Vladimir Kara Murza
There was a time when Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov mattered. After winning parliamentary elections in 1995, he looked certain to prevail over the increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential vote. At the Davos Economic Forum in February 1996, the leader of Russia’s Communists was received as a leader-in-waiting; by the summer he was already distributing posts in his future government. The election of 1996 was the closest-fought poll in Russia’s history. In the end, with the Soviet era still fresh in people’s minds, a majority of voters chose to reelect an unpopular president rather than face a Communist comeback: Mr. Zyuganov lost to Mr. Yeltsin in the second round of voting, 40.3 percent to 53.8.
There were (and still are) voices that suggested that a “left turn,” i.e., a victory by Mr. Zyuganov in 1996, would have been beneficial for Russia—just as victories by former Communists in Poland, the Czech Republic, and other Central and Eastern European states in the mid-1990s served to solidify their democracies. This is highly doubtful in Russia’s case, however. Mr. Zyuganov is no social democratic turncoat. The leader of Russia’s Communists is openly nostalgic for Stalin, whom he calls “a great patriot,” and laments “the aggressive role of Zionist capital in the destruction of Russia’s economy.” He had words of “admiration” for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when the two met in Baghdad to discuss cooperation between Russian Communists and Iraqi Baathists.
Today, Mr. Zyuganov’s views are unchanged, but his political zenith is long over. A once-feared opponent, the Communist leader has settled into a comfortable niche of “systemic opposition” within the choreographed political system of Vladimir Putin’s regime. Unlike the democrats who bear the brunt of the regime’s intimidation and pressure, the Communist Party is given access to elections and state-run television, and allowed into Parliament and regional legislatures. Mr. Zyuganov has been a safe and predictable “sparring partner” for Kremlin candidates in presidential elections—be it Vladimir Putin in 2000 (defeated Mr. Zyuganov, 52.9 percent to 29.2) or Dmitri Medvedev in 2008 (defeated Mr. Zyuganov, 70.3 to 17.7). He will play this role again in 2012. On Sunday, Mr. Zyuganov announced on Channel One television that he will run for president next March “as a candidate of the leftwing popular-patriotic bloc.” Pollsters are giving the Communist leader second place with around 18 percent of the vote.
Content with his role, Mr. Zyuganov has become an integral part of the Kremlin’s power structure. He is the last person interested in a change of regime. Russia’s next free elections, whenever they take place, will produce a new generation of political leaders—left, right, and center. There is not much promise in that future for Gennady Zyuganov.
Communist Leader, Gennady Zyuganov: Kremlin-Approved Opposition