Russia braced for rising star of Communism

PHIL REEVES

Moscow

Several hundred American business executives will tomorrow convene in a Moscow hotel to listen to a man who not long ago would have been about as appealing to the average dyed-in-the-wool capitalist as the tax inspector. But these days few serious players in the new Russia would miss the chance to find out more about Gennady Zyuganov, the country's most powerful Communist.

Four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fortunes of once- reviled Communists are rising fast, so much so that they and their allies are widely expected to emerge as the strongest group in December's parliamentary elections.

Opinion surveys consistently place Mr Zyuganov's party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), in the lead, comfortably ahead of anyone associated with the unpopular Boris Yeltsin or his administration. This month, Communists swept the board in local elections to the central Russian city of Volgograd, grabbing almost all of the city council's seats. Even his political opponents admit that Mr Zyuganov is doing well; few would be surprised to see him running for president next year.

"People are anxious to hear what he has to say, and especially what his attitude to business will be," said Sean Wood, spokesman for the American Chamber of Commerce, which is billing the portly 51-year-old politician as their featured speaker at tomorrow's meeting. Such anxiety is understandable, as the record of Mr Zyuganov and his party is contradictory. On the one hand, he is seen as a moderate, who has gone to pains privately to convince the West that he has no serious plans to reverse Russia's move towards the free market and democracy. He occasionally quotes St Paul, and points out that religious belief is not an obstacle to party membership.

On the other hand, he was a member of the Soviet party central committee's propaganda department and is an ex-board member of the banned Den (The Day), an outspoken hardline newspaper with a record for occasional anti- Semitism. However moderate he may be, the CPRF still reportedly includes some unreconstructed Stalinists.

Nor do its policies look appetising to democratic palates: its brochures talk about reuniting the former Soviet Union - on a voluntary basis - and partially reversing privatisation. The party has more members (it claims 550,000) than any of its rivals, and has a functioning grassroots organisation. Its support is strongest among the elderly who, appalled by the soaring prices and declining living standards of the free market, are expected to vote in disproportionate numbers.

The prospect of a Communist resurgence last week prompted Yegor Gaidar, one of the original leaders of Russia's reforms, to issue a warning. Do not assume that Russians reforms are irreversible or that the Communists are benign, he said. "The party is shifting not from red to pink but from red to brown" - a reference to Mr Zyuganov's appeal to popular nationalist sentiments.

"If our Communist Party were a good, charming, reformist party of a social- democratic nature, which has embraced the market, private property and democracy, the free press, and a policy of peace, then I would not attach any importance to the elections," he said. "But it requires enormous ignorance to confuse our Communist Party with the reformist [ex-Communist] parties of Eastern Europe."

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