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Sterilizing KPRF Behind the Kremlin’s effort to rein in Russia’s increasingly unruly Communist Party

Source: Meduza
Evgeny Feldman

In 2021, Russia’s Communist Party managed to become a headache again for the Kremlin, reemerging as a genuine threat to the country’s ruling political party. The Communists staged protests, nominated unruly candidates for the State Duma, and opposed the government’s unpopular introduction of COVID-19 vaccine passports. In return, the party’s members have found themselves under felony investigation and at the center of attack pieces in the pro-government media. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev examines how the Kremlin and Russia’s security apparatus have targeted the Communist Party, and he explores what we know about President Putin’s thoughts on the campaign.

Valery Rashkin, Russia’s most notorious elk-murderer, isn’t the only Communist Party (KPRF) official now charged with a felony offense that could land him in prison. Last month, police in the Primorsky Krai arrested regional legislative assemblyman Artyom Samsonov, the head of KPRF’s Vladivostok branch, on charges of child molestation. (He maintains his innocence.) Like Rashkin in Moscow’s 2019 city council elections, Samsonov recently led the Communist Party to victory in his neck of the woods, vowing to do even better next year in Vladivostok’s elections.

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A source in one of KPRF’s steering committees told Meduza that the party lacks a “rigid leadership structure.” Instead, there are “a handful of influential groups,” and General Secretary Gennady Zyuganov “maneuvers between these groups and the Kremlin.” “For now, it works for everybody,” the source explained.

Several more people close to the Putin administration confirmed that there’s a coordinated campaign underway against KPRF. Russia’s law enforcement agencies and the Kremlin’s media apparatus are responsible for different aspects of this push. “The Communists have gone wild, and they need to pay,” explained one source close to United Russia’s leadership. Four people with ties to Putin’s domestic policy team said the president is unhappy with the Communists’ actions and knows about the campaign against the party, though he’s reportedly issued no specific instructions about how to proceed.

KPRF has crossed multiple red lines in Russian domestic politics in recent years. Prominent Communist members and regional branches have angered and worried the Putin administration by converging with the anti-Kremlin “non-systemic” opposition — notably Valery Rashkin and the party’s Moscow office. A source close to the Kremlin told Meduza that “Rashkin shot his elk back in 2019, not in November 2021,” referring to KPRF’s help registering 4,000 Navalny supporters to act as election monitors in city council voting. Apparently, the flood of independent observers overwhelmed the system put in place to assure victory for the government’s candidates, leading to a series of defeats.

This “encouraged protest voters” and caused further problems, down the road, said Meduza’s source.

A protest at Pushkin Square in Moscow on September 20, 2021
Evgeny Feldman / Meduza

In the aftermath of the September 2021 parliamentary elections, the Communist Party also sponsored peaceful protests in Moscow, after which the police later tracked down and arrested roughly 60 participants. As President Putin met with the leaders of the parties that won seats in the State Duma, Communists rallied in the streets to contest the election results. Zyuganov attended the meeting with Putin and even criticized e-voting and three-day elections. These actions exceeded what the Kremlin allows Russia’s “systemic opposition” to do during elections, said a source in the Kremlin.

The main purpose of the campaign against KPRF is to weaken the party’s popularity among voters, which hovered just 10 percent below United Russia’s approval score in a recent nationwide poll. The Putin administration is also keen to excise any Communist politicians who refuse to play by its rules. “It’s still a real, more or less independent party with influential groups in the leadership who can bargain and return favors [to the Kremlin], but the Communist Party isn’t completely under control,” said a source in the president’s office. For now, the Communists are being offered a chance to “repent,” a source in United Russia told Meduza.

The president’s domestic policy team nevertheless recognizes that it would be impractical to try to unseat KPRF as the country’s second most popular political party, considering the group’s improving ratings, which officials attribute to “high demand for the left agenda because of falling living standards.” According to two sources, the administration could instead install new leaders at KPRF who are “more loyal to the Kremlin.”

Gennady Zyuganov
Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

KPRF Central Committee Secretary and State Duma deputy Sergey Obukhov is quick to point out that the persecution of Communist politicians didn’t start in 2021. Party members like Vladimir Bessonov, Pavel Grudinin, and Nikolai Bondarenko all had problems with the law before this year. “First they crushed the nationalists, then Team Navalny, and now they’ve come for the Communists,” Obukhov told Meduza. “Their goal is to sterilize KPRF to the level of Just Russia,” he says, referring to the thoroughly neutered social-democratic political party.

Both Obukhov and political experts like Alexander Pozhalov say the difficulty of controlling the Communist Party puts it at odds with Kremlin domestic policy czar Sergey Kiriyenko, whose “corporate style” and “technocratic approach” cannot accommodate the unpredictability of Zyuganov’s successor, the party’s support among the anti-Putin opposition, or the radicalization of many Communists.

There’s a chance, too, that the police agencies tapped to prosecute KPRF’s rowdiest members are now driving the entire campaign against the party. “Back at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [in 1956], they promised that the security elites would never rule again,” says Obukhov. “If they’re running politics now, that’s scary.”

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Text by Andrey Pertsev

Summary by Kevin Rothrock