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Russia's Mouse That Roared

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov
The managed political scene in Russia is so moribund these days one can even hear a mouse roar. And that is what has happened in recent weeks, as the once-vaunted Communist Party has bared its little teeth.

Today's Communist Party of the Russian Federation is less than a shadow of the colossus that once stood astride the Soviet Union. It is, in fact, less than a shadow of the party that represented huge swaths of the electorate during the 1990s and would have captured the presidency from Boris Yeltsin in 1996 if not for the incumbent's shameless campaign of cheating and dirty tricks. But its faction of less than 60 in Russia's 450-seat Duma is the only one that is not directly choreographed from the Kremlin.

It is easy to mock the Communists, of course. Their complaints about unfair elections, the muzzling of the media, and the Kremlin's domination of public life have an ironic ring considering the party's Soviet past and its ongoing love affair with dictator Josef Stalin. But ironic criticisms can still be correct, and they can still sting the authorities.

Election Challenge

Interestingly, the party's greatest show of opposition comes in the form of its tenacious effort to have the results of last year's Duma elections annulled. The Russian Supreme Court is now in the tricky position of hearing the case, the facts of which are so overwhelmingly clear that only the greatest legal obfuscation and manipulation will produce the Kremlin's desired result.

With each decision -- including one on July 9 to reject the Communist Party's request to call Vladimir Putin to the stand to testify about his role in the vote -- the court makes a mockery of President Dmitry Medvedev's calls for an end to "legal nihilism" in Russia. The case demonstrates that Medvedev's entire power structure rests on a foundation of legal nihilism that cannot be challenged without grave consequences for the ruling elite.

Medvedev's high-profile commitment to combat corruption is another realm in which Communist Party commentary has not been welcome. Medvedev's chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, was charged with coming up with a roadmap to implementing Medvedev's anticorruption rhetoric, a roadmap that he handed to the president last month. But the plan is indirect and bureaucratic at best, a combination of new commissions, regulations, and training programs that all sound remarkably like every other anticorruption program the Kremlin has devised going back into the Soviet period.

"As a whole, the plan is based on a system of plans," Naryshkin told Medvedev helpfully. "In it, federal state organs and organs of state power on the regional level must devise and submit by November 1 their plans for combating corruption." It seems like an unconvincing effort to get at a problem that Medvedev has described as "a systemic problem" that requires a "systemic response."

Communist Anticorruption Plans

At a meeting between Medvedev and Duma faction representatives on July 12, the Communist Party plans to lay out its suggested anticorruption measures. According to party press statements in the run-up to the meeting, their plan includes the "systemic" measure of removing the president and the rest of the executive branch from all influence in the selection of judges and prosecutors. Instead, these positions should be filled by the Duma, chosen under a free and competitive election system, and the Federation Council, which should likewise be directly elected instead of appointed as it is now.

Again, the Communist Party proposals compellingly expose the half-heartedness of the Kremlin's prescriptions. In order for a managed system to work smoothly -- even in a hermetically sealed information environment like Russia -- the authorities need the freedom to be able to say that black is white without fear of contradiction.

With the party scoring points with some regularity, it is not surprising that talk has resurfaced that the Kremlin plans to clear the political landscape of all but two parties -- the right-leaning pro-Kremlin Unified Russia and the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia. The former is the giant of the scene, but A Just Russia has struggled, polling worse than the Communists in the last election and gaining mandates in the Duma only as a result of help from the Kremlin. Nonetheless, party leader Sergei Mironov had the audacity on election night to urge the Communist Party to merge with his co-opted political front.

As RFE/RL's Russian Service reports, A Just Russia is actively trying to merge with any leftist group it can. Mironov said recently he expects just five to seven parties to participate in the 2011 Duma elections, and would not be surprised if only two of them gain seats in the legislature.

Both Unified Russia and A Just Russia "take advantage of administrative resources," commentator Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL. "They both act with the blessing of the Kremlin and they, like children playing in a sandbox under the watchful eye of their parents, work out which one is more attractive to voters."

But as political observer Aleksandr Kynev told RFE/RL, "when someone comes in, someone must go out." By the next Duma elections, the mouse that roared may be swallowed up by one that knows how to hold its tongue.

Robert Coalson is commentary and analysis editor at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL