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Russia: Communists Enjoy Organizational Advantage

As Russia prepares for Sunday's parliamentary elections, the Communist Party enjoys a unique advantage, which RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini saw first hand in a visit to the Krasnodar region. As in many other regions, the strength of an organized party structure, the endorsement of a charismatic and popular governor, as well as some local public relations efforts may put the communists ahead of rival parties.

Moscow, 17 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In Krasnodar, Russia's balmy agricultural south bathed by the Black Sea, the communists are convinced of a sure victory in Sunday's elections. Krasnodar, also called the Kuban region, is part of the "red belt" of Russia, so-called for it's established communist vote. Here, the vote for the left is rooted in the peasantry's traditional conservatism. The Russian Communist Party has both organizational strength and the regional executive's support -- a winning combination, most probably.

The Russian Communist Party's strength is less in the number than in the passion and discipline the local activists put into it. After a Cossack choir concert in Krasnodar on Wednesday, Gennady Zyuganov came to speak to a packed hall of several hundred people. Mikhail Glushenko, who is responsible for organizing campaigning in Krasnodar, also used this pre-electoral event to load the arms of eager communist babushki with propaganda leaflets. The old ladies then hand them out among neighbors on their block.

After obligatory words about the party's popular ideology, Glushenko admitted to RFE/RL that the communists' strength was in this smoothly working pyramid. Decisions are made in Moscow at the Central Committee, and almost effortlessly slide down to the primary organized group -- a minimum of three people, usually on one street or in one village.

According to other political parties, this makes the communists unbeatable on the level of grass-roots campaigning. Meanwhile, other parties like Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultra nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), admit they have to pay agitators 500 rubles a month to do similar door to door campaigning.

The head of the city of Krasnodar's reformist Yabloko organization, Yury Okulov, admits the need for a similar organization in order to counter the communists. But he says that for non-communists, there is an unwillingness to be part of a centrally run party structure. Okulov says it is therefore too soon to build real political parties comprising structure, unity, and discipline.

"Every Yabloko supporter wants us to get organized as a party quickly so that we become more united and stronger. But it's a slow process. Soviet power survived for a long time. If you take the whole existence of the CPSU -- around 100 years. People who were educated in that time, under the CPSU's reign as a powerful structure and powerful party now don't want to join such parties -- very harsh, very disciplined, where there was no other opinion than the boss's. The end of the eighties gave people the chance to think on their own, so no one wants to go into a structure [that reminds them of] the CPSU."

However Okulov says that Yabloko is trying to become a party step by step, recently introducing membership cards to make supporters more responsible and to give them a feeling of belonging. He says that is important because not only do many people sympathetic to Yabloko reject centralized discipline, they also fail to vote.

Okulov says that "traditionally the Russian intelligentsia was always very engaged in public affairs" but adds "it was also traditionally very good at talking but bad at doing". He says this is a trend that reformist parties have to change.

At LDPR headquarters, the mood was a lot more upbeat. Faithfully copying party leader Zhirinovsky's loud boasting, Vladimir Prosulov claims that "with 500,000 members and activists in every village" they are the only other real party. Prosulov describes the LDPR's tactics in imposing discipline and in terms of strategy and organization as resembling those of the communists.

"I think that for today the [LDPR's] direction chose the right way by favoring propaganda of the federal list [over single-mandate campaigning], and an effort to push the federal list over [the five per cent barrier]. And each single mandate candidate builds his own resources under this system. The biggest problem is financial. But on the other hand we manage to cover [our expenses] thanks to our structures which we have almost everywhere, in each district, in each village, and on each farm in Kuban."

Zyuganov's visit to Krasnodar included a two-hour meeting at the local Agricultural University with about 200 students. An organizer at the meeting told RFE/RL that the party needed to reach out to the younger generation to prepare future support, diplomatically explaining that they are trying to compensate for the present communist support, slowly dying of old age.

And it seems that Zyuganov made an effort in adapting his speech to the young audience. Stiff and a bit stuffy, Zyuganov's speeches have the rhythm of Central Committee reports. Public opinion polls show that his party's popularity rating highly outdistances popular support for Zyuganov himself.

Zyuganov tried hard, telling jokes. However, the students didn't seem convinced by his ideas. One student described Zyuganov as "a good old uncle, a patriot", but added he'd rather vote for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, because he is closer in age to the students.

However, in Krasnodar, the Communist Party has the support of Governor Nikolai Kondratenko and his "Fatherland" movement which they helped to create. In Russia's bureaucratic and centralized regional governments, the backing of the regional executive gives access and leverage in public institutions.

Also, Kondratenko is one of Russia's most charismatic politicians, exhibiting a messianic air. Kondratenko has become, since his election in 1996, a federal celebrity for his rhetoric combining fiery anti-semitic, racist speeches and exalting the Kuban Cossack and Russian traditions. According to Natalya Tutsenko, a local sociologist and deputy mayor of Krasnodar, Kondratenko won popularity in the Kuban when he froze prices at their Soviet level for a year while unbridled inflation discouraged Russians everywhere else.

However, despite all their assets in the Krasnodar region, the Communists might be running into trouble because of local disunity. Sergey Glotov, who had Kondratenko and the Communist Party's support for the past six years, is now running with the backing of many local communists for a competing patriotic and leftist bloc.

Tutsenko, the local sociologist and deputy mayor of Krasnodar, says that the communists might also lose supporters on the federal lists. She says that polls show that Krasnodar's conservative voters may be on the way to finding a new hero in Putin and vote for Unity, which Putin supports. Tutsenko says the trouble in Chechnya is on Krasnodar's doorstep -- people get kidnapped in broad daylight. She adds that "people see that Putin is doing something against it and here [in Krasnodar politics] are so often built on fear."