A Thin Red Line in Russian Politics

Times Staff Writer

The Communist Party has always billed itself as the worker's party. Alexei Kondaurov, who is running for parliament on the Communist ticket, is no exception. He works five days a week as an executive of Yukos Oil Co., earning $629,556 a year.

Sergei Muravlenko also aspires to represent the Communists in parliament. Board chairman of Yukos until June, Muravlenko earns $10 million a year and owns a Porsche, a BMW and two Mercedeses.

Both men represent a party whose official platform calls for the renationalization of oil companies such as Yukos so their assets can be shared with all 145 million Russians.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Russian Communist Party is undergoing a face lift, to put it mildly. Faced with the prospect of winning fewer seats than at any time in its history, the party has made a major push to attract younger voters and recruit potentially lucrative support in the business community.

It would be hard to imagine figures less likely to win the affections of Communist voters than oligarchs, who probably are the most disliked figures in Russia. Yet businessmen such as Kondaurov undoubtedly see the Communists and their enduring popularity as the best horse to run against United Russia, the powerful pro-Kremlin party that has supported President Vladimir V. Putin's crackdown on the rich, powerful oligarchs who have dominated Russian politics since communism's collapse.

In fact, more than a quarter of the Communist candidates for the Dec. 7 parliamentary elections are businessmen -- some of them millionaires -- and there even has been talk of the country's richest man, imprisoned former Yukos Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, running for president on the Communist ticket.

"The world is open to the convergence of ideas. Now, it's difficult to say this is purely right, and this is purely left," Kondaurov said. "Those views that have the right to exist are those which most efficiently ensure the functioning of all the public institutions and the biggest well-being of the citizens."

The Communist Party, which for more than 70 years was synonymous with the government of the former Soviet Union, has remained a formidable opposition force in the years since the Soviet collapse. Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov almost defeated former President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1996; the party and its allies hold 132 seats in the 450-member lower house of parliament, the single biggest bloc in opposition to the Kremlin.

But times change. In recent years, Putin increasingly has won over voters wistful for the aura of international power and domestic law and order that were the Communists' stock in trade. The Communists, meanwhile, have come to be seen as the "party of pensioners," the refuge of wizened war veterans and babushkas who wave tattered hammer-and-sickle banners in Revolution Day parades.

Yet surveys repeatedly show that millions of Russians are impoverished, furious with the status quo and potentially receptive to promises -- like those of the Communists -- of higher wages, more corporate responsibility and the ethereal but enduring idea of "social justice."

Enter the capitalists. The presence of Kondaurov and other "red tycoons" on the ticket, analysts say, could well provide the deep pockets and pragmatic alliances needed to halt the Communist Party's slide and, together with other opposition forces, mount a credible challenge to the Kremlin.

"The very essence of our political setup lies in the fact that neither the left nor the right can become the majority," said Dmitry Furman, senior analyst with the Institute of Europe. "With Russian psychology and mentality it's very difficult, but the fact that an oligarch who is not chained by narrow party ideology acts to create such a bloc is absolutely normal and natural. They have decided to create new rules of the game."

A political bombshell hit this month, when Leonid Mayevsky, a member of the Communist faction until he was kicked out last week, revealed that he had brokered a meeting between a Communist Party leader and exiled oligarch Boris A. Berezovsky, a vigorous Putin opponent. The upshot, he said, was that the Britain-based billionaire began secretly funneling money to the party. Berezovsky and the party leadership have denied it.

Zyuganov, for his part, says the presence of millionaire businessmen on the party list is a marriage that makes sense.

"Are you suggesting we should not include a clever businessman who has proved himself?" he told journalists last month. "When I hear crocodile tears being shed ... over the purity of our party and its ideology, this is simply a joke."

But there has been an outcry among some of the rank and file over the idea of an alliance with a class that is believed to have plundered the nation's wealth and opened the door to exploitative ties with the West.

