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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Communists Facing Youth Group Exodus

Less than a month after the Communist Youth Union abandoned the party to throw its support behind A Just Russia, another Communist youth leader followed suit Thursday, calling on all left-leaning young people to join the pro-Kremlin, socialist-oriented party.

"I remain a communist, but I am calling on leftist activists to support A Just Russia in order to prevent an alliance between United Russia and the Communist Party," Ilya Ponomaryov, leader of the Communists' Youth Left Front group told journalists.

Ponomaryov's move is the latest episode in the competition between the Communists and A Just Russia ahead of the Dec. 2 State Duma elections, where the parties are expected to vie for second place behind the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

Although the move threatened to sap some of the Communists' support among younger voters, its leaders denied that this was the case.

"Ilya Ponomaryov has never been and won't be part of our youth organization," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said at a new conference Thursday. "He is working for himself."

Ponomaryov, formerly the head of the information technology center for the Communist Party's Central Committee, said he was quitting because the party was forging an alliance with United Russia. The Communists are being offered the second-largest number of seats in the Duma in exchange for their tacit support of the existing regime, Ponomaryov claimed.

Responsible for a number of Communist Party online projects, including the creation of its main web site in 2002, Ponomaryov was reported Wednesday by the news portal to have struck a deal with A Just Russia to run on its party list in the Novosibirsk region.

He neither confirmed nor denied the report Thursday. "There is no firm agreement yet with A Just Russia," he said.

Spokespeople for A Just Russia could not be reached for comment Thursday, as they were involved in a meeting of the party's Supreme Council.

A Just Russia, widely seen as a left-of-center Kremlin project to balance off United Russia, has had notable success in prying groups and high-profile politicians away from other parties in recent months, with the Communists suffering the greatest losses.

In addition to the Communist Youth Union, with 10,000 active members, A Just Russia has induced three Communist Duma deputies -- Svetlana Goryacheva, Yelena Drapeko and the former head of the party's Moscow branch, Alexander Kuvayev -- to join its ranks.

Ponomaryov said the trend was likely to continue, as more youth activists from the Communists' regional branches were contemplating making the move. He added that they would leave the party en masse if the Communists failed to grab second spot in the Duma race.

The party itself is actually showing some of its members the door. Among the dissidents who have been driven out is Anatoly Baranov, the former editor of the party web site. Ponomaryov said some of these people had already found new jobs at A Just Russia's regional headquarters.

Despite the defections, Communist leader Zyuganov sounded upbeat about the party's prospects for attracting young voters.

"The leader of the Communist Youth Union, Yury Afonin, recently expressed his complete support for us and is going to head our regional list," Zyuganov said, referring to a faction of the group that has remained loyal to the party.

Zyuganov's deputy in the party's Central Committee, Vladimir Kashin, said those who had departed were not of any real significance for the party, adding that young people accounted for some 20 percent of its membership.

"All youth groups really involved in leftist policy are either part of the Communist Party or in cooperation with it," said Ivan Melnikov, also a deputy leader in the party's Central Committee.

Political analysts agreed the youth group's departure would likely have little effect on December's ballot count.

"It is more a case of loss of face for the Communists," said Yury Korgunyuk of the Indem think tank. "Also, it was the youth wings, including the Communist Youth Union, with their street demonstrations and battles with other youth groups, that kept the party in the media focus over the past couple years."

Dmitry Orlov, an analyst with the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, said youth wings helped mobilize from 3 to 5 percent of the vote for their respective parties in some regional elections in March.

"A group has to be known in the community, however, if its activities are going to influence voters," he said.

The pro-Kremlin Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia youth movements, as well as the banned National Bolshevik Party, were the country's best-known youth movements, according to a study by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Science released in August.