With Yeltsin ailing, Russia’s Communists are on a roll
MALCOLM GRAY in MoscowNovember61995
THE RED REVIVAL
With Yeltsin ailing, Russia’s Communists are on a roll
Remember this: if the old gang stays in power; it will be very difficult for you to make investments.
—Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party, to the American Chamber of Commerce
Peddling a new and improved brand of communism—softer, more democratic and investor friendly—is no easy task before an audience of skeptical Western businessmen. But Russia’s Reds are resurgent after losing power and credibility in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. With the hospitalization last week of President Boris Yeltsin, the fight for the future leadership of Russia has intensified dramatically.
And that has made Communist leader Zyuganov even more of a key player as elections to parliament—and later the presidency—draw nearer.
Well before Yeltsin was stricken, opinion polls were showing that the Communists could control Russia’s legislative Duma after voting scheduled for Dec. 17. Foreign businessmen had already taken note. In early October, Zyuganov exuded charm and sincerity as he met over lunch with 130 businessmen who are members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia and talked about democracy, a mixed economy—and his hopes for a revived Soviet Union. After the roast beef, Eivind Djupedal, a Norwegian-born executive who had dined next to Zyuganov, summed up the mood of his colleagues. Said he: “Business will certainly continue if the Communists regain power in Russia.”
But Communist control of the fractious and ineffectual Duma would be only a small—if significant—step towards ruling Russia. Now, as always, real power resides in the Kremlin. There, Yeltsin had been presiding over a country wracked by crime, corruption, a corrosive war within its borders in Chechnya and the widespread perception that the transition to capitalism has impoverished at least half of Russia’s 150-million citizens. Ever enigmatic, Yeltsin had avoided declaring whether he would stand again for a four-year presidential term next June. But af-
ter he was rushed to hospital last week following his return from a visit to France and the United States, his political future was in deep doubt. “Who will vote for a sick man?” asked Sergei Markov, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
Doctors said Yeltsin had suffered another bout of ischemia—a blockage of the arteries by cholesterol that is often a precursor to a heart attack—following a similar episode in July. His aides insisted that he was still in command, but the physicians later said he would have to stay under care until the end of November. His scheduled trip to China was cancelled, and pending decisions on Bosnia and NATO were left hanging.
Who might replace him? The spotlight immediately turned to Prime Minister Viktor
Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin’s ally and political heir apparent. The prime minister loyally refused to alter his schedule or take on any of Yeltsin’s tasks. But speculation about his possible ascension will intensify the longer Yeltsin is absent from the Kremlin, especially during the run-up to the parliamentary elections. For one thing, the prime minister is the leader of Our Home is Russia, a progovernment slate that critics have dubbed the party of power. Just as significantly, Chernomyrdin is bound to take over Yeltsin’s job if the president is too ill to perform his duties. Yeltsin’s close aides will try to block that—the constitution also calls for presidential elections to be held within three months of any such switch. But, if Yeltsin does not run in June, Chernomyrdin will almost surely pick up the torch.
Either man will face a determined challenge from the Communists, who are targeting the December elections as a potential springboard to installing a president in June. Both Zyuganov and the Yeltsin forces are trying to forge centrist coalitions open to just about anyone. To Russian voters and nervous Western investors alike, Zyuganov insists that the Communists have changed and that a government under the party’s familiar hammerand-sickle emblem would only bring back the better aspects of Soviet rule: beefed-up social security and a crackdown on organized crime and corruption certainly, but nothing so nasty as packing dissidents and political opponents off to reopened concentration camps in Siberia.
Zyuganov has so successfully constructed an image of the responsible opposition leader that he—unlike loose-cannon Vladimir Zhirinovsky—received an invitation to chat with Bill Clinton during the U.S. President’s visit to Moscow in May. Clinton naturally prefers the reform-minded Yeltsin, and the two were at pains to show how friendly they were when they met in New York City last week before Yeltsin fell ill. But the hugs and belly laughs could not disguise the growing tension between the former Cold War rivals. It is fuelled in part by the revived Russian fear that the West wants to see an economically weak Russian state ringed by potential enemies. As a result, many Russians are receptive to arguments advanced by Zyuganov and other critics: Russia, they say, has been largely ignored as the United States and its allies seek peace in Bosnia and develop plans for expanding NATO into eastern Europe. In New York, Yeltsin told Clinton Russia was ready to send peacekeepers to Bosnia, but they would not serve under NATO command. The two agreed that their militaries would try to work out a deal—which they had failed to g do by week’s end.
