A little over a year ago, while on sabbatical from the American university where I teach, I returned to my hometown, Moscow. I didn’t exactly arrive in a bastion of free speech. But it was a place where some freedom still remained. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny traveled around the country, attempting to muster support for politicians who were not under the Kremlin’s thumb. Popular protests took place. Independent NGOs operated in the country. Journalists and analysts did not necessarily toe the Kremlin line. And the Communist Party was widely viewed as a relic of the past.
Since then, Navalny has been imprisoned, and the protest movement he mobilized has been crushed. His anti-corruption foundation has been outlawed for «extremism,» and its members are under investigation or in exile. Virtually every day, another journalist, media outlet, human-rights advocate, or independent organization is listed as a «foreign agent» or – worse – an «undesirable.»
Russia’s descent into unfreedom over the last year was steep, but not far. For example, the law under which the foreign-agent designations were made was enacted in 2012, with the aim of disrupting or discrediting organizations or people engaging in «political activity» while receiving funding from abroad.
The Kremlin’s only real opposition
But the law’s application has become increasingly arbitrary, to the point that a re-tweet is now grounds for being branded a foreign agent. (The «undesirable» label gets you outlawed altogether.) This year alone, a record 101 entities have been added to the list of foreign agents. The total of 359 includes 88 media-related individuals and organizations.
According to the Russian government, these «agents» must be listed, because they «influence state politics.» Influencing politics is of course a core purpose of both journalism and advocacy work. And that’s the problem: Though President Vladimir Putin has positioned himself to remain in control of Russian politics for the foreseeable future, he views criticism as an existential threat.
Amid all this silencing and persecution, an unlikely group has survived and become the Kremlin’s only real opposition: the Communist Party. Thanks largely to Navalny’s «smart voting» strategy – whereby voters are urged to support whoever has the best chance of beating a Kremlin-backed candidate – Communists performed strongly in last month’s parliamentary and regional elections.
Not the Communist Party of old
Officially, Communist Party candidates took 18.9% of the popular vote for the State Duma (parliament), compared to nearly 49.8% for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. But the Communists refused to recognize the results, insisting that the vote was rigged. And, indeed, some experts estimate that they should have gotten around 30% of the vote, with United Russia taking about 35%.
It seems that, for many Russians, Communists are now more respectable than Putin. But this is not the Communist Party of old. Far from denying themselves all earthly pleasures, Party members can be seen wearing fur coats, traveling abroad, driving foreign cars, and using social media. Some – like the charismatic farming executive Pavel Grudinin (who was barred from running in last month’s election) – are millionaires. And while the party is still led by the 77-year-old Gennady Zyuganov, it is increasingly supported – and shaped – by younger members.
Consider Nikolai Bondarenko. Nicknamed the «Red Navalny,» the 36-year-old Bondarenko was highly critical of the poorly designed pension reform of 2018. More recently, when a regional minister suggested that Russians should be able to «eat well» on a measly 3,500 rubles ($50) per month, Bondarenko documented his efforts to prove her wrong on his YouTube channel.
The «united Russia» that can stand up to Putin’s United Russia
Despite threats to bar him from elections, Bondarenko was allowed to run in last month’s State Duma election. Despite the support of Navalny’s smart-voting system, he lost to the United Russia candidate. But his potential should not be dismissed: he recently headlined a protest, in which he accused United Russia of a «state and government takeover.»
Then there is the 43-year-old Anastasia Udaltsova. Like Bondarenko, she improbably lost the last election. But she remains highly – and increasingly – popular. Yet another rising star, the elegant Ekaterina Engalycheva, was elected to the Moscow City Duma in 2019, thanks to smart voting.
Somewhat ironically, the Communist Party’s modern makeover reflects a yearning for the past: in 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks promised justice and equality, delivered by a state that, while strict, was merciful and just. Moreover, like the liberal Navalny, today’s Communists represent a vision of predictability and consistency, in which people are not subject to the whims of one man. It is based on this logic that all opponents of the Kremlin are increasingly joining forces: this is the «united Russia» that can stand up to Putin’s United Russia.
Czech Republic and Hungary as role models
This approach is not exclusive to Russia. In the Czech Republic’s recent parliamentary elections, Andrej Babiš – also known as the Czech Donald Trump – was unseated as prime minister, because a coalition of opposition groups put aside their ideological differences to form the Together Coalition, whose leader, Petr Fiala, will likely head the new government, along with another opposition coalition. As Fiala put it, «People were fed up with the populist» and wanted «normal, competent, and decent politics.» Hungary’s opposition, too, is fielding a unity candidate for prime minister in next year’s parliamentary election, as well as a single electoral list.
Of course, the Czech Republic is still a democracy, so Babiš is preparing to move into opposition. Unseating Putin will be far more difficult, and more sweeping measures aimed at crushing the Communist Party can be expected. But this approach also carries its own risks for the Kremlin. The fact that the president is claiming that Russian democracy «hasn’t died,» pointing to the country’s «lively opposition» as proof, shows that he has an interest in at least pretending not to have led Russia to near-totalitarianism.
Putin says he just wants stability. But his regime is pushing Russia toward greater instability. If the Kremlin drives the Communist Party underground by devising and implementing rules capriciously, as it has done to Russia’s liberals, the risk of a social explosion will grow. And if it decides against repression, Russia’s Communists – yes, the Communists – could become a force to be reckoned with.
Copyright: Project Syndicate.