Communists cash in on reform row: Old guard sure they can undermine Yeltsin in Sunday's polls

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA'S Communists do not expect to win next Sunday's parliamentary elections, but they are confident that they will form one of the largest opposition groups in the 450-seat lower house. That would be no small achievement for a party that narrowly escaped a ban imposed by President Boris Yeltsin on extremist organisations after the October uprising against his rule.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the most direct heir to the former Soviet Communist Party, and it claims to have more than 500,000 members. Its leader is Gennady Zyuganov, 49, a former propaganda chief who combines an unredeemed faith in dialectical materialism with an appreciation of the need to smile on television.

Mr Zyuganov pitches his appeal largely at working-class voters angry at the hardships caused by three years of inconsistent economic reform. 'The slogan of the present government is, 'If you don't steal, you don't eat'. If the government's economic programme is imposed, we will have the Caucasus, only 10 times worse,' he said, referring to turmoil on Russia's southern border.

The Communists advocate a 'no' vote in the referendum on Mr Yeltsin's draft constitution that is also being held on Sunday. If voters heed their message, the elections will be invalid. The Communists appear to believe they will benefit from the resulting confusion.

Like their revamped sister parties in Eastern Europe, the Russian Communists speak the language of conservatism rather than revolution. They accuse Mr Yeltsin's government of deliberately stoking unemployment and inflation and pledge to replace the policy of privatising state industries with a 'planned market economy'.

This would mean government controls on prices and foreign trade, the indexation of wages to inflation and a system of self-management for enterprises that would probably translate into a high degree of state intervention in industry. The Communists would keep the land under state ownership but permit leasing to industrial and agricultural collectives.

The party also has a distinctly nationalist profile. Mr Zyuganov used to be a co- chairman of the National Salvation Front, an extremist group that Mr Yeltsin outlawed after the armed revolt at the Russian parliament building. The Communists do not officially recognise the dissolution of the Soviet Union and aim to form a federation with like-minded parties in former Soviet republics.

Yegor Gaidar, the mastermind behind Mr Yeltsin's economic reforms and the leader of the pro-presidential bloc, Russia's Choice, poured scorn on the suggestion that the Communists represented an electoral threat. 'The vast majority of the people do not want another socialist experiment in this century,' he said.

However, the Communists have forged a de facto alliance with another conservative party, the Agrarians, who are predicting a solid vote in rural constituencies for their programme of massive state support for agriculture. The Agrarians demonstrated their strength in October, when they collected 500,000 signatures in their campaign to be registered for the election. None of the other 12 parties and blocs attracted such support.

The Agrarians have a network of activists in the country's collective farms and are expected to perform well in conservative southern regions of European Russia. 'There are 40 million people in the villages and they are all ours,' said the party's leader, Mikhail Lapshin.

The Communists and Agrarians draw comfort from September's elections in Poland, which saw the former Communist left and a peasants' party inflict a heavy defeat on a government that had pursued radical economic reforms. They also hope to benefit from feuding and disarray in the ranks of Russia's Choice and other reformist blocs.

LONDON (Reuter) - Mikhail Gorbachev has given reluctant backing to the new constitution proposed by Mr Yeltsin. 'We've wasted a lot of time with political feuds,' he said. 'I will vote for the constitution, but on the understanding that this is a kind of public opinion survey and it is for (a new) parliament to complete the work.'

(Photograph omitted)