... or a man whose past is too well known

Yeltsin v Zyuganov: Run-off for Russian presidency pits sick reformist against shady apparatchik
Although he is unlikely to win today's election, millions of Russians will troop to the polls today to support Gennady Zyuganov in the hope of bringing about the first peaceful transfer of the leader's power in 1,000 years.

For many, their vote will reflect a heartfelt desire to return to the certainties of the Soviet Union after seeing their livelihoods shrivel while watching a small, frequently criminal, minority cash in on the riches of the free market reforms brought about under President Boris Yeltsin.

But whether Mr Zyuganov, leader of a Communist-nationalist bloc, would fulfil their dream is about as clear as the muddy waters of the Moscow River. To the old guard - the poor, elderly and dispossessed - he represents the party that used to protect them. But to others, he stands for quite different values.

The portly Mr Zyuganov, 52, likes to boast that he is a volleyball player, but he reserves his best footwork for the political arena. In the last few weeks, anxious to expand his core support of about 25 million votes, he has presented himself as a moderate who is keen to cobble together a coalition.

His economic plans have more to do with nationalism than Communism. He wants more state investment in industry, higher import tariffs, some fixed prices, tighter controls on foreign loans and better welfare. But he also accepts a mixed economy, in which private enterprise flourishes.

A key question from the West's point of view, is whether he can be trusted if he comes to power. His record is that of a pragmatic apparatchik, more interested in power than ideology, who has some alarming entries on his curriculum vitae.

His signature was among those on the infamous "A Word of Warning to the People", an open letter that heralded the coup in 1991 by hardliners opposed to Mikhail Gorbachev.

He has moved in extreme nationalist circles, and utters vigorously anti-western views (though that is true of most Russian politicians). His entourage undoubtably includes some hardliners from the Communist and nationalist camps.

Mr Zyuganov has been criticised for fighting a lacklustre campaign, although he perked up in the closing few days, summoning the cameras to watch him dance at a Moscow night club and trying to win over Russia's religious faithful by hobnobbing with the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Alexy II, a Yeltsin supporter.

It is true that he has used few of the Western-style techniques deployed by the Yeltsin campaign, who have used just about every trick in the book - from television commercials depicting the food shortages under Communism or the violence of the 1917 revolution, to homely interviews with the President's wife, Naina.

Somewhat mysteriously, Mr Zyuganov stopped touring the country after the first round on 16 June, in which he trailed Mr Yeltsin by about 3 per cent. But his tours were usually fairly dull affairs, in which he travelled from city to city by train delivering much the same speech. That said, Mr Zyuganov's Communist-nationalist workers have been extremely active in the regions, from where the bloc draws the bulk of its support.

Their task was hampered by the huge advantage enjoyed by Mr Yeltsin as the incumbent President. Until his disappearance last week, officially due to a sore throat, Mr Yeltsin dominated the air waves and used his presidential powers to pass laws by decree. These included a stack of blatant electioneering measures granting money to a disgruntled electorate. Yesterday, when campaigning was officially banned, the President was still at it, firing off laws regulating the stock market.

Mr Zyuganov has largely had to rely on pro-Communist newspapers to get his message across. Today will tell whether that has paid off. The polls, never to be entirely trusted in Russia, suggest it will not. But politics is unpredictable here - as the dramatic rise of Alexander Lebed and the exodus of four top Kremlin hawks illustrated over the last fortnight. If election-weary Russians decide to spend today's holiday in the country, and the turn-out drops below 60 per cent, the Communist leader may squeeze in.