Just Russia and the Communist Party: merger or takeover?

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As Lenta.ru reports, August 20 was a tough day for the Communist Party (CPRF). What’s more, the source of the problem was the party’s youth wing. Around noon, the pro-Zyuganov faction of the Communist Youth Union (SKM) and the Red Youth Vanguard (AKM) movement joined forces for a brawl with members of Young Guard (the United Russia party’s youth wing); they were surrounded by police and remained inside the CPRF Central Committee building until that evening. This was followed by the anti-Zyuganov faction’s demonstrative departure from the SKM to the Just Russia party.

With elections coming up, such actions give the appearance of a planned attack on the CPRF. But could such an attack do any damage to the party’s voter support rating?

The Gazeta newspaper reports that Young Guard’s picket outside the CPRF Central Committee building was approved by the authorities and used the slogan “Put the CPRF in a political Mausoleum!” The picketers intended to present CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov with a Russian history textbook covering the 1917-2004 period. Their plan failed, since Zyuganov was visiting Ukraine that day. This didn’t deter the Young Guard activists, who started chanting: “Zyuganov, wake up! You’re living in Russia!” They were confronted by SKM and AKM activists, who also started chanting. When Young Guard called for purging the Soviet legacy and relegating the hammer and sickle to a Mausoleum, the young communists responded with “Flush the tricolor!” and “Our home is the USSR!” Eventually, the young communists started throwing eggs at Young Guard, and a minor brawl broke out – quickly halted by the two sides themselves.

Predictably, says Lenta.ru, the two sides are giving rather different accounts of what happened next. But they agree on one thing: no police officers were present during the brawl. The police turned up later, and their actions were strictly directed against one side: the young supporters of Zyuganov. Young Guard claims that this was because its picket was officially sanctioned, but the communist gathering was not; the other side claims that the incident was politically motivated.

The next problem for the CPRF on August 20 was the SKM congress at the Izmailovo Hotel in Moscow, where it was announced that the SKM is breaking off relations with the CPRF in favor of joining the Just Russia party, so detested by the CPRF leadership.

Just Russia’s leader, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, stated recently that his party would be prepared to merge with the CPRF, and claimed that numerous ordinary CPRF members, and even some CPRF district branch leaders, are defecting to Just Russia. In light of these statements, the SKM announcement certainly came as a blow. As a result, according to Lenta.ru, some previously-undisclosed information was made public: it turns out that there are two versions of the SKM. The first is headed by Yuri Afonin, a member of the Tula regional legislature, and it’s entirely pro-Zyuganov. The second, headed by Konstantin Zhukov (expelled from the CPRF), is entirely anti-Zyuganov. It’s the latter version of the SKM which has decided to join Mironov.

According to Gazeta, the SKM split happened way back in 2003, when Zyuganov dismissed SKM first secretary Zhukov and replaced him with Afonov. But the CPRF didn’t bother with the formalities back then. Zhukov retained all official SKM documents, stamps, and rights, while Afonin became the informal leader.

On paper, the SKM still has over 40,000 members; and Afonin claims that he is supported by around 26,000 of them, who still retain confidence in the CPRF. Thus, at least 15,000 young communists might defect to Just Russia.

Zhukov’s speech at the SKM congress is quoted in Kommersant: “The CPRF is in decline. Russia doesn’t have a real Communist Party to serve as a point of reference for us.” Zhukov declared that there is “every reason” to cooperate with Just Russia, since this party is “focused on real action rather than demagoguery.”

Ruslan Khugayev, second secretary of the SKM Central Committee, told Gazeta: “We’re not merging into Just Russia. We’re retaining our identity and ideology, but in the areas where our interests coincide, we shall support Just Russia.” Proponents of the split argue that Just Russia is now upholding leftist ideals far more precisely than the CPRF, which has become mired in “endless stagnation.”

The pro-Zyuganov version of the SKM intends to go to court and challenge the validity of the August 20 congress. In an interview with Gazeta, Yuri Afonin said: “The same old team will gather at this congress – those who followed Zhukov to the Patriots of Russia party, and are now trying to shift to Just Russia. In effect, Zhukov doesn’t have the support of any regional branches – so no one is actually quitting the CPRF: not a single party member is attending that congress.”

Afonin told Kommersant that the SKM congress is “part of a campaign by Just Russia, aimed at sinking the CPRF.” He added: “Apparently, the Kremlin has told them to create some sort of controversy, to make everyone say that people are quitting the CPRF in favor of Just Russia. But there weren’t any CPRF members at that congress.”

Duma member Valery Rashkin (CPRF): “They’re usurpers – parasites on the real political battle, using the election for their own purposes! These people are simply seeking an income source for themselves.”

Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party’s youth wing, also believes there are financial considerations involved here: “Obviously, Just Russia is seeking to escalate its conflict with the CPRF. And it looks like Mironov is paying these SKM guys to provoke clashes among the communists.”

Gennadi Zyuganov, when forced to comment on the alleged split in the CPRF’s youth wing, told the Interfax news agency on August 21: “There is no split. This is merely yet another effort to use some people who haven’t been associated for the CPRF for a long time.”

Lenta.ru points out that “there are tough times ahead” for the CPRF, but “in taking all this action, the Kremlin might only achieve the opposite of what it intends – since a martyr image never hurts.”

But it seems that more effort will be required to gain the thorny crown of martyrdom. Nezavisimaya Gazeta observes that practically all of Just Russia’s recent events have been accompanied by accusations that United Russia is putting pressure on its rival. When some of Just Russia’s billboards were taken down in the Kursk region, Mironov described this as due to “administrative resources feeling afraid – sensing that their time is running out.”

Well-known singer Alexander Novikov, a member of Just Russia, performed in Yekaterinburg recently. The show was disrupted by a sudden power blackout. Lawmaker Yevgeny Roizman (Just Russia) claims that the Yekaterinburg municipal administration deliberately ordered the electricity to be switched off.

Just Russia’s summer camp for young people, in the Smolensk region, was also marked by controversy. The youth leaders reported that the Smolensk regional governor pressured the manager of the Prudok camp grounds into attempting to refuse permission for the camp to take place there.

All the same, the CPRF is confident that it has nothing to worry about. CPRF Central Committee Secretary Oleg Kulikov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “Mironov is a pillar of the Kremlin, and it would be unnatural for him to fight against himself.”

However, Kulikov does allow for the possibility that Just Russia may indeed have encountered some problems in the regions: “If you don an opposition mask, you should also put on the rest of the clothing. But the life of a real opposition party is very harsh, and we’re always under intense pressure. Apparently, Just Russia had been unprepared for that.”

But experts say that Just Russia may indeed be harder hit by administrative pressure than the CPRF. Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center: “Administrative resources are being used against both parties – but their use against the CPRF is mostly a matter of habit, while Just Russia’s situation is more complicated: intra-elite factions that support United Russia view Just Russia as their main rival.”

Just Russia is preparing a nasty surprise for the CPRF in 2008. According to RBC Daily, Just Russia is planning to rebrand itself, changing its name to the Russian Socialist Party (RSP). Sergei Mironov has promised that this won’t be merely a change of name; he predicts that by then, his party will have united all of Russia’s left-wing forces.

Just Russia spokesman Alexander Morozov told Gazeta that “Just Russia is a center of gravity for leftist forces.” He added that he welcomes the party’s new supporters from the SKM, and reported that Just Russia is holding cooperation talks with the Left Front – a coalition of left-wing youth groups.

Alexander Morozov: “Many members of communist organizations are disillusioned with the CPRF. Among them are many activists who are seeking contacts with Just Russia, and on our part, we welcome them.”

Novaya Gazeta observes that these “contacts” are rather like “the business joke about the Big Bad Wolf offering Little Red Riding Hood a choice: merger or takeover?”

Novaya Gazeta quotes Mironov’s prediction: due to “the abnormal position of CPRF leader” Gennadi Zyuganov, there is no question of a merger before the Duma election on December 2; but all this will happen straight after the election, “beneath our party’s banner with the sacred name of Justice.”

Novaya Gazeta comments: “So if they didn’t want to merge into the SSSR brand-name (Union of Socialist Forces of Russia), they can become part of the RSP by means of a takeover.”

Just Russia is planning to hold an eight-hour event on August 26 in all major cities: a form of primaries, with all like-minded people welcome to vote on whom they would like to see on their party’s candidate lists. Communists would have just as much right to a place in the top three as any unaffiliated person off the street. Novaya Gazeta observes that Just Russia is luring personnel from the bottom up, rather than from the top down, like United Russia.

The RBC Daily newspaper looks at the disadvantages of Just Russia’s impending name-change. According to RBC Daily, this will make things easier for Just Russia’s political opponents: socialism is more vulnerable to criticism than social justice.

“Social-democratic or socialist slogans mean political suicide in Russia – the demand for them just isn’t there,” says Mikhail Vinogradov, director of the Political Conjuncture Center. Vinogradov cites an example: the sad fate of the Socialist Party, headed by Ivan Rybkin. It got 1.39% of the vote in the Duma electon of 1995 (it was then called the Ivan Rybkin Bloc).

What’s more, says RBC Daily, the ambition to unite all left-wing forces beneath one socialist roof is probably utopian. But Mironov’s opponents will benefit from his unjustified ambitions. Vinogradov says: “The CPRF, for example, can only gain points by fighting socialists.” Fighting social justice is immeasurably more difficult – from the perspective of ordinary unsophisticated voters, at least.

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