The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, with 560,000 members and roughly 10 million voters, is one of the world’s largest non-governing communist parties. It is also the only opposition party represented in the Russian State Duma.

The CPRF held its 10th congress in Moscow July 3. During the congress an attack took place aimed at disrupting the proceedings and breaking up the party. It took the form of the convening of an “alternative” congress, spuriously validated by an “alternative” plenary meeting of a handful of central committee members, which obediently dismissed the party leadership – including its chairman, Gennady Zyuganov – and installed a new team.

The “alternative” CPRF chairman is Vladimir Tikhonov, governor of the Ivanovo region in European Russia and rarely thought of as a party heavyweight. Behind him stands Gennady Semigin, a multimillionaire who was recently expelled from the CPRF over allegations that he was trying to subvert it into a social democratic “loyal opposition.” And behind Semigin lurks Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Revealingly, the “alternative” congress was held at an undisclosed location, presumably in order to avoid embarrassment over how few delegates were in attendance – but it was still graced with the presence of “observers” from Putin’s Ministry of Justice. According to the CPRF, the “alternative” congress could have drawn no more than a fifth of the party’s duly elected delegates and therefore lacked any authority.

It is alleged that Semigin and others spent up to 60 million rubles ($2 million) a day on anti-Zyuganov publicity in the run-up to the congress.

There have been repeated suggestions that the Kremlin would like to promote the formation of a “patriotic-minded” social democratic party which could edge the CPRF out and play the role of a tame parliamentary opposition. The other interpretation is that Putin’s aim is to simply to destroy the CPRF. This seems more plausible.

This most recent stunt has been denounced by a string of high-profile CPRF members and supporters, including Nikolai Kharitonov, the 2004 presidential candidate, the editors of main opposition newspapers Sovietskaya Rossiya and Zavtra, Valentin Kuptsov, the party’s former deputy chairman, and veterans of the left-wing CPSU opposition in the Gorbachev era, including Starodubtsev, Lukianov and Ligachev.

The “alternativshchiks,” as the Semigin forces are now called, are petitioning the Ministry of Justice to decertify the real CPRF in favor of their “alternative.” Given that they have better friends in higher places than Zyuganov, it is quite possible that they will succeed. But this will be no more than a purely bureaucratic and legalistic victory. A series of regional CPRF conferences has overwhelmingly rejected this maneuver, with fewer than 10 per cent of party organizations backing calls for a change of leadership.

The real importance of this episode is in what it reveals about the modern Russian state. It’s clear that this is part of an elaborate, state-sponsored attack on the only real opposition party in the country.

The “alternative” congress was backed up with a wave of minor acts of sabotage directed against the CPRF. There was a mysterious power outage in the meeting hall during the congress, requiring Zyuganov to deliver his political report by flashlight in a hall with no functioning air conditioning. The CPRF and other left-wing web sites have been repeatedly attacked by hackers.

But the longer-term consequences for Russia’s communist left will, quite possibly, be positive. Zyuganov, correctly, is making no attempt to paper over the cracks or whine about “restoring party unity.” Tikhonov and Potapov have been quickly expelled from the party and others are likely to follow. The belief in the mainstream of the Russian left that there can be no reconciliation with the existing political system will probably be strengthened rather than weakened.

Zyuganov, addressing the CPRF congress, accused Semigin and his cronies of wanting to “deprive the party of its social-class character – in essence, to liquidate it as the representative of the oppressed masses and of the progressive tendencies of social development.”

The struggle for the future of the Russian communist movement is far from over.

– Excerpted from the Morning Star