So the party concerned itself first with internal discipline. The Leninist-Stalinist platform was quickly dissolved. The party apparatus headed by Kuptsov reaffirmed its position. The 1999 election campaign showed Zyuganov’s weakening position in formulating ideology and tactics independently of this party apparatus. He was forced to distance himself from Podberezkin, who was regarded with extreme distrust by most of the CPRF for his alleged influence on Zyuganov and his independence in the Duma. Podberezkin, lambasting the CPRF’s apparatus, asserted that Zyuganov had lost control to Kuptsov within the party.
The CPRF then sought to dictate terms to its allies in the National-Patriotic Union of Russia, the most significant of whom were seeking a looser coalition with centrist parties in order to broaden support in larger towns. Zyuganov himself appeared to be considering an alliance with Yurii Luzhkov in autumn 1998. For this he was criticised by the party hierarchy, who were concerned that their allies’ independence could lead to Luzhkov himself being nominated as the patriots’ presidential election candidate at the NPSR congress at the end of 1998. The CPRF pre-empted this by holding a party plenum before the NPSR congress in October 1998 and asserting that it would contest the 1999 elections independent of any blocs. This answered the demands of both the rank-and-file, who had long regarded the NPSR as an ephemeral organisation that was more in the interests of their allies than the CPRF, and those party secretaries who did not want to cede their position to others on a common list.
At the NPSR congress in November 1998 Zyuganov sought to mollify criticism of this decision by concocting the thesis of three electoral columns. The CPRF would run independently alongside the ‘enlightened patriots’ (Spiritual Heritage and the Agrarians, possibly with Gennadii Seleznev) and the radical patriots (Ilyukhin and his Movement in Support of the Army). This was presented as a way to maximise the patriotic bloc’s electoral support. Each column would maximise its own independent electorate in the Duma elections and then support a single candidate from its enlarged electorate for the presidential election. In practice, this was more like a party purge designed to manage the split and ‘keep it from turning into a fully-fledged chasm’. The CPRF leadership knew that even if this strategy did not force troublesome allies into line the ‘enlightened patriots’ could then have little electoral influence. They therefore left the patriots to ‘sink or swim’, whilst giving minimal support to Ilyukhin’s MSA. This organisation would give a home to those radicals discontented with the CPRF’s strategy, whilst its independence from the CPRF might diminish accusations of the party’s anti-Semitism. The CPRF also knew that the MSA would only take votes from the CPRF’s rivals such as Zhirinovsky and the radical communists, and that if it did pass the 5% barrier it would be completely dependent on the CPRF.
The NPSR congress postponed a definitive decision for throe months, but did not reach one. After contradictory statements from the party leaders and confusion from CPRF members, in July 1999 the CPRF then suddenly announced its reversion to the formation of one bloc—the ‘For Victory!’ patriotic bloc. Initiated by an appeal for patriotic unity from CPRF member and retired general Viktor Varennikov, and answered in the affirmative by Zyuganov and a selection of patriotically minded governors and public figures a few days later, the aim appears to have been to force the party’s allies to unite on the CPRF’s terms. Both the Agrarian Party of Russia (APR) and Podberezkin’s Spiritual Heritage refused to sacrifice their independence, but some members of both blocs split and sought places on the CPRF list. The APR split seriously between party leader Mikhail Lapshin, who feared that an alliance with the CPRF would reduce the party’s lobbying potential with the government, and the CPRF-loyalist Duma fraction leader Nikolai Kharitonov. This led to about two-thirds of the APR candidates joining Fatherland-All Russia, and the rest finding places on the CPRF list. Now the CPRF ‘For Victory!’ bloc existed largely in name only. The party appeared resigned to sacrificing a wider bloc to obtain a smaller, absolutely loyal fraction. This may be regarded as a significant blow to Zyuganov. The NPSR, his long-cherished national-patriotic bloc, still existed, but had lost any significant component bar the CPRF. According to critics, it was now no more than the CPRF’s ‘department for work with social organisations’.
The CPRF’s ‘For Victory!’ election platform followed a similar strategy to that of 1995: a radical attack on the problems of the day designed to project the image of the CPRF as the nucleus of the anti-regime opposition. Therefore the party appropriated the symbolism of Stalinist World War II military patriotism, epitomised by its adoption of the Order of Victory awarded to war heroes as its bloc symbol. As for previous campaign platforms, the theme of the patriotic ‘national-liberation struggle’ uniting all patriots against the ‘genocidal ruling regime’ meant that socialist and class language was all but absent.
