As Russia's Reds Slide, They Bid for a Coalition

ZYUGANOV ON THE ROPES

The prospect of a nationalist-communist return to power in Russia appears weaker almost by the day. On Monday, Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov proposed that he and President Boris Yeltsin sign a pact promising that no matter who wins the presidential runoff vote on July 3, the new government will be a balanced coalition. One-third of its members would come from Mr. Zyuganov's bloc of communists and nationalists, one-third from the current Yeltsin government, and one-third from other factions represented in parliament.

Although the proposal will appeal to some Russian swing voters concerned about stability, it is seen as a signal of weakness coming from Zyuganov just now.

Mr. Yeltsin has little reason to sign such a pact. After finishing first in the opening round of the election June 16, he has already added the third-place finisher, Alexander Lebed, to his administration. The next finisher, Grigory Yavlinsky, has not quite endorsed Yeltsin but has emphatically stated that his backers should not allow Zyuganov to win. Even the wildly unpredictable Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the only other candidate with significant backing, is now threatening to back Yeltsin if "understandings are reached" in personal meetings.

Yeltsin's biggest opponent now is not Zyuganov but low turnout. Even though Zyuganov does not appear to be gaining new voters, his base of mostly older Communists is disciplined and motivated. The Yeltsin vote is shaping up as much larger, but it is a loose, rambling coalition of people who are less likely to get to the polls on a nice summer day.

"Our population is a little bit tired,'' says Andrei Nuykin, a political analyst and former Duma deputy. That is why the Yeltsin staff chose a Wednesday for the runoff election instead of the usual Sunday voting. They worried that since July is the peak month for Russians to vacate to their dachas, would-be voters would not get home in time or with enough energy to get to the polling stations.

Communists in parliament agreed to the date, stoking suspicions that Zyuganov does not really want the presidency but prefers to head the opposition for the next four years.

Either way, says Andrei Piontkowski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, Zyuganov's proposal is a sensible step to show himself a "reasonable, moderate politician concerned about the interest of the nation."

"But he's working from a much weaker position," he says. Zyuganov has suggested a coalition government before, but he was referring to a grouping of antiregime forces.

Mr. Piontkowski sees no reason for Yeltsin to accept the plan. Also, Mr. Nuykin thinks Zyuganov would be forced by those around him to forsake the deal if he won the election.

Zyuganov cast his proposal as an attempt to bring unity to a sharply polarized country. "No one will be able to rescue the country out of its most acute crisis alone," he said. "This will require a joint effort by all political forces."

Zyuganov expects the proposed coalition government would focus on fighting crime, improving conditions for domestic food producers, and stopping the war in Chechnya.

The unpopular war has heightened voter distrust of Yeltsin. In an announcement that may help ease public doubts about Yeltsin's role in the Chechen war, the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya said Monday that his troops would begin a unilateral pullout on June 28.

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