By Boris Kagarlitsky and Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — In formal terms, the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), held here on April 19 and 20, was a triumph for party leader Gennady Zyuganov. The KPRF chief managed to avoid having to answer either for the loss of the presidential elections last year or for the more recent decision by the party leadership to back the passage of a state budget which even the government now admits was unrealistic.
Nor was Zyuganov called to account for the party's decision to endorse Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. In the concluding stages of the congress, Zyuganov was re-elected as general secretary with, he maintained, only one delegate voting against.
Zyuganov's triumph, however, was a victory for bureaucratic gagging and arm-twisting. In no sense was it an advance toward building a united, massive opposition to the Yeltsin regime.
This became clear in the week after the congress wound up. By the end of April the KPRF's political crisis had burst through the facade of unanimity: leaders of the Komsomol, the 21,000-strong Russian Communist Union of Youth, declared their organisation politically and organisationally independent of the party.
Zyuganov had, in fact, been under heavy criticism from left-wing elements of the KPRF for several months. Representatives of regional party organisations were particularly dissatisfied; this was evident from the fact that many Communist deputies elected from territorial constituencies defied party discipline and voted against the budget.
Virtually none of this dissatisfaction emerged during the congress. To guarantee its victory, the party leadership used a traditional apparatus tactic. Delegates who were thought likely to raise awkward questions were first "sifted out" at provincial conferences.
Then, almost all the dissenters who had nevertheless made it to the congress were blocked from speaking. Komsomol leader Igor Malyarov was denied the floor, and the gag on him was maintained despite protests from former Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and various KPRF provincial governors and deputies.
Only two dissenters managed to speak. The orthodox Stalinist Richard Kosolapov, in the best party traditions, asked to be taken off the Central Committee "for reasons of health".
Duma deputy Tatyana Astrakhankina delivered a vehement criticism of Zyuganov, condemning what she called his "pernicious policy of compromise" with the government. But few people heard Astrakhankina's views; she was given the floor on the morning of the second day of the congress, at a time when most of the delegates were not yet in the hall.
Known dissidents were kept off the new party Central Committee, elected during the congress. Malyarov and several other malcontents were simply not nominated.
Zyuganov could not ignore his critics completely. At the congress, his main response to discontent among the ranks was to call on KPRF members to turn out massively for anti-government demonstrations planned for May 1, for the May 9 Victory Day holiday and for the November 7 anniversary of the 1917 revolution.
With large numbers of the KPRF's worker and pensioner members living in semi-starvation, Zyuganov had no choice but to endorse these protests.
Any illusion that the party leaders were really seeking to lead mass struggles against the government's policies should have been dispelled in the days after the congress, when representatives of the KPRF Duma fraction met with Vice-Premier Anatoly Chubais to discuss amending the state budget.
Chubais was demanding further cuts to spending on social needs, health and education, while rejecting measures to support industry and agriculture. The Communist fraction agreed to most of his proposals.
Zyuganov and his colleagues do not designedly serve Chubais' goals. If the KPRF leaders fail to mount serious resistance to the government's attacks, it is because they have driven themselves into a strategic dead end.
Without experience of working with mass movements — and with little wish to work with them — the KPRF leaders are manifesting a grotesque case of parliamentary cretinism. Fearful of losing their Duma mandates and places in the committees, they accept any compromise so long as the dissolution of the parliament is avoided.
This submissiveness is undermining the KPRF's influence and reducing its chances should early elections be held. This in turn multiplies the party leaders' fear of elections and their weakness in the face of government pressures.
Ironically, pro-business news organs are often ready to point to the confusion and spinelessness of the supposed red menace.
"The gulf between the radicalising masses, who are demanding prompt improvements in their situation, and the mild, ineffectual actions of the KPRF leadership is creating a deep crisis in the left opposition", the newspaper Vek observed recently. "The truth is that the party apparatchiks ceased long ago to be professional revolutionaries. They are no less afraid of mass protest movements than are the present ruling elites."
For the KPRF leaders, the "triumph" at the congress is already looking more like the prelude to catastrophe. This has emerged from blunt statements by Komsomol representatives and other left opposition figures at a series of press conferences.
As reported by the English-language Moscow Tribune, Malyarov on April 29 insisted that the Komsomol had "an independent position", and was not "an appendage of the KPRF".
"The conflict is expected to grow", the Komsomol chief was quoted as saying.
At the same press conference, Anatoly Baranov, deputy editor-in-chief of the newspaper Pravda-5, attacked the KPRF for failing to oppose the government's strategies. "The official opposition, represented by Gennady Zyuganov, has lost its spirit and can no longer fulfil its function", Baranov said, adding that there had been "a serious split within the opposition".
The defection of the Komsomol is likely to prove crippling for the KPRF. Burdened with a reputation as a "party of pensioners", the KPRF has had little success in attracting new activists except via its youth wing. Now, the party's future is splitting away.
The main factors sending the Komsomol off on an independent track include the "national-patriotic" thinking which the KPRF leaders have enthusiastically embraced as their key weapon for ensuring electoral success.
Nationalist ideology, especially as formulated by Zyuganov and his colleagues, holds little appeal for most young Russians. Pensioners may feel nostalgic for Soviet times, but today's 20-year-olds cannot remember Brezhnev, and Stalin for them is ancient history.
Older people in Russia are often suspicious and resentful of foreign influences, but relatively few of the country's youth share these feelings. For those who do, the most natural course is not toward the Communists but towards fascist groups; there the nationalism is purer and the aesthetic more modern.
Young people ready to align themselves with the left are attracted by socialism, not by "state patriotism"; they want resolute political action, not parliamentarist moderation and incomprehensible behind-the-scenes deals with the government.
Malyarov's statements, in particular, have stirred indignation in the KPRF leadership. Late in April party ideologue Yury Belov, the author of an anti-Semitic pamphlet entitled Kuzma and Shylock, demanded that Malyarov be removed forthwith as head of the Komsomol. But even in St Petersburg, Belov's home town, a majority of Komsomol members solidarised with Malyarov.
A number of members of the left intelligentsia, including Anatoly Baranov and Boris Kagarlitsky, have declared their support for Malyarov and have joined with him in signing a set of "New April Theses". These are intended as a sort of minimum program for the revival of the left movement.
The New April Theses represent the third attempt since 1993 to create a left alternative. The first was made by non-Communist leftists in 1994, against a background of growing opportunism on the part of the KPRF. This effort failed because the socialist groups were not mature enough for a serious unification.
During the lead-up to the 1995 parliamentary elections, the KPRF leaders made a rhetorical turn to the left, encouraging leftists to hope that a "reformed" and "renewed" KPRF might become the main element in a broad united front. But as the KPRF leaders lost their hopes of taking control of the Kremlin, they lost interest not only in their allies on the left, but also in their own supporters and activists.