Time Catches Up With Zyuganov in Ivanovo

MTMunicipal workers clearing snow Monday on Oktyabrskaya Ulitsa in northern Moscow. Snow is forecast for Tuesday, with a high of minus 2 degrees Celsius.
IVANOVO -- Gennady Zyuganov's party might see itself as the traditional defender of the Russian proletariat, but few of the workers at the Kraneks heavy machinery plant seemed to agree.

Most of the members of the small weekend crew in Ivanovo, 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow, filtered out of the main gate after their shift Saturday, leaving just a few dozen behind to hear the visiting Communist leader speak.

Such is life on the campaign trail for a presidential candidate with sliding support in an election where the outcome was all but assured before the campaign even got under way.

Most of the workers on their way out of the plant said they weren't interested, while one middle-aged man was more specific.

"Zyuganov is from last century," he said.

Around 30 minutes before Zyuganov's scheduled arrival, Kraneks general director Vladimir Mokrov said he couldn't require workers to come and listen to the Communist Party leader.

"But we will bring around 20 people for a picture," Mokrov said.

Just as Mokrov was speaking, some two dozen workers from the Saturday shift -- as well as at least half a dozen journalists --gathered on the plant floor between two giant orange excavators and their spare parts.

Zyuganov, wearing a black suit set off by two flashes of bright red -- his tie and a silk scarf -- showed up 15 minutes later than originally scheduled to be met by the tired-looking group of workers and reporters.

The candidate smiled warmly and greeting each worker in his standard manner, holding his hand in one palm while covering it with the other.

He opened his pitch with a bit of flattery.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Zyuganov sitting in an excavator. He also took questions from workers.
"I was told by the governor today that customers have to line up for your excavators a month in advance," said Zyuganov, who had met with Ivanovo Governor Mikhail Men earlier that morning.

He then asked some questions about the plant's products, wondering in particular about the weight of the excavators, nodding his head in understanding as he listened to the replies.

"Now I am ready to answer your questions," Zyuganov said.

The first to step forward, production department head Sergei Vlasov smiled as he asked how the Communist Party, if it ever came back to power, would avoid making the same mistakes as in the Soviet era.

"Our party has reviewed its policies three times," Zyuganov replied. "We have condemned those mistakes."

Vlasov later said he had been unimpressed by Zyuganov's words. "I haven't received an answer to my question," he said, adding that he was not sure he trusted the candidate enough to vote for him on March 2.

What's more, Vlasov said, it didn't really matter, as First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was a shoo-in to win the vote.

"There are no alternatives," he said.

Indeed, it was last century when Zyuganov was last considered a real alternative.

In 1996, he trailed the incumbent Boris Yeltsin by a mere 3 percentage points going into the second round of voting -- a second round Yeltsin had seemed unlikely even to reach a mere six months before.

Zyuganov ended up losing to Yeltsin by 13 percent in the runoff.

The numbers will almost certainly be worse this time. After being in the 15 percent range in October 2000, surveys conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation in the first two weeks of February put his support among voters at 9 percent.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Zyuganov asking Kraneks managers about excavators. He was particularly interested in how much they weigh.
Medvedev has consistently polled around 80 percent.

Vlasov criticized Zyuganov's lack of effort in opposition, accusing him of just "sitting behind a desk" instead of working. Zyuganov replied that the party was working, but Vlasov remained unconvinced.

"The television shows you just sitting at a desk," he said.

Zoya Gavrilova, a boiler operator, was up next, and she had three particular concerns to discuss with the candidate: rising food prices, an increase in street violence by teenagers and the poor state of the country's agriculture sector.

Zyuganov tackled Gavrilova's issues in order.

"Zoya Vasilyevna, let me explain this to you," Zyuganov said, after asking the woman's name. "In order to halt rising prices, the state has to be the owner of the natural resources."

With regard to street violence, Zyuganov simply opened his campaign leaflet and pointed to one section."

"Look, Zoya Vasilyevna, it says here: Safety must be provided for each family," he said.

"Equipment and fertilizers must be delivered to the countryside," he said with regard to boosting the agricultural sector.

"Schools and roads have to be built," he said, adding that at least 10 percent of government expenditures would have to be channeled in this direction.

If Gavrilova's questions for Zyuganov had to do with the country's future development, others continued to focus on the past.

Mokrov, the plant's general director, labeled Zyuganov a "coward" prior to his arrival.

"He practically won in 1996," Mokrov said, referring to Zyuganov's near victory over the incumbent Boris Yeltsin in the second round of presidential voting. "Why didn't he go for the victory?"

Zyuganov has been criticized from some corners for not calling his supporters out onto the streets in response to the questionable tactics that allowed Yeltsin to pull ahead. Many supporters believe his reaction should have been more like that of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine in 2004 and 2005.

As the visit wore on, it became clear that Zyuganov's visit wasn't anything special for the plant's owners or workers.

The plant's owner, Yury Tokayev, told reporters afterward that its directors would be just as cordial in their welcome to any politician interested in visiting the plant.

"If [Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky comes, we will also give him a proper welcome," Tokayev said.