However, the party platform did mark a very significant evolution from all earlier platforms. As a party critic noted, it was still more declaratory and ideologically ‘eroded’. Despite the vitriol heaped on the ‘criminal oligarchy’, the measures proposed were markedly more moderate and pragmatic than in 1995. The party’s purge and the diminished challenge from the radical left allowed the CPRF to emphasise its peaceful and legal image. Whilst in 1995 its key slogan was ‘Russia, Labour, Popular Power, Socialism’, in 1999 it was ‘Order in the Country, Prosperity in the Home’. Whereas the earlier platform explicitly promised the abolition of the presidency, renationalisation and the resurrection of the USSR, in 1999 the aims were more cautious—a reduction in presidential power and the creation of a Slavic union. There was little about the economy in the programme, but a separate economic programme for the parliamentary and presidential elections drafted by Sergei Glaz’ev showed a still more marked evolution. If the electoral platform was statist-patriotic in inspiration, this programme was social-democratic. In a strongly Keynesian vein, it still called for state ownership of the commanding heights and ‘managed money issue’, but now talked of how to enforce property and investors’ rights and defend small and medium businesses, and of a pragmatic acceptance of private ownership in a ‘socially-orientated socialist market economy’. Campaign broadcasts sought to balance the vehement and moderate tones. Zyuganov emphasised that the CPRF was the only serious opposition party with a constructive programme for the revival of domestic industries. The communist Duma fraction proposed amendments to the Russian constitution to limit presidential power, to demonstrate they meant business. The party’s praise of Stalin just before polling day seemed designed to reassure the party faithful, calling for ‘strong party unity’ in an ‘anti-Hitler coalition’.
Moreover, just as in 1995, the CPRF ran a strongly targeted regional campaign, with regional notables prominently placed in the regional troika. A prominent development in 1999 was that the party candidates were becoming still less party-based. The presence of around 100 non-party candidates on the party list of 270 upset the party ranks. Only half of the main section of the party list were party members, and only about two-thirds of its single-mandate candidates. Since 1997 the CPRF had run into problems with some of its regional cadres. Some notable governors, such as Aman Tuleev of Kemerovo, sought practical rather than ideological solutions and lamented the party’s weak record in producing concrete rather than declarative benefits for its adherents. The CPRF therefore sought to distance itself from its own governors who had lost popularity and to improve its contacts with popular regional leaders even in areas outside its control. So the party sought rigidly to audit its deputy candidacies prior to the campaign. It expressly nominated well-known candidates and initiated flexible contacts with regional administrations. Its regional campaigns sought to respond to local concerns and avoid generalities. Ultimately, as for other parties, the CPRF’s candidates increasingly represented the interests of regional leaders rather than of political parties.
Also marked was the CPRF’s ever increasing reliance on businessmen in its party list. The CPRF’s attempts to make a rapprochement with national capital have been marked for a long time. There were persistent rumours that the departure of Kulik and Maslyukov from government dealt a heavy financial blow to the CPRF, to which the party responded by selling party list places at a price of up to 1.5 million dollars. That figure may well be too high, but the CPRF still managed the largest official campaign war-chest. Communist critics noted the presence of dozens of previously unknown businessmen on the party list. Better financing and elite contacts certainly helped the CPRF to mount an improved information campaign. While concentrating on its traditional grass-roots campaigning, the CPRF regional party committees had greater access to TV and media, particularly in areas where it had governors. Significant also was the CPRF’s improved treatment from the central media. No longer was there a solid wall of anti-communism, but the central media diverted most of their attacks onto Primakov and Luzhkov, leaving the CPRF unscathed. The media coverage of the communists’ negotiations with Putin over the budget were generally positive. Even accusations that the CPRF was ready to cooperate with OVR would damage the latter more and strengthen the CPRF’s preferred image as the only solid opposition force with which everyone would have to reckon.
The 1999 Election Results
The CPRF could claim considerable success in the voting. Its share of the vote on the party list went up from 1995 (24.3% against 22.3%) as did the number of votes (16.2 million versus 15.4 million). Moreover, its success in single mandate districts in 1999 was actually greater than in 1995, when it won 58 seats. In the CPRF and closely allied ‘Agro-industrial’ fraction on 2 March 2000 the party had 65 single mandate members, albeit only 49 who ran on the communist ticket. This indicates some success in its flexible regional policy. So party support might appear to be relatively stable. The increasing role for non-party figures in the party campaigns (seen most starkly in the presence of Glaz’ev, formerly in Gaidar’s government, on the party list) is indicative that the party managed to win support from non-communists and was slowly losing its ‘programmatic’ nature. However, in 1999 the party’s base weakened among the under 30s and remained strongest in the over 55s and socially excluded. Business support for Zyuganov remained relatively weak.
