Russia's politics are often as impenetrable as its gloomiest winter skies, but a pattern is emerging which strikes fear in the hearts of those who have supported (and in some cases made a fortune from) reforms. The Communists are working to create an alliance with other hard left and nationalist parties which would be a united front in next month's parliamentary elections.
Polls suggest that, if it comes to fruition, the front - ranging from the Agrarian Party to the Congress of Russian Communities led by the popular retired general, Alexander Lebed - would be likely to win the lion's share of seats in the next Dumar, or lower house.
In itself, this would probably not disrupt Russia's erratic march towards free markets and privatisation as Boris Yeltsin has ensured that its parliament is much less powerful than its president. What worries the alliance's opponents far more is that its electoral success will carry over into next June's presidential elections, propelling one of the bloc's leaders into the Kremlin. In the eyes of some, the shadow of tyranny once again stalks the country.
Members of the proposed alliance, though divided on many issues, agree that Russia's privatisation process has gone too far. If they swallow their differences and rally round one candidate, few doubt he would be tough to beat. "What is crucial is that the reformers get their act together," said the liberal Moscow Times, in an editorial calling on democrats to launch "a convincing campaign" focused on one candidate. "To fail to do so, and perhaps allow a new dictator into the Kremlin, would be unforgivable." And who might that potential "dictator" be? Among those with a strong chance, apart from the nationalist General Lebed, would be Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader.
Ever since polls began to show a sharp growth in communist support, analysts and Western diplomats have been struggling to get to grips with the enigmatic Mr Zyuganov and his policies. His supporters' views are easily grasped: Russians, particularly the elderly, are tired of rising prices, Mafia control, an unfed and shambolic army, miserable living conditions and wages that are measly and sometimes not paid at all. They want the return of a welfare state - health, housing, pensions.
But Mr Zyuganov, 51, is harder to read. His background is that of a communist thoroughbred: he served on the Soviet Party central committee, in the propaganda department, and is a founding member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which he now leads. With a membership of 550,000 and an efficient nationwide party organisation, he has a powerful machine at his disposal.
A stocky man whose stern features occasionally give way to a mischievous grin, Mr Zyuganov has spent the last few months trying to persuade the West that he's not a regressive Soviet die-hard, but the progressive moderate leader of a party whose top guns have an average age of 47. His diary reads like a guest list to an Ascot champagne reception, cluttered with meetings with American diplomats, executives from Toyota and European politicians. And his message is consistent: there should be no return to a centrally run economy and private property ownership should not be abolished although the state must re-establish control of the military- industrial complex, transport and energy. The welfare state needs rebuilding; Russia's epidemic of corruption must be crushed. He is a winning speech- maker, although not an orator, littering his script with jabs at Mr Yeltsin. "He is four times more powerful than Bill Clinton," he told a lunch of US businessmen in Moscow last month, to hearty laughter. "He has more powers than a Russian tsar, an Egyptian Pharaoh and the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party put together."
But, as they quaffed their wine, the Americans must have wondered if the communist was speaking with a forked tongue, saying one thing to the West and another to the party faithful. Some of his supporters are believed to be far less moderate, and far more traditional. The party has distributed a leaflet which talks about eliminating opportunities to acquire "unearned wealth" - a word often seen by Russians as synonymous with profit. Asked to explain this recently, Mr Zyuganov launched into a speech about cracking down on Mafia racketeering in Russia. But he did not answer the question.
While such suspicions live on, the pressure on the centre parties to find someone who has a chance of being elected president is growing. Mikhail Gorbachev has entered the fray, warning of "a radical left wing" which "calls us backwards to yesterday" and will amend the Russian constitution to give themselves more power, given half the chance.
The liberals and reformers have been squabbling for months but fate has finally smiled on them. Russia's electoral commission barred the country's most popular liberal party, Yabloko, over minor errors in their registration documents, a decision reversed yesterday. In the ensuing scandal, the party's leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, was able to present himself as the victim of sinister Kremlin machinations - giving him the best chance of becoming the standard bearer in a counter attack against the rise of the nationalist left.Reuse content