I Russia’s shrunken role in world affairs g is an easy target for Yeltsin’s would-be I successors. Still, Zyuganov spends most b of his time on purely domestic issues, cultivating support among the disgruntled masses who have seen the rewards of the country’s harsh and often violent new capitalism flow largely to a well-connected minority. Many of the party’s supporters inhabit what Zyuganov refers to as the Red Belt—rural areas with inefficient collective farms that relied heavily on state subsidies, or cities where near-idle factories struggle to turn out toasters or tea kettles instead of the tanks and planes they produced for the military.
Coupled with that lingering sense of dependency on the state is a countrywide longing for the order and security—if not the repression—that the Communist era provided. In a modest, two-room apartment less than four km from Red Square, 69-yearold Muscovite Galina Novikova expresses feelings shared by millions of her fellow citizens. Says the retired economist: “The statistics speak for themselves: dozens of people get killed and disappear every day. Certainly, my life under communism was better in almost every way. For one thing, I used to go out to the theatre frequently—now, I never leave
home after 6 p.m. because I am afraid that the streets are not safe. I was never a Communist but my vote is going to go to Zyuganov.”
While Novikova waits to vent her rage at the ballot box, 27-year-old Sergei Schislayev is also helping the Communists inch back towards power. Simply put, he, like many other young Russians, is too busy making money to pay any attention to politics. Soviet authorities would have jailed him as a social parasite and speculator for selling works of art to foreigners and so-called New Russians. “I am not going to vote because I don’t believe that the parliamentary elections will change my life in any way,” he says. Recent polls show that at least 20 per cent of Russians have no intention of casting ballots, thereby magnifying the power of Communist supporters who do. Indeed, the party has enjoyed a string of successes in recent local elections where voter turnout has been low.
This evidence of a Red revival explains why
Zyuganov is now being introduced at luncheons by such ambassadors of Western capitalism as the Coca-Cola company’s Moscow representative. It also underlines the extent of the party’s comeback since Yeltsin temporarily banned it after a hardline putsch failed in 1991. Now, the Communists have more than 500,000 party members. That is by far the largest roll of supporters in a country where there are more than 260 political blocs, organizations and movements parading before an increasingly alienated and confused electorate.
Zyuganov, too, has grown in stature since the mid-1980s. Then, he was an obscure bureaucrat in the party’s ideology department, allied with the hardline Communists who were striving to block Gorbachev’s plans for reform. Now, the 51-year-old grandfather expounds on the need to find practical rather than ideological solutions to the country’s problems. The increasingly shrill warnings of a new “Red menace” by members of the country’s squabbling democratic movement go largely ignored. Among those sounding the alarm is Yegor Gaidar, the pro-Western economist who oversaw Moscow5s first halting steps away from a planned economy in 1992. He argues that Russia’s Communists should not be
confused with the reformed Marxists who have returned to power in lithuania and other eastern European countries. Says Gaidar: “The illusion exists that we have passed the point of no return. But as one of the architects of Russian reform, I must assure you that our reforms are fully reversible.”
Zyuganov plays down the impact of a Communist comeback on Russia’s shift to capitalism, stressing that his party favors an economy that would mix state-owned, collective and private enterprises. In that regard, his pitch to Western investors is deceptively low-key: ‘We believe that the state should control the energy and transportation sectors as well as the country’s military-industrial complex, as without that you cannot have national sovereignty,” he said. But that soothing statement jarred Western energy-company representatives who attended the chamber of commerce luncheon: they are already having difficulties gaining access to Russia’s semiprivatized oiland-gas reserves. And as Gaidar points out, a Communist return to the old system of massive state subsidies to collective farms and military suppliers would fuel inflation and could plunge the country into economic chaos—again.
Still, more money for the extensive military-industrial complex is a vital prerequisite for one of Zyuganov’s fore^ most objectives in foreign pol| icy: balancing U.S. influence g by restoring Moscow’s status ” as the capital of a world superpower. Hence his call for the political resurrection of the Soviet Union. But he is at pains to note that any such restoration would have to be undertaken voluntarily by some or all of the 15 former republics.
Although his ambition is clear, Zyuganov will likely have to settle for a lesser achievement than leading a revived union—rebuilding the party. Fellow members praise him for his superb organizational skills, but they privately acknowledge that Zyuganov lacks the populist sizzle that is vital for a successful run at the Russian presidency.
Zyuganov tacitly acknowledges that his wooden public persona would hinder him in any contest against Yeltsin or his successor. In tossing around a list of supportable candidates, ranging from popular former general Alexander Lebed to pro-Western economist Grigory Yavlinsky, Zyuganov notably does not include his own name. But there is nothing wrong with his abilities as a fixer. They were on display near the end his luncheon encounter, when an aide mistakenly affiliated Coca-Cola’s Russian representative with archrival Pepsi. Zyuganov swiftly corrected the slip with a loud stage whisper, smoothing over another bump in the Communist march back to respectability—and, perhaps, power.
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