The cracks are beginning to show in the system that has supported Russian President Vladimir Putin's government for 17 years. Demographic shifts, economic stagnation and building pressure from the West have strained the administration and fueled dissatisfaction among the Russian public. And for Russia's opposition groups, the growing discontent — and the recent rise of various protest movements across the country — present an opportunity. Russia's most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has led the charge, launching an anti-corruption campaign aimed squarely at the government elite. Navalny has opened 60 regional offices throughout Russia and plans to run for president against Putin in 2018.
Though it probably won't allow Navalny's bid for office, the Kremlin may have other challengers to worry about. The Communist Party — a political opponent that operates within the government's system — is starting to make its own plans for the future. The Russian public has long viewed the Party as a relic of bygone times, the last trace of the Soviet system that flew the red banner and venerated Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the Party has been best known for organizing street protests for elderly retirees who long for the old days, lending credence to the assumption that the movement would soon die out. But today, the political conditions may be right for Russia's Communist Party to stage a comeback.
An Opponent Within the System
In the 1990s, the Communist Party held the largest number of seats in the Duma, the lower house of Russia's legislature. When Putin came to power in 1999 and 2000, however, its political clout began to wane. The Party moved into the role of systematic opposition, a classification it rejects. Gennady Zyuganov, the Party's leader since 1993, has run for president repeatedly since 1996. (In fact, he sat out only one election in that time, when Putin was assured a landslide victory in 2004.) But voters increasingly regard the party head, who is in his seventies, as a part of Russia's political system, and, consequently, as a noncredible challenger to Putin. Zyuganov and his party rarely have moved against the ruling United Russia and have stayed in lockstep with most of the president's foreign policy initiatives. Even so, the Kremlin organized an alternative leftist party, Just Russia, in 2006 to mitigate the threat of a resurging Communist Party. The scheme paid off in the 2007 parliamentary elections, stalling the political group's growth.
The Party found itself in a precarious position in 2011, when the government's blatant interference in parliamentary elections sparked mass protests across Russia. Though the Communist Party's position in the Duma had improved dramatically in the wake of the vote, Zyuganov joined in the demonstrations, which drew support across partisan lines — a development the Kremlin found deeply troubling. The tumult forced Putin's government to offer the protest movements a string of concessions, such as reinstating direct elections for regional leaders, and took further measures to bring the Communist Party to heel. In return for yielding to the administration, the Party received various desirable committee chair posts in the Duma from United Russia.
Still, the Communists didn't completely surrender to the will of the ruling party; instead, they began resisting more quietly — in sharp contrast to the vocal opposition of Navalny and the liberal dissident factions. The Party has campaigned regionally to gain influence, a strategy that has worked to its advantage. In 2014 elections, for instance, Communist candidates managed to defeat United Russia in the strategic city of Novosibirsk and in Oryol province, despite the Kremlin's rescinding its promise to return to direct votes for regional races. The following year, the Communist contender beat out the ruling party's candidate for governor of Irkutsk province. Only one other opposition party holds a governorship in the country, and United Russia handpicked its candidate for the post.
In the lead-up to the 2016 legislative elections, the Kremlin put the Communist Party in its sights — all the more so as United Russia sank in the polls. Putin's government launched an aggressive campaign to ensure its continued hold on power, tinkering with election dates to prevent a strong turnout for alternative parties. The vote's results showed another dip in support for the Communists.
Now that protests are cropping up across Russia, though, the Party is eager to take advantage of the public's dissatisfaction with the long-standing administration. It was the only party in the Duma to call for an investigation into the corruption allegations Navalny exposed. In recent months, moreover, it has shifted the focus of its messaging from increasing state control of the economy, its traditional theme, to reports of government graft and the lavish lifestyles of the political elite. The rising star in the Party, Andrei Klychkov, recently told The Moscow Times, "Stalin died with just one suit and a pair of boots in his wardrobe; that's why people trusted him." The Communists also are coming to the defense of other protest groups, such as those that have demonstrated against plans by municipal leaders to demolish 8,000 Soviet-era buildings in Moscow, a move that would displace some 1 million residents. Klychkov has repeatedly spoken at the movement's larger rallies.
