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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Communists Let a Scandal Go Public

The Communists and their allies risked doing something this month that they have been loath to do in the past: They aired their dirty laundry.

Moreover, they've blamed the Kremlin for sullying it, with the most outspoken of them accusing the presidential administration of planting subversives in their ranks and funding them through loyal businessmen.

Rival factions have always co-existed within the so-called left-wing opposition. But with State Duma elections 10 months away and pro-Communist groups set to win some 20 percent of the popular vote, fanning the flames of internal dissent has become a political imperative for the "nationalist patriots'" main opponents -- most prominently, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

"The party of power is troubled by the Communists' growing influence ... and wants to promote the idea of a schism to strike a blow to the Communists and neutralize them," political analyst Sergei Markov of Moscow's Institute of Political Studies said Monday.

In the latest conflict, the brunt of the Communists' wrath has fallen on the Duma's lowest-profile deputy speaker -- Gennady Semigin, a former businessman who heads the executive committee of the Popular Patriotic Union of Russia, or NPSR, an umbrella group uniting some 15 left-wing political movements, with the Communists as its backbone. In the Duma, Semigin formally represents the Agrarian faction.

The first shock waves rippled through pro-Communist circles early this month, when the editors of two major left-wing opposition newspapers published a joint article called "Operation: Mole," accusing Semigin of helping Kremlin officials organize a fifth column in the NPSR.

"The [presidential] administration is planting its covert representatives among the patriots ... advancing them to top posts in the movement," says the Jan. 6 article by Alexander Prokhanov and Valentin Chikin, editors of Zavtra and Sovietskaya Rossia. "The conspiracy's main goal is to explode the patriots, to push out the most tested leaders, who have been the least compromising in dealing with the authorities, and to replace them with loyal, easy-to-control people."

A Semigin spokesman called the accusations "absolute nonsense," saying his boss has worked to strengthen the opposition and secure its victory in December's elections.

But influential Communists have taken up positions on opposite sides of the fence. Party chief Gennady Zyuganov endorsed the scandalous article in Zavtra, and the party's leaders issued a resolution admonishing Semigin's committee for overstepping its bounds and abetting the Kremlin's attempts to sow discord.

However, Sergei Glazyev, the energetic young economist widely seen as the top candidate to replace Zyuganov at the party's helm, defended Semigin. In a comment published last week in Pravda, Glazyev called the allegations against Semigin "calumny" and likened "Operation: Mole" to a Stalin-era smear campaign.

"Whether intentionally or not, the article's authors are speaking out against the unification of all patriotic forces," Glazyev wrote. "If this continues, our left-wing movement will face, if not a schism, then at least a drastic narrowing of its possibilities."

One of the central issues in the conflict has been funding -- which was Semigin's main responsibility.

Although the Communist bloc lost a great deal of its lobbying power last year after pro-Kremlin lawmakers forced it to abandon most of its Duma committee chairmanships, it remains a formidable force. "This party's appeal as an investment is going to grow," said Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

He said that, despite President Vladimir Putin's high ratings, voters have a growing number of gripes with the political elite. "Even mainstream political groups will be forced to distance themselves, at least virtually, from the establishment to attract disgruntled voters. ... There are too many of them to ignore," he said.

Press reports of "political investments" in the Communists have abounded over the past month.

A web site controlled by veteran spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky said this month that No. 2 oil company Yukos has agreed to give the Communists $70 million over the next five years. Yukos said the report was false "from beginning to end."

"Operation: Mole" said an unnamed pro-Kremlin "metallurgical oligarch, possibly from the aluminum sector," will fund the bloc in order to factionalize it and maintain leverage over its moderate members.

Yury Korgunyuk of the INDEM think tank said the Communist Party has long received funding from various business interests, but now some of them want to have greater influence on the party -- and this is what Zyuganov is trying to stave off.

Analysts agreed that Semigin would likely be squeezed out of the pro-Communist leadership, but that this does not spell an end to the party.

Instead, the public scrap highlights a major internal argument: how far to go in working with the Kremlin -- to build bridges or to burn them?

Zyuganov's camp has repeatedly, at least publicly, emphasized that it will not cooperate with Putin's "anti-popular" regime, recently calling on the Duma to vote no confidence in the Cabinet for failing to deal with this winter's heating crisis. But other top party officials have been more willing to look for compromises.

"Nonetheless, a schism is highly unlikely," Markov said. "People and groups might splinter off, but the party won't fall to pieces."

Such precedents already exist. Last year, the Communists ousted several prominent members, including Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, for refusing to abdicate their Duma posts in protest over the loss of the bloc's committee chairmanships.

Since then, Seleznyov has formed his own party, Rebirth of Russia, believed to have the Kremlin's support as a political decoy to lure away Communist votes.