MOSCOW — Gennady Zyuganov may be a Soviet-style Communist, a tradition-bound nationalist, a Euro-style social democrat, or a jackbooted national socialist. Or all of the above.
But he is definitely the main contender to replace Boris Yeltsin as president of the world's largest country in elections this summer.
Figuring out how he might govern means fitting together his stark world view with his bland, pragmatic political style.
In the mind of Mr. Zyuganov, the West is "prudent and predatory," and the permanent enemy of Orthodox Russia. He has written that Russia is again rejecting capitalism as a threat to the "communal, collective, spiritual, and moral basis of people's lives."
Yet many Russian analysts expect little dramatic change of course in Russia's government if Zyuganov becomes president.
Going item by item through the campaign promises in Zyuganov's just-released economic plan, for example, economist Andrei Illarionov decides that it sounds almost identical to the current course of President Yeltsin.
If Yeltsin wins, Mr. Illarionov says half-jokingly that Zyuganov "could well claim the post of prime minister, since his economic program will not differ in any way from that of the current government."
Illarionov does not mean that Zyuganov is nearly a free-marketeer. He means that Yeltsin has moved in the past year toward higher state spending, stronger state regulation, mixed state and private ownership, and price controls - all of which the Communist candidate proposes.
On Chechnya, Zyuganov has been critical of Yeltsin's handling of the war, but holds the same basic position that the region is indisputably part of Russia. Chechens themselves are not inclined to see much difference, except that Yeltsin is now in a tactical position to make a peace settlement there.
Although Zyuganov promotes the "voluntary" reuniting of the Soviet Union, there is little interest anywhere except Belarus, and that reunion would be an expensive drain on the Russian budget. It could not afford any more such homecomings.
But there is a difference between the two men. Yeltsin's shift toward a stronger state role in the economy - and more inflation-feeding spending - appears to be a tactical maneuver that is part of a broader move toward integration with the West and free markets. Zyuganov's program envisions a long-term expansion of the state role in the economy.
Only in the third phase of his plan, to take effect between 2004 and 2010, does it call for "Russia's vigorous emergence onto the world market." Even the three-year $12-billion mega-loan that the International Monetary Fund has promised Russia makes the Communists uncomfortable. They see it as part of an imposition of a Western economic model on Russia.
At the very least, a Zyuganov administration, backed up by an already Communist-dominated parliament, would ban the privatization of land, which Yeltsin has tried to speed.
And many think Zyuganov's first steps as president would be more radical. Speculation centers on the struggle for influence in Zyuganov's coalition that would follow an election victory. The coalition includes militant Stalinists, anti-Western and anti-Semitic Russian nationalists, as well as moderate Communists. Zyuganov's own views contain all these strains woven together.
The Russian business establishment, although pulling for a Yeltsin win, is ready to encourage the emergence of the pragmatists in a Zyuganov administration. By vocation, Zyuganov is an ideologue, a crafter of political world views, who rose to a senior rank among Soviet communist "instructors." His career also shows him to be a pragmatist and a compromiser by temperament and experience.
"Anyone in power will have to make compromises," says Lira Leonova, a political scientist at Moscow State University and leading historian of the Soviet Communist Party, "because the country is deeply split over fundamental issues."
"There will be no essential difference between the current direction and a possible Communist regime," she says. "Political pluralism is our reality. We can't go back from it."
But Zyuganov, if he wins, would take over in tense circumstances, notes Sergei Kolmakov, a political counselor at the Reforma Foundation, an independent Russian think tank. The rank-and-file supporters of Zyuganov, especially the younger ones in provincial towns and cities left out of the reform-driven dynamism in parts of Russia's economy, will hold high expectations and be feeling aggressive, he says.
To match the public mood, says Mr. Kolmakov, he expects a sharp struggle in Zyuganov's camp to produce a radical, populist government prone to extremes.
Eventually, if Zyuganov's career history is any guide, he will distance himself from this first radical government and appoint a more moderate group, Kolmakov says. "But I expect a lot of turmoil in the first several months."
Zyuganov was a high-ranking insider in the circles that planned the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and the violent face-off in 1993 between Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet he disbanded. But in both instances, Zyuganov was offstage at the key moments and was unscathed by the consequences.
His economic plan, slowly evolved from lengthy negotiations among members of his coalition, predicts that it can produce economic growth of 5 to 6 percent next year, and 8 to 9 percent a year thereafter. More Western-oriented economists predict a return to hyperinflation and general disaster from a plan that fails to recognize a fundamental weakness of the Soviet economy: a healthy economy does not just produce more, but produces more of what people want in the way they want them.