Jason Corcoran in Moscow
At the age of 71, Gennady Zyuganov is showing signs of acting as a real opposition leader when he could be thinking of kicking back in Hanoi or Havana and regaling his comrades about wild parties he may have organised as a Komsomol leader in the 1960s.
The head of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has been a largely submissive and acquiescent political foe of President Vladimir Putin for the past 15 years. With the economy stagnating from its worst recession in six years, it appears the former maths teacher has decided to stick the boot in.
The CPRF said on December 8 it has been the only political party to back truckers fighting a new road toll in a protest stretching "from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and from Makhachkala to Novy Urengoy". The statement was made on the same day as Vadim Solovyov, a Communist Duma deputy and deputy head of the body's constitutional law committee, vowed to send sensational materials from an expose about Russia's prosecutor general Yuri Chaika to the Kremlin.
"The competent authorities should investigate," Solovyov said of a report by Putin-nemesis Alexei Navalny, which reveals how Chaika's two sons, family members and other prosecutors allegedly illegally privatised assets and improperly won state tenders. Chaika, who has held his office for nine years, called the accusations false and accused Navalny of following somebody's "order" to discredit him.
Vladimir Bessonov, another Communist deputy, had earlier said he intended to call Chaika to the Duma to ask him about Navalny's report. This jarred with comments by Zyuganov, who told the BBC Russia service on December 3 that there was no need to call Chaika and the materials had been provided to Navalny by the CIA.
Either Zyuganov has since changed his mind or his deputies are acting as outliers in a campaign to extract political capital from Putin's ruling United Russia party.
Zyuganov and the Communist Party's backing for the nation's truckers is much more clear-cut.
"People are outraged that their income - earned by hard work - is being pumped into the pockets of the oligarchs," Zyuganov said. "The roads are not being built or repaired and the tolls go to who knows where."
Russian truck drivers blockaded roads around Moscow and other cities in protest over the so-called Platon tax that is being collected by a private company owned by the Rotenberg family, close Putin allies, who take a reported 20% commission for their services.
Under the new toll system, drivers of trucks weighing over 12 tonnes must buy a tracking device and pay according to distance covered. A 1250-kilometre round trip between Moscow and St Petersburg reportedly costs an extra $33 and will rise to $66 next March, with drivers protesting that the new toll is about 10% of their revenue for each trip.
Truckers tried on the weekend of December 5 to converge on Moscow and to shut down the capital's 110-kilometre ring road after similar protests in other cities. The protest was stymied by police who managed to prevent a convoy from entering the city limits apart from 30 lorries who made it to an Ikea carpark in Khimiki, to the city's north.
The government has reacted to the protests by reducing the penalties for non-payment but steadfastly refuse to drop the toll. Russia's largely Kremlin-loyal parliament, meanwhile, is rushing to pass legislation to make such road protests illegal.
Zyuganov said his party will spearhead a campaign to abolish the toll and he hopes to help achieve that by organising an "All-Russian Congress" at the end of December to "represent and protect the interests of transport workers".
The truckers, who are largely small businessmen rather than working class, insist they not interested in being supported by the Communists or any political party. Navalny, the biggest thorn in Putin's side for the past five years with his series of revleations about Kremlin corruption, has also offered his support to the truckers.
Almost two decades after allegedly having the presidency stolen from him by country's first president Boris Yeltsin, it's hard to say what comrade Zyuganov is up to. As oil slides towards $30 a barrel and another budget becomes redundant, perhaps all social contracts that he had made with Putin's ruling party may simply have been torn up.