Indeed, there is evidence that the communist vote was beginning to lose some aspects of its hard core without making commensurate gains. Preliminary results suggest the CPRF gained votes from some who voted for El’tsin in 1996, but lost votes to both Edinstvo and OVR. At first glance the party certainly made impressive gains on the party list vote outside former ‘leftist’ regions in areas like St Petersburg, Perm’, Murmansk and Primorsky krai, and improved its vote share overall in 62 of 88 federal subjects. It claimed to have improved its positions in the Far East, West and East Siberia, the North and the North Caucasus. However, gains in these regions were olden from a very low base. For example, an 8.2% gain in Yamalo-Nenets autonomous okrug resulted in a vote share of 13.8%. Significantly, where the party increased its vote, in only five regions did it exceed or even capture the total leftist vote of 1995. This indicated that the party’s major gains were from other ‘leftist’ parties who had run in 1995 such as the APR, ‘Power to the People!’ and the radical communists, rather than from new converts from outside the leftist niche.
More worryingly for the future, on the party list the communists lost in areas in the ‘red belt’ where they had won for years, usually to OVR or Edinstvo. The CPRF suffered significant losses to Edinstvo in Kemerovo, Rostov, Volgograd and Voronezh. Nation-wide, while in 1995 the CPRF had come first on the party list in 143 okruga, in 1999 it achieved this in only 78. A similar situation prevailed in the single-mandate districts, where the party suffered some notable losses (including to Boris Berezovsky in communist-held Karachaevo-Cherkesiya). Overall, the vote for ‘leftist’ parties as a whole had decreased from 32% to 28% in 1999. Party leaders evaluated the results positively as showing that the CPRF had consolidated its support among the opposition and had thwarted potential rivals for this position. Yet the sudden rise of Edinstvo was not anticipated by the CPRF at all. It was accompanied by the decision of opposition governors Tuleev, Chernogorov and Shabanov to support Putin’s presidential bid, along with indications that up to a quarter of the CPRF’s voters were inclined the same way in a presidential second round. Overall, the results for the CPRF in 1999 were equivocal. The party had rebuffed challengers for the leftist electorate, which still seemed relatively stable. However, there were suggestions that the kompromat launched at OVR had artificially boosted the CPRF’s final vote by up to 5% and so prevented a more damaging result. It appeared that the party’s constructive approach was still not gaining it enough scope for electoral manoeuvre to move far beyond its niche. This left the party ill-placed to mount a successful presidential bid in the short term and vulnerable to the likely long-term decline in the pro-Soviet sub-culture.
The CPRF in the Seventh Duma
In the new Duma fraction formation and influence promised to be extremely fluid owing to the number of independents. The CPRF formed a communist fraction of 88 and a satellite ‘Agro-industrial’ fraction of 42, headed by the loyal ex-Agrarian Kharitonov. The party appeared to have successfully managed the split. However, with more parties passing the 5% barrier, the party lost the ‘multiplier effect’ that had increased its party list seats in the sixth Duma. The loss of its allied Agrarian and Popular Power fractions reduced the leftists’ share of the seats from 211 (47%) to 130 (29%). Yet any suggestion that this would mark a new ‘reformist’ Duma were complicated by the communists’ deal with the Edinstvo fraction. Seleznev was re-elected as speaker and the Edinstvo and communist fractions and their allies divided up the committee seats in violation of the previous informal division of committees according to fractions’ strength.
The results of this deal were ambiguous. It seemed more likely to be a short-term electoral manoeuvre than a long-term strategic alliance, although common interests between the regime and CPRF were visible in the benign media treatment of the CPRF in the campaign. The seventh Duma gave no group a majority and forced each group to seek increased compromise in order to fulfil its aims. The government wanted a stable majority and to preclude an obstructive Duma in the run-up to the presidential election. More notably, both government and communists were concerned to avoid giving Evgenii Primakov a platform to challenge for the presidency, either as speaker or in a majority coalition. Primakov’s appeal was broad and he could take votes from both camps. Better for the regime to face the communists, whom Putin could almost certainly beat, and for the communists to stick with Zyuganov. He had a chance of forcing Putin into a second round. This would prolong communist influence and the image of a non-reformist Duma in the eyes of their supporters. The division of committee chairmanships certainly helped with such an image, and was also aimed at deflating the Union of Right Forces’ post-election euphoria.
