Communist Kremlin hopeful looks to a new generation
NOVOMOSKOVSK, Russia (Reuters) - A flashy campaign advertisement sets the scene after Russia's presidential election: Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov steps out of a black Mercedes in front of the Kremlin, the seat of power since Soviet times.
After three failed attempts to win the presidency, the perennial loser of Russian politics is trying to convince the country once again to vote him into the top office in Sunday's election.
Addressing the frustration of many Russians who feel powerless to end Vladimir Putin's dominance, a voiceover in the advertisement asks: "No choice?"
"There is always a choice," it says, flashing to footage of the stern-faced Communist leader.
Zyuganov has fed off of the largest protests Putin has faced in his 12-year rule, seeking support from young voters who do not remember the Soviet Union or his past failures and simply refuse to vote for Putin's third term in office.
He says he is injecting new life into the ranks of a party which until recently has evoked images of poor pensioners nostalgic for the days of Soviet glory, waving red flags and clutching portraits of Stalin.
"We have the youngest, strongest and most dynamic team in the whole country," Zyuganov told a packed hall at a university in the small western city of Novomoskovsk, on St. Tatiana's Day, celebrated as student's day in Russia.
"And the youth stand behind us," said the 67-year-old former physics and mathematics teacher.
Zyuganov, who climbed the rungs of power as an apparatchik in the Soviet Union's Communist Party, is forecast by pollsters to come a distant second to Putin, who hopes to avoid a runoff by winning more than 50 percent of the vote.
He has to fight off his image as a pushover, a willing cog in Putin's political system who is satisfied with second place as long as he and his party retain a swathe of seats in parliament, where the Communists are the second-largest faction.
Zyuganov denies it. He says he was first cheated out of an election win in 1996, when an ailing President Boris Yeltsin staged a stunning comeback and beat him in a runoff after a campaign marred by corruption allegations.
The other three candidates challenging Putin face similar suspicions.
"Zyuganov himself wouldn't know what to do if he woke up on March 5 and found out that the country had made him Russia's new president," said one of his young advocates, also a lawmaker.
In a country that preserves Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin's body on show in a tomb outside the Kremlin but still struggles with the legacy of 70 years of Communist rule, the inroads Zyuganov has made with young people represent a sea change for a party that had seemed destined to die out with a generation.
WHITE RIBBONS, RED RIBBONS
Shivering in a light snow on a Sunday afternoon, Dmitry Usoltsev, 20, stood on Moscow's Garden Ring road with thousands of others protesting against Putin and his decision to return to the Kremlin.
Born the year after the Soviet Union collapsed, he said neither of his parents ever voted for the Communists, but for him, Zyuganov and his platform is the only way to reform.
"I want a system that isn't afraid of reforms and can carry them out. Putin can't do this because he's afraid," said Usoltsev, wearing a white ribbon - a symbol of the protests.
"In the current political climate, I'm voting for Zyuganov, because he actually has realistic and concrete measures that can reform the court system, the military, the education system,"
the law student said.
The biggest opposition protests in Putin's Russia were sparked after a December election gave Putin's United Russia party a parliamentary majority despite widespread allegations of electoral fraud.
Putin became prime minister in 2008 after eight years as president. Sunday's election is expected to see him return to the country's most powerful position.
Zyuganov says his party was cheated out of an election victory in the December 4 poll and he has aligned himself cautiously with the protesters. He has avoided participating in the protests themselves, but has joined their calls for a rerun of the December vote.
Sergei Udaltsov, a scrappy street protester who leads the Left Front opposition group, has publicly supported him.
The barrel-chested, bass-voiced Communist leader also inked a deal with one of the chief protest leaders, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, to take responsibility for thousands of citizens who have signed up to monitor the presidential election for fraud.
Not everyone, however, accepts the politician who has a bust of Lenin in his office and has published books on the achievements of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's brutal reign.
A SOVIET MIX
In Novomoskovsk, a city of 130,000 some 200 km (120 miles) south of Moscow, Zyuganov mixed a message of rejuvenation with rhetoric heavy on references to Soviet glory.
During the Soviet era, the city throve on chemical manufacturing and industrial farming.
With employment dropping and young people leaving for bigger cities to seek jobs, Novomoskovsk is a prime target for Zyuganov's efforts to win over part of Putin's provincial electorate.
Addressing students, he promised to nationalize Russia's oil and gas companies, reform the education system and spread more equally the vast wealth that many Russians believe to be concentrated among Putin's circle of friends.
The message holds an attraction for some who have never experienced the Soviet Union but have heard of the security it once provided.
"If Zyuganov wins he would increase production at factories, he will provide jobs. People wouldn't move to Moscow to find work if there were worthwhile jobs here," said Sergei Vasilkov, 21, a student at the institute.
"Our city is standing empty. There's no work. The young people are going to Moscow, and the only people who are left are pensioners and alcoholics, everyone else is gone."
(Reporting By Thomas Grove; Editing by Steve Gutterman)