In Russia, the Navalny affair divides the Communist Party

Opposition politicians arrested for calling for participation in an unauthorized demonstration: the scene would be commonplace in Russia if its protagonists were not, this time, members of the Communist Party, a political formation whose loyalty to the Kremlin does not has never been denied since the coming to power of Vladimir Putin.

And yet: on February 19 in Penza, a town of 500,000 inhabitants a 10-hour drive from Moscow, the police took on three local party officials. As in several other regions of the country, they called to take to the streets, this Tuesday, February 23, for a traditional march celebrating the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland, to which would have been added a special message this year. “For the release of political prisoners and against repression”.

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These days, the country’s most famous political prisoner is named Alexei Navalny, and calls for his release have resulted in thousands of Russians being brutally arrested and being held in detention centers. Among them, activists, regional executives and even figures of the Communist Party.

A generational battle

When the opponent called on his supporters to take to the streets at the end of January, Guennadi Ziouganov, the indestructible leader of the Communist Party since 1993, had nevertheless assured: “Not a single Communist will support these provocations. “ He was quickly disowned by the former governor of the Irkutsk region, Sergei Levchenko, or by the deputy and head of the Moscow branch of the party, Valery Rashkin, who openly expressed their support for Alexeï Navalny.

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Some see it as the beginnings of a split, a potentially explosive event for what remains, on paper, the leading opposition party in the country, a political group with more than 160,000 members, and whose Soviet heritage remains. a major electoral asset. “We are more in a leadership battle between the old guard and the new generation” tempers Youliy Nisnevich, a political scientist at the Moscow School of Advanced Economic Studies. A younger and more radical base is struggling to tolerate the submission to the Kremlin that characterizes the politics of the Central Committee, the party’s governing body.

No open confrontation

But not to the point of openly revolting: faced with the authorities’ ban on organizing demonstrations on February 23 (officially due to the coronavirus epidemic), most regional branches of the Communist Party have thus announced simple meetings. with the voters, even the outright cancellation of the marches. “100% the opposition style of the Communist Party”, grince Youliy Nisnevich.

No frontal opposition, therefore, but a wind of exasperation that the Kremlin undoubtedly takes seriously. Already, in 2018, the popularity of the Communist presidential candidate, Pavel Groudinin, had taken the authorities by surprise, notes Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, director of the Russia / NIS Center at IFRI. Pavel Groudinin sees his popularity quickly collapse after violent attacks on state media that publish revelations about bank accounts in Switzerland that the politician is said to hold. A situation which, for Tatiana Kastouéva-Jean, illustrates well “This fear of the Kremlin of not being in control, of the crack in the dam which turns into a gaping hole and ends up taking everything away”.

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