"Thirty percent of the party list is taken up by official millionaires. Is this the face of our party? Really?" Mayevsky said in an interview. "The natural question is: If these people come to the parliament, will they vote for measures like renationalization of natural resources monopolies, for which the Communist Party claims to be struggling?

"When you analyze the party list, you can't help but come to the conclusion that after privatizing our natural resources, industry and much of the military-industrial complexes, these tycoons decided to privatize the biggest opposition party in the country."

Less quick to criticize are some of the recruits younger than 25, who account for most of the party's new members. For many of them, ideology is less important than results.

"Rich people all have different positions and views. Many of them see that they have everything, and the people around them have nothing. We can't turn those people away if they wish to help us," said Alexei Fyodorov, a 20-year-old university student.

And why, wonders Vyacheslav A. Kuznetsov, a professor and party member since 1971, shouldn't the gravitation of business toward the left be greeted with optimism?

"Finally, entrepreneurs have realized that easy and quick money is not the ultimate goal in life," he said. Kuznetsov believes that many businessmen, like others, are disillusioned and convinced that the Communists are the only organization equipped to reverse the unemployment, alcoholism, intellectual emigration and national "drift" of the last 10 years.

"Even the pro-Kremlin parties admit today that 40 million Russian people live below the official poverty line, which is appalling," he said. "And almost everybody admits that the country's economy has been largely destroyed, and that today it survives only because the nation keeps selling its oil, natural gas, timber and metals abroad."

Even calls for the nationalization of companies such as Yukos usually involve talk of buying the company back, not seizing it -- an idea not even Kondaurov, who is not officially a party member though he's running on the ticket, rejects out of hand.

"I don't see anything terrible in those statements, even for Yukos," he said. "If they decide to renationalize this sphere, and they offer a good price for it, let them buy it out."

The Communists' risk, some analysts say, is that businessmen elected on the ticket may show different colors later. "They may well end up in a situation where they will have almost no real party members in their parliament faction," said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute for Globalization Studies. "And at the end of the year, Zyuganov will face a major crisis, facing active members who will be enraged with this result."

Viktor Peshkov, the party's leading strategist, said it is those who most fear the party who are predicting its demise. "A certain number of Russians go to sleep at night hoping in the morning to wake up and hear the news on the radio that the Communist Party does not exist anymore," he said. "And it is a fact that a lot of those people are close to the Kremlin."

In the end, it may be neither aging apparatchiks nor oligarchs who guarantee the survival of the Communist Party, but young recruits such as Fyodorov, who see the Communists as the only party capable of delivering "social justice" -- redistributing the vast wealth captured by the oligarchs, and restoring the sense of national pride that existed under the Soviet regime. Both seem important to a growing number of young Russians.

Armen Benyaminov, a 31-year-old doctoral candidate in economics who is running on the Communist ticket, has been hospitalized since Nov. 7, when he was roughly arrested for hoisting the old Soviet flag atop the parliament building. Benyaminov said his action was intended to protest the "illegal" dissolution of the Soviet Union and the "disintegration" that followed.

"Young people are drawn to the party because they begin to understand that you have to be principled, that you need to value your history," he said.

"I'll tell you, I was watching the film 'Armageddon.' I understand it's fiction, but they showed a Russian spaceman, drunk and unshaven, and he was a cosmonaut of the team that was the first in space. It hurt me," he said. "In the times of great Soviet power, Hollywood would hardly have dared to have put a cosmonaut in such a position."

The flag incident left him with bruises, a stomach injury and a concussion, but Benyaminov does not regret it. "I was standing there on the roof. I saw Red Square, I saw the Kremlin, and there was a red flag over my head. And the feeling, it was a feeling of complete happiness."

Benyaminov said party leaders have provided assurances that the Communists' new allies in the business world are friends -- even Muravlenko, the recent Yukos chairman. "My older colleagues have told me that he is a very honest and a good man," he said. "If these people were presented in a true light, then there is nothing to fear.

"If not, it means they deceived us. We will draw lessons from that."

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Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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