MOSCOW — RUSSIA'S Communists, flushed with their success at Sunday's parliamentary polls, have not even waited for the final vote count to launch their campaign to put a Communist back in the Kremlin as president.
"No time to rest" blared the front-page headline in Wednesday's Pravda newspaper, as party leader Gennady Zyuganov reached out to possible allies before June's presidential election.
But the first hurdle on the campaign trail appears to be just around the corner: What to do if President Boris Yeltsin asks them to join the government?
On one hand, the prospect of ministerial posts would be sweet to the Communists, ejected so ignominiously from power less than five years ago. But with his eyes fixed on a much juicier plum, the presidency, Mr. Zyuganov will also be tempted to keep his distance.
Officials close to Mr. Yeltsin are hinting that the president is ready to bite the bullet and invite his bitterest enemies into the government.
"The ideal option would be to include some Communists into the Cabinet," says Andrei Loginov, the president's liaison with the Duma (lower house of parliament).
Yeltsin himself, as he cast his ballot last Sunday, said that "the government composition should take into account a certain distribution of forces in the new Duma." And since then it has become clear that the Communist Party will control by far the largest block of seats - as many as 150 in the 450-seat house.
Although final official results are not expected until next week, it is clear that the Communists won about 21 percent of the vote, as much as their two closest rivals combined.
In second place came Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, with 11 percent, just ahead of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia party, with 10 percent. The only other party with more than five percent of the vote, the minimum amount to earn Duma seats, was Yabloko, led by free-market economist Grigory Yavlinsky.
But the Communists are unlikely to want to reap the fruits of the victory immediately. For a start, Yeltsin's offer will not end up being very tempting, according to aides.
"The Communists will not get a single key post in the government," top presidential adviser Georgy Satarov told the official daily Rossiskiye Vesti yesterday.
Furthermore, Zyuganov is wary of being co-opted into an unpopular government over which he would have no control. He is much better positioned for the presidential race as an opposition candidate.
The Communists will have the votes to put a motion of no-confidence in the government on the Duma agenda at any time. But they will probably not force the issue, says Andrei Illarionov, head of the Institute for Economic Analysis, because they need the government as a whipping boy in their presidential campaign.
Nevertheless, Zyuganov's electorate is looking for action, and the Communist leader is expected to pose a vociferous challenge to the government at every opportunity.
In the campaign before the parliament elections Dec. 17, Zyuganov often sounded like a social democrat rather than a Communist, and although this moderate approach may have paid off among the general electorate, it has earned him enemies in his own party who accuse him of selling out.
"Zyuganov's problem now is that through his more moderate policy he might create a situation where his party would split," predicts Vladimir Markov, chairman of the Novosti news agency. "There will be a gap in the mood among the party base and the mood at the top." Zyuganov has to win over harder-line comrades and reassure his Communist voters that he still has their interests at heart. Demands for price controls, more police, and more-generous social benefits will top his agenda, he has said, along with the Communists' continuing effort to restore the old Soviet Union.
How far the government will bend toward the Communists, as Yeltsin himself decides whether to run for reelection, is unclear.
"There will be some personnel changes, to show that the government and president are trying to adapt to the public mood," says Mr. Markov, but little more than that.
Others expect the Kremlin to push further toward the sort of positions that have made the Communists so popular.
"I think Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin will try to shift his position closer to the Communist Party," Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky predicted after the elections.
The government "is no longer able to pursue its old policy given the extent of its credibility" after winning only 10 percent of the vote last Sunday, Zyuganov said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin himself have shrugged off the importance of the Communist gains in the Duma, insisting they would not be deflected from their current foreign and economic policies. "We should continue our policy as it is," the president said this week. "There is nothing that can prevent us from doing so."