- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

MOSCOW — Russia’s Communist Party that once ruled half of Europe and threatened the West lies splintered and in ruins amid a rivalry for leadership forced by the political dominance of President Vladimir Putin.

The Justice Ministry last week put the party’s control back in the hands of its official leader, Gennady Zyuganov — a man who has lost two presidential elections and who is looked on by the party faithful with a growing frown.

The decision means that another bloc of Communists — who include a few influential and ladder-climbing billionaires among their ranks but who resent Mr. Zyuganov’s dour image — has been left out in the cold.

The party’s future in Russia now appears perilous and it is perhaps headed for a behind-the-scenes revolution.

The Communists have been losing votes ever since the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. The party was briefly banned by Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, and then had a short spell of success in the mid-1990s.

It blocked Kremlin legislation on Western-style economic reforms and on the whole held Russians’ attention.

Mr. Zyuganov lost to Mr. Yeltsin in 1996 only after a concerted media discrimination campaign — one that has since been officially acknowledged and that hushed up the fact that Mr. Yeltsin suffered a heart attack days before the vote.

But the party’s Soviet-era support base is running thinner on the ground and in July it faced the indignity of staging two separate and rivaling caucuses.

The first voted in Mr. Zyuganov, 60, as its head after days of tension.

The Communist offshoot group backed by the big finance chiefs voted in the little-known regional governor Vladimir Tikhonov. Mr. Zyuganov went to court and last week he won the rights to claim his party’s name.

Few analysts can predict what comes next. But one thing is certain: with 51 seats in the 450-member State Duma, the lower house of parliament, the Communists have almost no power and some of their members are actually rarely seen on the chamber’s floor.

The pro-Putin United Russia faction wields a two-thirds constitutional majority in the Duma that is needed to pass any law.

Most legislation since the December parliamentary elections has passed simply on the United Russia votes and without any debate. The Communist Party members are fuming — and fighting among themselves.

The offshoot branch accuses Mr. Zyuganov’s faction of being the opposition in name only and actually working hand-in-hand with the state.

“The party, in the form in which it is being headed by Zyuganov, is nothing more than a comfortable instrument to be played with by the government, by the president,” opposition leader Tatyana Astrakhankina told Radio Echo Moskvy.

“But we will not be sitting here with folded hands. We will take steps,” she said. She voiced the option of forming an “alternative” Communist Party in the coming months.

But Mr. Zyuganov’s aides were celebrating.

“Of course, this was an absolutely legitimate decision,” said Mr. Zyuganov’s spokesman, Andrei Andreyev. “The Justice Ministry confirmed what it had to confirm: that the Communist Party is legitimate.”

But in fact there appear to be few differences between Mr. Zyuganov and Mr. Tikhonov in terms of political convictions.

Mr. Zyuganov has been accused by his party of seeking a private compromise with authorities so that he could represent an opposition that actually bends to Kremlin rule when push comes to shove.

And recent comments from Mr. Tikhonov were not much different.

“The Communist Party that we head” is not seeking confrontation with the authorities, he was quoted as saying last month by the Interfax news agency.

“We need to seek compromises,” Mr. Tikhonov said. “Yes, I am a Communist. But these days, we are playing in a different political and legislative field.”


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