Zyuganov looks for scraps from his rival's table

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The Independent Online
In the end, the fiery red peril turned out to be a damp squib. Gennady Zyuganov, representing the Communist Party and a coalition of leftist and nationalist forces, suffered a presidential election defeat so comprehensive that his personal influence over Russian politics, and that of his party, is unlikely ever to be the same.

The Communists remain the single biggest faction in the State Duma (lower house of parliament), with one-third of the 450 seats, and can certainly continue their efforts to slow the pace of Boris Yeltsin's economic and administrative reforms. They may even be offered a couple of token ministries in the new Russian government, such as labour and social security, though Mr Yeltsin's real intention in making such a gesture could be to sow divisions in Communist ranks.

Under Mr Yeltsin's 1993 constitution the head of state's powers far exceed those of the legislature. Mr Yeltsin often ignores the Duma by ruling through the use of presidential decrees. The election result suggests that the future looks bleak for the Communists as long as they remain a party whose leaders and activists are mainly unreconstructed conservatives from the Soviet era. Mr Zyuganov's electoral base, though solid, consisted of pensioners, rural voters, Communist stalwarts and Russians hit hard by Mr Yeltsin's market-based reforms - all constituencies destined to shrink in future.

Whereas Mr Yeltsin increased his first-round support from 26.7 million voters to 38.9 million in Wednesday's second round, Mr Zyuganov's vote went up only marginally, from 24.2 million to 29.3 million. "It appears that the Communists got out all their electorate in the first round and had little left for expansion," said Dmitri Oreshkin, an analyst at Russia's Central Election Commission.

Mr Zyuganov defeated Mr Yeltsin in the conservative "Red Belt" area stretching from Tambov and Voronezh, south of Moscow, to Siberian regions such as Novosibirsk, Omsk and the restless coal-mining area of Kemerovo. But even here his margins of victory were narrow, and in forward-looking cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg he was hopelessly crushed, a trend that suggests the longer Mr Yeltsin's economic reforms are given to work, the smaller the scope for Communist electoral success.

The Communists' abiding strengths are their nationwide organisation, internal discipline and loyal membership, features largely absent from the inchoate parties that fill the rest of Russia's political spectrum.

Yet the ideological conservatism of the Communists is likely to prove an increasingly serious handicap, for every test of Russian public opinion since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 has shown that there is no majority for Soviet-style government. Russia's Communists are a different breed to the ex-Communists who have returned to power in Poland and Hungary since 1993. The latter came largely from the reformist wings of their former Communist parties and adopted a version of Western European-style social democracy, whereas Mr Zyuganov and his comrades led the fight against Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms in the Eighties. Many Communists are barely reconciled to the Soviet Union's demise, and there is also a strong Russian nationalist tinge to their ideology.

But Mr Zyuganov's extremism can be exaggerated. His economic proposals contained no mention of five-year plans or a return to the command economy. Still, many voters were susceptible to the Yeltsin camp's message, drummed home through the mainly pro-Yeltsin media, that Mr Zyuganov had only a superficial commitment to democracy and a mixed economy. Mr Zyuganov might have performed better had not the Russian media suppressed or distorted his message in what was perhaps the major blemish of the election. "If we'd had [that] kind of force on our side ... there would have been no defeat," said Anatoly Lukyanov, the Communist former head of the Soviet parliament.