Russia's reformists look for `right man'

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The Independent Online
ALEXANDER LIVSHITS and Georgy Satarov, top aides to Boris Yeltsin, did not exactly sound upset when they appeared on Ekho Moskvy radio to discuss the Communists' sweeping victory in last week's parliamentary elections. In fact, they joshed and joked together with such Punch-and- Judy relish that one listener telephoned in to ask if they had not become hysterical - through panic.

Mr Livshits was indignant. In the past few years the President and his camp had been "in every kind of situation", he replied. "There is no way anyone can frighten us."

It was a bold bit of bluster, but one which few listeners can have been taken in by. The Kremlin will not have been surprised by the election results, which gave the Communists and their allies control of nearly half the seats in the State Duma, or lower house. But it is surely daunted by the prospect of a presidential election in June - a contest that will not only determine who leads Russia into the 21st century, but whether its democracy survives infancy.

The chief problem facing the supporters of reform is that they are split into factions, dominated by Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko and the government's Our Home Is Russia parties. If each runs its own candidates, there is a risk that none will get into the run-off in the presidential contest, leaving the path open for a showdown between two anti-reformers - for instance, a Communist and ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Despite appeals for unity - the latest coming from Yegor Gaidar, one of the founders of free market reforms - post-election recriminations have begun. On Friday the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, weighed into some of the administration's regional leaders for failing to deliver enough Our Home votes. "They don't deserve to be at our side," he rumbled.

The pro-reformers are, however, not alone. The Communist Party is enjoying the euphoria of victory, but it is riven by tensions between the orthodox hard-left and its more moderate pro-Western wing, which many expect to surface as the whiff of power grows stronger. These raise a question mark over the position of their current leader, Gennady Zyuganov.

Mr Zyuganov clearly believes that he played a strong personal role in mustering the Communist support and perceives himself as the natural candidate in the battle to winkle Mr Yeltsin out of the Kremlin. But he is disliked by a significant number of his party members - especially hardliners - who feel his podgy features and bland delivery (albeit with the requisite deep voice) are not particularly marketable to a wider audience, which may demand more than the vague mix of nostalgia and ideological bombast that propelled the Communists to parliamentary success.

He certainly is somewhat dull: the only eye-catching detail of his biographical resume (two children, loyal Soviet party apparatchik, from the Oryol region) is that, like several other portly, middle-aged Russian politicians (including Mr Yeltsin), he professes to love volleyball.

"His unequivocal leadership will be challenged by the conservatives saying that he is too Western, too influenced by the democrats, and that he should either change or leave," said Viktor Kremenyuk, an analyst with the US- Canada Trust. "Some think that he is clever, but not a man of sufficient stature to win votes from Russians. It is one of the strong traditions of the Communist Party that they want a popular, iron leader."

A list of steelier-looking (and less pink-tinted) leaders is already being mooted in political circles - pleasing the pro-reform camp, which would like nothing more than to see their own divisions reflected in the opposition, and whose activists fear that they may go into the presidential battle to fight a pan-left united front.

Among the most commonly mentioned names is Aman Tuleyev, head of the legislative assembly in southern Russia's Kemerevo region. A striking figure, with a sweep of black hair, he is seen as a populist rather than an ideologue, who is pragmatic enough to be able to bridge the divisions within his party. However, he has the drawback of being from Kazakhstan. Stalin was Georgian, but Communists still prefer their leaders to be of Russian stock.

There are other contenders - the veteran hardliner Pyotr Romanov, for instance, who wields considerable clout among the regional and industrial elite. But perhaps the most intriguing name being whispered in Moscow is that of Nikolai Ryzhkov, a former Soviet prime minister who spent six years as one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest associates.

Despite his connection with perestroika, Mr Ryzhkov - who was dubbed the "weeping Bolshevik" because of his emotional television addresses - has remained a national figure.

His advocates will be quick to point out that he has had invaluable campaign experience, coming second to Mr Yeltsin in the 1991 presidential election, with just under 17 per cent of the vote.

The Communists are expected to choose their candidate at a party congress in February, although the issue may already have been hammered out in secret by the party elite beforehand. Whatever happens, it will be of paramount importance. If a more awesome figure than the mild-mannered Mr Zyuganov does emerge, and can unite the party, then Mr Yeltsin's aides really will have the smiles wiped off their faces.