However, although the communists won nine chairmanships as in the previous Duma, they lost the strategically important security committee and failed in negotiations for budget and defence committees. Moreover, the possibilities of this deal breaking down in the future were high. The communists quickly found themselves marginalised by their refusal to endorse two deputy speakers from non-communist factions and by their opposition to START-II ratification, in a Duma which eventually promised to be both pro-Putin and economically reformist. They faced a new dilemma. With a smaller fraction, principled and uncompromising opposition might be an easier option than in 1995-99. Yet the CPRF was now accustomed to influence, and if it were to preserve any in the new Duma the need to make (possibly unprincipled) compromises would be intensified. This has certainly aggravated the CPRF’s internal strains. The formation of the avowedly centre-left and pro-Kremlin group Rossiya by Gennadii Seleznev in July 2000 exacerbated his increasingly frictional relationship with the CPRF leadership and, though probably not a direct attempt to split the party, echoed the CPU(r)’s attempt to advance new leaders and seek new allies to improve the communists’ electoral position.
By 1999 the CPRF’s anti-system and communist nature was being increasingly broken down in a way that made the party’s future uncertain. In many ways this mirrors the all-encompassing crisis of many Western European communist parties, faced with long-term changes in social structure and their electorate, the crisis of the communist word-view and the problems of working ‘even from inside such a “pigsty”‘ as bourgeois capitalist society. However, the CPRF’s ‘Russocommunism’ has certain specificities.
The long-term process of a symbiotic relationship between regime and opposition was confirmed in early 2000. Both Putin, his staff and the communists talked of the formation of a stable two or three-party system in which Edinstvo and the communists might play a key systemic role, marginalising or engulfing the liberals. Some have remarked on how a democratic alternation of power in Russia might be ‘blocked’ by the opposition’s communist nature, as it long was in post-war Italy. What we see in Russia is different, but no more democratic. Opposition and regime’s symbiosis causes the lack of a ‘competitive political market’. The communist opposition was increasingly allowed into power as a very junior partner in order to block the emergence of more radical alternatives which might upset the elite status quo. The CPRF’s increasing role as part of the post-communist political elite in Russia, with improved access to regional leaders, finance and media resources might help blunt the party’s long-term crisis tendencies and prolong its national and regional influence for the short and medium-term future.
However, the long-term emergence of a stable party system from this symbiotic relationship would seem problematic, irrespective of the separate problems of creating a consolidated pro-government party. The incorporation of the CPRF in the regime was deeply paradoxical, as it exposed it to several tensions between an anti-system ideology, rhetoric, membership and electorate, and a leadership and parliamentary apparatus that were increasingly psychologically and financially enmeshed in the system. Organisationally the party was in tension between a mass party aimed at mobilising against the regime and increasing clientelistic tendencies in its higher echelons, reflected most starkly in the opportunistic courting of businessmen in 1999. Moreover, the CPRF’s continuing role as ‘junior partner’ to the regime remained somewhat dependent on the regime’s good will, with the Kremlin apparently helping the formation of Rossiya and promoting the presidential campaigns of Tuleev and Podberezkin, trying to compel the CPRF to ‘reform or die’.
The CPRF’s incorporation in the regime had certainly stabilised the political system in the short term. However, it appeared to prolong a bureaucratic elite domination of the political system where both civil society and the electorate remained poorly integrated in the regime, and forces not favoured by the regime had little access to political power. This process could be seen in stark relief within the CPRF, where the gap between the bureaucratic tendencies of the leadership and the radical inclinations of its electorate resulted in rhetorical and tactical contortions. Such a gap between regime and society, particularly were it to be accompanied by renewed social and political turmoil, left open the long-term possibility of the instability of the Russian political system. Alternatively, the CPRF’s possible decline might pave the way for a more coherent organised opposition, yet the apparent ease with which the Kremlin sidelined the CPRF and other blocs in the 1999-2000 elections and created a ‘virtual party’ (Edinstvo) should give pause for thought. It remains to be seen whether the evolution of the CPRF from a communist to a ‘cosmetic’ party will be good for Russian party politics as a whole.
A further dynamic in the evolution of the CPRF was the depolarisation of the electorate after 1996. Whereas this offered the party the chance to move beyond its electoral ‘ghetto’, it threatened its stable constituency, and the inflexibility of the party’s structure and electorate hindered its chances. Although by 1999 the CPRF remained head of the ‘opposition’, it could not monopolise the protest vote which some had suggested would accrue to it after the August 1998 economic crisis and guarantee it electoral victory. By 1999 the CPRF’s disciplined electoral corn was showing signs of softening, while new ‘patriotic’ forces such as OVR, Edinstvo and Vladimir Putin joined the CPRF in exploiting the populace’s desire for order, statehood and self-reliance. This confronted the CPRF with an acute ideological dilemma. Faced with the visceral anti-communist El’tsin, the party had a clear focus for its opposition to the ‘anti-national regime’. Putin’s leadership was double-edged, not anti-communist, more ‘patriotic’, and more consensual than El’tsin’s and yet undeniably more manipulative of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Communist leaders rightly complained that Putin had stolen many of the slogans of the CPRF’s ‘state patriotism’. Towards the end of 2000 they sought to balance selective support for Putin’s ‘patriotic’ policies with renewed leftist social-class slogans. This stance’s success would depend both on continued deterioration in the socioeconomic situation and on the party overcoming its inability to exploit this.
Despite such increasing problems, the imminent dissolution of the CPRF was unlikely. The coarse of the 1999 elections showed that the party retained enough organisational coherence to remain a strong national and regional force. Like Western European communist parties before it, the CPRF was increasingly relying on panty organisation to offset its ideological confusion and to ‘isolate hermetically’ its sub-culture. It followed the pattern of mass parties, communist ones in particular, which have been shown historically to have a ‘low capacity for adaptation but a high capacity for endurance’, prolonging influence but complicating revival. Therefore even an electoral defeat such as the communists eventually suffered in March 2000 might not necessarily destroy nor rejuvenate the CPRF. Zyuganov’s tenure was certainly becoming increasingly questioned within the party, and his national-patriotic strategy had almost disintegrated. However, party discipline, though weakening, was still a force limiting any abrupt changes or splits, and certainly complicating a rapid change of leader. Most party members regarded Rossiya with extreme suspicion and threats to remove Seleznev from his party and Duma positions seem to have helped push Rossiya into a more conciliatory line towards the CPRF and to join a more streamlined NPSR. Moreover, Zyuganov’s much remarked lack of charisma actually marked him as an ideal communist ‘collective leader’. He displayed a consensus-building apparatchik style and, unlike Seleznev, little independence from the party hierarchy, thereby well representing the party’s collectively worked-out political position. Therefore, the CPRF’s lack of charismatic leaders was more a function of the party’s organisation than any personal mediocrity on Zyuganov’s part, and might not be easily overcome even if Zyuganov were removed.
If organisation still gave the CPRF a stubborn vitality, then its ideology was losing both vitality and coherence. Unlike the experience of Eurocommunism, the CPRF’s identity was not being worn down by incorporation in a wholly democratic regime whereby the acceptance of regime values might lead to a transition to social democracy. A minimalist definition of social democracy would include the following elements: belief in the mixed economy, the welfare state, and equality with full commitment to parliamentary democracy, the electoral process and political liberalism. Whereas the CPRF certainly espoused the former three, commitment to the latter three was dubious in both regime and opposition. The common bureaucratic, ‘statist’ mentality of many members of the regime and opposition, their shared fear of social disorder and disruption to their political or economic interests, limited their commitment to open political competition. So without the thorough liberal democratisation of the regime, the real social democratisation of the party remained problematic, and the CPRF’s acceptance of pluralism remained more gradual and grudging even than the PCF’s. The increasing social democratic elements in party platforms remained compromised by the statist mentality of party leaders and the ‘conservative communist’ elements in party organisation and ideological heritage. The contradictions between the party’s programme and platforms, and its ‘statist-patriotic’, moderate socialist and Stalinist faces were ever more apparent, with seemingly little prospect of immediate resolution.
By 1999, therefore, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was displaying many of the signs of crisis which had previously beset communist parties in pluralist systems: a crisis of social support, ideology, strategy and, increasingly, organisation. None of these crises doomed the party to a sudden demise, particularly as most of its competitors were even weaker, but it was the simultaneity and intensity of these crises that so limited the party’s options for renewal. The CPRF operated with some acumen and opportunism in balancing its different political faces and integrating with the political elite, yet as a result further eroded organisation and identity. Thus, such victories that accrued to the CPRF and its For Victory! bloc were increasingly Pyrrhic. Ultimately them was little in the CPRF’s behaviour that contradicted Lazar’s view of post-crisis communist parties as a retreating army, ‘capable of sharp counter-attacks to win time, but unable to put together a decisive, full-scale counteroffensive that would reverse the tide of battle.