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Russia's Communist Party marks 10-year anniversary in hushed tones
February 13, 2003

"The party is dying." Or so thought top Russian leftists Thursday as they marked the 10-year anniversary of a post-Soviet revival of the grand old Communist Party after its brief ban by former president Boris Yeltsin.

Russia's Communists remain an enigmatic force on the eve of parliamentary elections in December. They are the country's largest party but a marginal power in government decision-making. Their leader Gennady Zyuganov lacks charisma but wields ultimate control within party ranks even though his presidential ambitions are unlikely to ever bear fruit.

And they have been abandoned by some of their high-profile figures amid endless backbiting among party elite.

"The party is dying," said Gennady Seleznyov, speaker of the State Duma lower house of parliament who was forced to break ranks with the Communists after having an ugly falling out with Zyuganov over leadership posts last year.

Some analyst think Seleznyov may be bitter about the experience. But few disagree with his assessment of the Communists' failing success.

Ten years ago we saw "a remarkable renaissance of the party and it had a chance to turn into a good leftist alternative," said Seleznyov.

But he accused Zyuganov of spending the years "making grand pronouncements and refusing to cooperate with the authorities."

Yeltsin banned the Communists following the failed August 1991 hardline putsch and it was up Zyuganov -- until then a low-level party member in charge of "agitation" within party ranks -- to reform the Soviet era monolith.

He did so by adopting most of the same old Soviet slogans and painting the Communists into an uncompromising opposition corner to market policy -- a stance that scored well in the first tumultuous years of reforms.

"The party has survived great travails over the past 10 years. They tried to scare us and to buy us off but failed," Zyuganov told reporters on Wednesday.

But things turned sour following President Vladimir Putin's rise to power three years ago.

The left lost its stranglehold on parliament and is easily outvoted by the pro-government block. And powerful regional bosses that once took on party membership have since switched to the more politically-lucrative pro-Putin bloc.

Worse still -- as Zyuganov, 58, was forced to admit Thursday -- the average age of a Russian Communist Party member is now more than 55.

"One of our main goals is to secure a quick rejuvenation of our party ranks," said Zyuganov.

The Communists remain optimistic in public.

"The party has a future!" the official Communist Party Internet site announced in commemoration of the 10-year birthday.

"In the past five years, we have held two congresses, four party congresses and 159 meetings of the presidium," the party reported.

But this may be their very problem: Analysts say the aging leftist faction is largely perceived in public as a group of graying bureaucrats who sit around rehashing the old Soviet mantra.

Zyuganov currently enjoys a 14-percent rating among voters compared to Putin's 45 percent.

A poll run by the Public Opinion Foundation found that only 25 percent of those questioned thought life would improve if Communists had more power.

Zyuganov's group however leads the way with 24 percent of the respondents telling the VTsIOM polling agency they would support the Communists in the December parliamentary elections compared to only 14 percent backing the United Russia group that backs the Kremlin.

"The Communists have lots of party members but few people in powerful posts," observed Sergei Korgunyuk of the INDEM political research institute.

"If they have a poor showing in December there will be serious trouble -- the party will break apart," he warned.

Korgunyuk suggested that the Communists survived the 1990s on "momentum" it had gained in the Soviet era.

"Now there is no advantage in being a Communist," the analyst said. "They will probably not last very long."

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