Russia's resurgent Communist Party tried to upstage Boris Yeltsin yesterday by nominating Gennady Zyuganov as its candidate for June's presidential election on the day Mr Yeltsin announced he would run for a second term.
The Communists' choice of Mr Zyuganov was more or less a foregone conclusion after the former philosophy teacher led them to victory in parliamentary elections in December. While Mr Yeltsin returned to his roots in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg to launch his campaign for the presidency, the Communists gathered for a special conference in Moscow. Various tiny far-left parties, including the Working Russia movement of Viktor Anpilov, had already indicated they were willing to sacrifice their own political ambitions to give Mr Zyuganov a better chance.
And so, after Valentin Kuptsov, a top Communist Party official, appealed to delegates to unite behind Mr Zyuganov, they nominated him without further ado. It was a show of political discipline which Russia's reformers can only envy. Liberals have deserted Mr Yeltsin because of the war in Chechnya but have so far been unable to find a common candidate to represent the democratic cause.
The architect of Russia's free-market reforms, the former prime minister Yegor Gaidar, is trying to persuade the governor of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov, to stand, while the leader of the Yabloko grouping, Gregori Yavlinsky, also has his sights on the Kremlin job. Before Mr Yeltsin made clear his intentions, Mr Gaidar said his candidacy would be a gift to the Communists, who have regained much support by protesting at the heavy social cost of the transition to capitalism. Yesterday Mr Zyuganov said he regarded Mr Yeltsin as a "weak rival".
The Communists are, however, looking over their shoulders at nationalist candidates, especially Vladimir Zhirinovsky. On Sunday Mr Zhirinovsky, who has in the past been photographed with busty models, launched his campaign by rededicating his 25-year marriage in an Orthodox church ceremony. His new slogan is: "Purity, order, safety and prosperity". Mr Zyuganov, 51, a social scientist from the agricultural region of Oryol, used to find it hard to compete with the outrageous Mr Zhirinovsky for the headlines. But his profile has become much higher since the parliamentary elections; indeed, all eyes are now on him as the presidential front-runner.
But many political analysts are asking: "Who is the real Zyuganov?" When he presents himself to Western business leaders, he offers the reassuring message that Communists have learnt from their mistakes and will retain the best aspects of reform. Yet when he addresses domestic audiences, he is far more orthodox. His book Beyond the Horizon used old-fashioned Marxist language to warn of "capitalist plots" and "Western hegemony".
This week Anatoly Chubais, the key economic reformer recently dropped by Mr Yeltsin, challenged Mr Zyuganov to clarify his policies in a television debate, but the Communist leader declined. Only time will reveal his exact shade of red.Reuse content