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Zyuganov's surprise visit has Germans on defensive

The entire German government went underground yesterday as Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist who wants to be Russia's new leader, swept into Bonn on a visit that dared not speak its name. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, feigned to know nothing of the "private" trip, arranged in haste by the German Foreign Policy Society, a body partly funded by the government.

Mr Zyuganov's sudden arrival in the country that has tried to spearhead President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign was no doubt unconnected with recent polls in Russia showing the Communist leader ahead.

Mr Kohl has made great efforts to back his friend Boris and ignore the other man. The Chancellor had an opportunity to make amends when leaders of the leading industrial nations met in Moscow in March. But while John Major and Bill Clinton gritted their teeth and shook Mr Zyuganov's hand, Mr Kohl snubbed him.

By yesterday, however, German foreign policy was beginning to change course with the agility of a supertanker. At first the stated purpose of Mr Zyuganov's visit was to deliver a speech about the Russian elections. It then transpired that the presidential candidate would also be meeting behind closed doors the leaders of all the main political parties, including Wolfgang Schauble, the Chancellor's right-hand man and head of the Christian Democrats' parliamentary group. As Mr Schauble is merely the second most powerful man in Germany but has no cabinet post, the visit was still private, official spokesmen insisted.

In the end the society laid on an improvised press conference but forgot to invite the German and Russian media. In true Russian style, Mr Zyuganov turned up late and immediately asked for a drink. Officials looked around in embarrassment before the interpretercleared up the confusion: the would-be president had asked for "voda" (water), not vodka.

He looked as sober as Mikhail Gorbachev, and showed off some diplomatic skills. No, he was not upset about being treated by the West like a leper. Apart from Messrs Major and Clinton, he had held talks in Moscow with the ambassadors of all the major powers, including India.

Nor was he worried about suggestions emanating from the Yeltsin camp that next month's elections should be postponed. "The elections and the date is fixed by the constitution," he said. "From our point of view, we want to make sure that the agreed laws are observed." Should the elections be aborted, then Russia would plunge into "political chaos", Mr Zyuganov stated, without a hint of menace in his voice.

He reserved that for Western leaders trying keep his rival in power. "It is a mistake to stake everything on one politician," Mr Zyuganov told the German television station Pro 7. "Yeltsin's party gained only 10 per cent in the last elections. You must see that in the West. To support such a policy is short-sighted."

It is a pity Germany's leaders were not able to receive his warning in an official capacity.