Twenty years after the peaceful split of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Russia has made significant gains in the Russian parliamentary elections and has doubled the share of its votes.
In the Sunday’s elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has returned to power with a slashed majority in the State Duma, lower house of the Russian Parliament. United Russia is likely to form a coalition government with Liberal Democrats who have got the third position.
However, the real victor in the 2011 elections is the Communist Party of Russia. It has bagged nearly 20 percent of the total vote. In some regions, the Communist Party has scored 25 percent of the vote.
Another socialist party, Fair Russia Party, got 13.2 percent of the national vote. Overall there was 15 to 20 percent shift towards parties on the Left and nearly half of the voters supported Leftist parties.
The total number of seats in the State Duma is 450 which are divided among parties on the basis of their share of vote. The parties must get at least seven percent of the national vote in order to have seats in the State Duma.
Based on this formula, in the new State Duma, United Russia will have around 238 seats down from 315, which it had got following the 2007 elections. The Communist Party will have 90 seats up from 57 seats that it had in the outgoing Duma.
Anti-Putin Western media seem jubilant. They are saying that Putin is losing control and is no longer Russia’s strong man. They claim that voters have rebuked Putin. Nevertheless, Western commentators do not acknowledge the fact that Russian voters have voted for Communists as an alternate option and not for a pro-Western party. Therefore Western rejoicing is pointless.
Vladimir Putin is still the most popular politician in Russia. During his 12 years in power he and his party have brought peace and economic stability. Also under his leadership Russia has emerged as a powerful state on the world stage. And the current Duma elections results show that the Russian public has faith in Putin, who is very likely to be elected Russia’s President again in March 2012.
Even so it is a fact that the share of United Russia Party vote has dropped. In 2007 Duma elections, United Russia had got nearly 64 percent of the total votes. Now it has got slightly under 50 percent of the votes and will have 77 fewer seats in the new State Duma.
In the last 20 years, new middle and upper middle classes have emerged in Russia. Putin’s liberal economic policies have been paying off and Russian economy boomed due to commodity exports. Russia has paid back almost all of its foreign debt. Many Russians have benefited from the economic opportunities and prosperity. Standard of living has improved so is the lifestyle of many Russians.
A large number of world’s superrich are Russians now. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of luxury houses, apartments, cars and high lifestyle. Average per month rent for a one-bed apartment in the Moscow city center is USD 1,000 and above. The price of an apartment of the same size is USD 250,000. And with an income of USD 5,000 per month a couple living in Moscow can hardly meet ends. This makes Moscow one of the most expensive and lavish cities in the world. Today Moscow is very different than what it looked like in the Soviet period. Many older Muscovites are not used to hassle and bustle of new life and feel stressed.
Russian economy largely depends on revenues from the exports of natural resources. Industrial sector is in decline since the end of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet times agriculture was strong and collective farming provided for all the population. The USSR was also sending food grains to its allies. However, after the end of collective farms and privatization of lands many people have given up farming and have sold their farms to property developers and real state investors.
Rural population has been migrating to Russia’s 35 major cities as economic opportunities shrank in rural areas. The migration to urban centers has caused social problems and life is getting tougher in cities.
People in villages and small towns feel hardships due to lack of economic opportunities and growing inequality. They have been paying the price of Russian transformation from a simple and virgin society to a complex and competitive Capitalist one.
A large number of Russians are middle-aged and elderly people and slow population growth is a problem in Russia. The majority of Russians grew up in the Soviet Union and benefited from a welfare system that offered free housing, education and healthcare. Jobs were guaranteed and secure in the Soviet Union and life of ordinary citizens was calm, peaceful and full of certainty.
The Communist Party had led the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and had created the Soviet Union but by 1991, the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) was considered a lethargic, bureaucratic and corrupt organization. It had lost the ability to lead the country and was suspended in the summer of 1991. Many Russians believed that the cause of their miseries and problems was the CPSU and its policies. After 1991, Communist Parties in many former Soviet States remained disillusioned, condemned and outcast. But as time passed and ruthlessness of Capitalism unfolded, many in the former Soviet Space, particularly in the Russian Federation felt nostalgic about the Soviet Union and Communist Party.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Russia re-invented itself and learnt from the mistakes of the CPSU. Its leader Gennady Zyuganov says that the new Communist Party is different than its Soviet predecessor. Now the Russian Communist Party is connected with people. It has become a voice of dissatisfied and discontent people, especially the elderly, pensioners and industrial workers.
One of Russia’s major problems is the steady drop in the population. Retirement age in the country is 60 years for men and 55 for women, which means that each year more people reach to retirement age and are not replaced by workforce. At the moment, the number of pensioners in Russia is about 25 percent of the workforce. It can double in the next 15 to 20 years.
Russia has allocated USD 45.7 billion to its pension fund. It is a big chunk of the country’s budget but despite the allocation of such an amount each pensioner gets just about USD 300 per month from the state. This amount is not enough to cover living costs as prices of food and utilities have been increasing. Russian winters are harsh and meeting living costs and coping with extreme cold in 300 U.S. dollars monthly pension is difficult for pensioners.
In this backdrop, the Communist Party promised free housing, free healthcare and free education for all. These slogans have been very attractive to people because not very long ago under the Communist Party rule everybody had such services and facilities for free. As the number of pensioners tend to grow, the vote base of the Communist Party of Russia is also likely to expand.
There are hundreds and thousands of industrial workers, engineers, technicians and other skilled people. They feel neglected and redundant because of an economy that relies on extracting natural resources and commodity exports. The Communist Party has addressed the concerns of industrial workers by saying that it will renationalize state institutions particularly energy sector and revenues from energy will go to a national fund that will be owned by the state. The Party also is addressing concerns of agriculture workers and the youth.
Many people in the Soviet Union did not like the atheist policies of the CPSU and its suppression of religion. The Communist Party of Russia has shed that image, too. The Party says that it accepts and respects faith and has been trying hard to build bridges with Orthodox Church.
Restoring the past glory of Russia has been strong campaign slogans of United Russia and the Communist Party. Untied Russia presents Vladimir Putin as a symbol of Russian pride. A man who has restored Russian honor and image due to his strong policies. The Communist Party, on the other hand, wants to bring back the power and prestige that Russia enjoyed during the Soviet time.
In the near future Communist Party is not likely to rule Russia but will remain the second major player in Russian politics and will influence the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
Shiraz Paracha is a journalist and analyst. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org