A Demographic Opportunity
Further brightening its prospects, the Party now has a rare opportunity to refashion itself, thanks to Russia's changing demographics. More than one-quarter of the country's people today were born after the Soviet Union's collapse and have no experience of life under the Party's rule. To appeal to the post-Soviet generation, the Communists have been working to cast themselves as a young movement. The Party has enlisted an American mixed martial artist to stump around the country on its behalf and to help open fight schools for underprivileged youth. Klychkov, a lawyer, is only 26, but already he has risen through the ranks to occupy one of the Party's primary leadership roles and is said to be Zyuganov's likely successor. The Party will test the electoral waters with Klychkov in next year's Moscow mayoral elections. Though he likely will lose the vote, the young candidate will increase his public name recognition in the process. Meanwhile, Sergei Udaltsov, the unofficial leader of a socialist youth movement, is reportedly considering joining the Communist Party, having recently been released from prison after serving four years for his role in the 2011-12 protests.
The Party even has embraced caricatures of Communism and its past leaders, revamping traditional Communist iconography and slogans with humor, glamour and enthusiasm. The party's official artist, for example, created images of Lenin wearing a tight T-shirt, jeans and sneakers and of Stalin smoking an e-cigarette. He also created an image of Putin wearing the czar's crown with the words: "What did we struggle for? What did we fight for?" And as the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution approaches, the Communists have been promoting the achievements that followed it. The Party has capitalized on Stalin's resurging popularity among Russians, as reported by independent pollster Levada, portraying the leader as a hero of World War II who launched the Soviet Union onto the world stage.
These efforts are the Party's attempt to portray itself not as a group that wants to turn back the clock but as one that wants to bring to the present what the Soviet period offered Russia economically. For many struggling Russians, its promises of pensions, as well as free education and medical services, are a welcome message. The Communist Party, moreover, is working to position itself as an alternative for young Russians who are against the corruption of Putin's government but are wary of the reformist values opposition leaders such as Navalny champion. Its latest rebrand — a capitalist term it accepts grudgingly — seems to be working: According to officials in the group, some 40 percent of new Party members are under the age of 35, and the post-Soviet generation makes up 20 percent of its 570,000 members. Furthermore, the Party claims its youth group is the largest in the country, while participation in United Russia's youth movements is dwindling.
Two Contrary Figures Flirt
The Party's future is an open question. After all, it is still entrenched in Putin's system, though its recent deviation from the Kremlin's line suggests that it could break with more of the government's policies in the coming years. The Communists also face stiff competition as they vie for the support of younger Russians since Navalny maintains a strong social media presence, and the Putin administration, too, is redoubling its efforts to win the youth vote.
As the 2018 election approaches, opposition groups are banding together in their quest to overcome United Russia. In March, Navalny expressed support for Klychkov's mayoral campaign, sparking outrage among his liberal supporters. The opposition heavyweight explained that he believes Klychkov has the best chance to defeat the Kremlin's incumbent. Klychkov, surprised by the apparently unsolicited endorsement, replied that he was "excited to hear from [his] political opponents that people really appreciate" his perspective. The Russian media has compared the flirtation between the two opposition leaders to the collaboration among Liberals, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks during the 1917 Russian Revolution — an indication that the Kremlin is well aware of the threat it faces.
But the cooperation can only go so far. Beyond agreeing on the need to counter the Putin government, Klychkov and Navalny diverge in their views of the future. The Communist Party, for example, advocates stronger state control politically, economically and socially, while Navalny and his supporters are pushing for less control. Regardless, the floodgates have opened to opposition and dissent in Russia. The Putin government still has a fast grip on power for now, but it can't ignore the changing tides in public sentiment.