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A Thin Red Line in Russian Politics

Capitalist Communists are seeking seats in parliament. Even more remarkable, some in the party are embracing the idea.

November 27, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — 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.

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