Russia's communists embrace democracy
Fred Weir in Moscow
Russia's ailing Communist Party has chosen a surprising late-life mission: to champion democracy against the encroachment of an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.
'We are ready to work with all who support multiparty politics, human rights and civic freedoms,' says Vladimir Kashin, deputy chairman of the party and a member of its dwindling parliamentary caucus. 'The Communist Party is the only organised force in Russia still able to stand up for people's power.'
President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys vast constitutional powers and an obedient two-thirds majority in the 450-seat Duma, has introduced sweeping measures in recent months to eliminate elections for regional governors, crack down on independent civil-society groups and ensure that only big Moscow-based parties can run for parliament.
A new law put before the Duma last week will condemn many small regional parties to oblivion by requiring any party to have a minimum of 50,000 members in more than half of Russia's 89 provinces before it can participate in elections. Only the Communist Party, with its disciplined bloc of 50 Duma deputies, has voted consistently against these measures.
During the summer, the party joined liberal groups to mount street demonstrations against Mr Putin's latest round of reforms, which cancelled health and housing benefits for war veterans.
Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama, an independent think-tank, says: 'The communists aren't an ideal instrument for defending democracy, but they're all we have right now. And I must admit that they're getting better at it.'
The party, founded by Vladimir Lenin in a smoke-filled London meeting hall a century ago, has enjoyed far greater historical success and a much longer lifespan than many would have predicted. Though the system ultimately failed, the communists at their peak commanded a mighty superpower that won converts worldwide and challenged the capitalist west for global supremacy. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia's communists defied rumours of their demise, and party leader Gennady Zyuganov even came within a hair's breadth of defeating Boris Yeltsin in the hard-fought 1996 presidential election.
But the party's most difficult trick may be its effort to reinvent itself as freedom's saviour.
Svyatoslav Kaspe, director of the independent Russian Public Policy Centre, says: 'The mere idea that a communist party can act as guarantor of democracy strikes me as absurd. Just because a dinosaur is desperately fighting for its life doesn't mean it has good intentions, or any future either.'
Mr Putin has undermined the party's traditional appeal by stealing its thunder. The Kremlin has imposed tough law and order, prosecuted wealthy oligarchs, reinstated old Soviet symbols and is trying to forge an economic union with ex-Soviet Union member Belarus and Ukraine.
The Communist Party, shaken by internal splits and the defections of several top leaders this year, has shrunk to fewer than 300,000 members, while the pro-Kremlin United Russia's ranks have swelled to almost a million.
Ilya Ponomaryov, leader of a communist-sponsored youth coalition, says: 'Putin is suffocating democracy, and creating a state led by the security services.'