Heirs to Lenin grasp at victory

Russian election: Communists hail return of 'loving' party; world is not so sure
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The Independent Online
As he sat in front of an entire wall devoted to volumes of Lenin, overlooked by busts of the man himself, Valentin Vakulin had the air of someone enjoying feeling wanted and busy. For once, his ramshackle office was full of people, most of them elderly, filling envelopes and rifling through piles of campaign literature. For once, he had a full programme of meetings and speeches. For once, being a Communist politician was rewarding.

Like most of the 550,000 Party faithful in Russia, Mr Vakulin, who is running as a parliamentary candidate in the industrial city of Ivanovo, is optimistic. He believes when Russians go to the polls later this month, the Communists will lay the ghost of their post-Soviet collapse when the Party was banned and reviled. "More and more people are coming to us," he said, "They know we are the human, loving party".

They may do, but much of the rest of the world, from Russian reformers to Western officials, is less sure. Polls show the Communists are ahead and will win the most seats in elections to the Duma, or lower house, on 17 December. Intense interest focuses on the party's policies and, in particular, on its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, whom many believe will run for the presidency in June.

There are two views of Mr Zyuganov, a portly 51-year-old former apparatchik who used to work in the Soviet party's central committee's propaganda department. The backbone of his support are the elderly, who long for an end to economic chaos, look back wistfully on the days of fixed prices and warm to his promises of free health care, housing and education. Hetells them of the "quite liberal society" under Brezhnev, fantasises about rebuilding the Soviet Union, and condemns those who destroyed its giant administrative structure as "criminals".

The other Zyuganov is the one who hobnobs with Western businessmen and politicians. They get the "new" Communist agenda - a free press, freedom of worship and the continuation of privatisation, albeit it at a slower pace and sparing "strategic" industries, such as energy and transport, which would be state run. It was no coincidence that Mr Zyuganov welcomed the victory in Poland by a former Communist, Alexander Kwasniewski.

This mixed message has sown alarm among Russia's political elite. Some argue that the party is not a threat, because it is reformed and is unlikely to win overall control of the legislature, even if it forges an alliance with other left-wing or nationalist groups. One newspaper, Mos-kovsky Komsomolets, is so unconvinced by Mr Zyuganov's Communism that they claim the party is working covertly with "Our Home Is Russia", the government- backed centre party of the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomydrin.

The same voices argue that unstitching economic reforms would be no easy matter. Russia depends on the West for the sale of its raw materials and as its main creditor to heavily for it to turn its back on the outside world again, however much the Communists may like to. "Russia needs money. And lots of it," wrote Valery Solovei, of the Gorbachev Foundation in an assessment of Mr Zyuganov called "The Reluctant Capitalist". He wrote: "The country can only come by it through selling materials such as gas, oil, nonferrous metals and timber to the West, that is, by continuing the policies of the current Russian government, no matter how much the Communists may curse them."

Others predict doom. Yegor Gaidar, one of the first architects of Russia's reforms, himself head of a party in the election, has warned Russia's economic reforms could be "fully reversed" if the Communists come into power. Mikhail Krasnov, an aide to Boris Yeltsin, put it bluntly: "If Zyuganov comes to power, I will start looking for a cellar in which to hide my children."

This may be a trifle alarmist. Mr Zyuganov's party is riding on a crest of nostalgia which will serve him well in the elections. He has the advantage of a bigger party membership than his rivals and a network of volunteer party workers. But he may lack the stature to turn that success into a winning bid for the Kremlin. For all his popularity, many Russians still quake at the possibility of a return to the Soviet system.