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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Modest Charm of the Communists

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Something strange is happening to the Communist Party. Although it remains the largest and organizationally the strongest party in Russia, it no longer plays a dominant role in the Duma, and generally keeps a low profile in political debates. Furthermore, its position is incomprehensible and its relations with the authorities highly ambiguous.

Nonetheless, Gennady Zyuganov's party regularly wins regional elections, and indeed its popularity rating is in excess of 40 percent according to some sociological studies. The Communist Gennady Khodyrev won the recent gubernatorial election in Nizhny Novgorod ? traditionally considered a liberal stronghold ? and two weeks ago a Communist candidate came within a hair's breadth of winning the gubernatorial election in Irkutsk.

Despite this the Communist Party is clearly undergoing a crisis, and this is not just the opinion of outside observers, but also of many party members themselves.

In fact, these apparent contradictions become much more understandable when one takes into account the striking gulf between electoral politics and real life. The Irkutsk election was revealing in this respect: No more than a third of the population voted in the election.

This reminds me of a Moscow journalist who tried to show that a low turnout among the American electorate was proof that there were no problems in the country and everyone was content.

Using the same yardstick, one might conclude that the people of Irkutsk are one and a half times better off than in the United States.

This is blatantly not the case and leads one to a rather different conclusion: Popular indifference to gubernatorial elections (and elections in general) is a symptom of popular alienation from the political system. The main ? and possibly the only ? real political achievement of the Communist Party since 1996 has been the election of a significant number of "red governors." The public, however, has rapidly discovered that there is very little difference between red governors and "white governors" in most cases.

The political system and real life are a world apart. All the more so given that most really important decisions in Russia are made deep within the walls of the Kremlin and elections have very limited influence over them.

The Communist Party is firmly entrenched as the country's largest opposition party. While the current system exists, the party is secure in this role, and in this respect both the Communist Party top bosses and the authorities are equally interested in preserving the political status quo (which guarantees them their existing privileged position). This state of affairs, however, is far from satisfactory for many in the Communist Party.

The prevailing system has been constructed in such a way that there is almost no alternative opposition to the Communist Party. This has been ensured both through the mass media and by legislators, who have undertaken all kinds of measures to limit political activity at the grass-roots level.

However, sooner or later, the gulf between the public and the political system will become so wide that a crisis will ensue. In 1995-96, the Communists ? ably abetted by liberal journalists who talked up the threat of "communist restoration" ? played the role of the only credible alternative to Boris Yeltsin's regime.

Since the advent of Putin, Zyuganov's party has been deprived of its role as credible alternative, even at the symbolic level. If this country rejects the existing system, the chances are it will reject the opposition within the system as well.