On the Left...

Though a complete return to the Soviet Union is favored by few Russians, many remain nostalgic about its extensive social provisions. Russia has three far-Left parties in active competition for their votes.
The Communists

"The nation is increasingly leaning to the left and getting redder." Repetition of this stock phrase of Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is likely to make people in Russia yawn. He has been saying it for seven years now. Judging by past elections campaigns, he may continue repeating it for years to come.

Public opinion polls show the vast majority of the population in Russia does not want a return to the Soviet Union. However, the same majority demands that all Soviet social benefits should immediately be reinstated - free medical care, free education, cheap transport, one hundred percent employment, decent pensions, and above all, confidence in the future. Regardless of differences in presentation, these are the values that lie at the heart of the left wing in Russia. In order to attract and keep the voters on their side, all parties have to play on the left.

Even United Russia, which holds a stranglehold majority in parliament, feels unable to ignore the left. Trying to keep pace with its rivals, it has devoted about a third of its manifesto to detailed explanations of its social policy, which boils down to the maximum possible increase in payments to those most likely to vote - retirees and public sector employees, particularly teachers, doctors and government workers.

In this context, traditional left-wing parties find themselves under increasing pressure on what should be their home turf, and are constantly obliged to reinvent themselves. As a result, some of the most modern methods of political struggle are being pioneered in unlikely quarters. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was the first to conduct alternative vote counts at polling stations, and was also one of the first Russian parties to go online; to this day its website is a paradigm of quality and user friendliness. Though the party officially criticizes the existing laws and the Constitution, it has made ample use of both, winning lawsuits in regional courts and in the Constitutional Court.

Despite 16 years of capitalism in Russia, many members of the party still have not accepted the legalization of private property. On the other hand, in the run-up to the December 2 Duma elections, the party has laid out in detail its attitude to consumer credit. It transpires that the Communists have been the only ones to react promptly to the wave of consumer credit and mortgages that has swept Russia in the last two or three years.

Modern Communists are church-goers; they are upholding the interests of the Orthodox religion in parliament and some are personal friends of the Patriarch. Their status as the official opposition has allowed the Communist Party to split, marginalize or assimilate their left-wing rivals that are supporting the same ideas. They may not have been on speaking terms with Zyuganov for many years, but on November 7, the anniversary of the October revolution, the party is always happy to include a handful of its dogmatic soul-mates in its march down Tverskaya, Moscow's main street.

The Agrarians

Incidentally, there is one exception to the rule - the Agrarian Party of Russia (APR) continues to defy the communist monopoly on the left-wing vote. Though the majority of Russians live in cities, more than half of them go to the country every weekend to visit their dachas - which are much closer to traditional peasant homes than real commercial agricultural farms. You could be talking to your acquaintance about the weather in a five-star hotel in the center of Moscow, and he or she will sincerely complain that the winter was too warm for the autumn sowing and could harm the potato harvest, although he or she has nothing to do with agriculture.

This is more than a habit - it is a lifestyle. This is why the APR is one of the oldest Russian parties. It is strongly represented in regional parliaments and has always had several federal deputies. It is led by Vladimir Plotnikov, who was born in the village of Gusevka in the Volga steppes of southern Russia and has been directly involved in agriculture all his life. A devout agronomist, he spent most of his life in the fields and left them only when elected to the State Duma.

The rural population is still the poorest in Russia, and recalls the Soviet welfare system even more fondly than others. Communist and Agrarian policymakers are permanently competing for the rural vote. Nikolai Kharitonov, a former APR member, is a living symbol of this competition. He was elected to the Duma on the Communist list, and it was the Communist Party that nominated him as its candidate at the previous presidential elections. But many are skeptical about the APR's chances of overcoming the 7 percent eligibility threshold, and this year Kharitonov defected from the APR and was again entered on the Communist list. On the other hand, Vasily Shandybin, who is lucky enough to look like a real Bolshevik, was displeased with his status in the Communist Party and defected the other way. Such changes take place in these parties every election season.

The Patriots

Perhaps the most unlikely of candidates in the Duma elections are those from the Patriots of Russia Party. This party emerged as a result of a split with the Communist Party in 2004. The rebels left because they either could not accept Zyuganov or wanted a faster transformation to a Social Democratic party. Zyuganov and his supporters are more cautious about this process, believing that the Russian middle class is as yet too small to support a center-left party. Headed by Gennady Semigin (one of the few Duma deputies to officially admitted being a millionaire), tried to establish their own party - the Patriots of Russia. It attracted members from numerous smaller parties and during the elections they were joined by policymakers from the unregistered Great Russia party, with an established reputation as nationalist. They have no chance of getting into the Duma and they have not achieved much at regional elections. This is essentially a party of one man, who wants to be a leader. This is not uncommon for Russia, either. -



Gennady ZYUGANOV

63, Russia's Communist party leader, the head of its parliamentary group. MA in physics and mathematics from the Oryol Teachers Training Institute. In 1967 began his career as a full-time CPSU official, worked in the "ideology" department of the Central Committee. In 1993 was elected Chairman of the party's Central Executive Committee.


Vladimir PLOTNIKOV

45, Russia's Agrarian Party leader, Deputy chairman of the Committee on Agrarian Policy in the State Duma. MA in Agronomy. Worked at a local state farm as agronomist and deputy director. In 2005 was elected President of the Association of Agricultural Farms and Cooperatives of Russia. Until 2003 was the captain of the State Duma soccer team.

Gennady SEMIGIN

46, Russian Patriots party leader, State Duma deputy. Ph.D. in Politics, received MA in Law and Economics. Qualified bank economist specializing in international financial currency operations. In 1991 founded the Russian Financial Industrial Group, uniting several private companies. Expert in martial arts, one-time U.S.S.R. champion in karate (1982).

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