Hot, lonely summer for Russia's Communists

Party lawmakers hold a vigil in parliament, plotting for elections that could be their last chance for power.

Temperatures in the Russian capital have hovered around 95 degrees F. for the past month, and no one is feeling the heat so much as the Communists.

While colleagues vacation at their country houses and the beach, about 30 Communist legislators sweat away each summer day in their offices, hobnobbing with reporters, plotting election strategy, and reviewing the latest digs from President Boris Yeltsin.

"We must be prepared for anything," the Communist Party's No. 2, Valentin Kuptsov, says solemnly.

The Communists say Mr. Yeltsin is sitting in the Kremlin dreaming up ways to keep them off the ballot in elections for the Duma, or lower house of parliament, in December, and for president next summer. To counter the perceived threat, the Communist leadership has announced a vigil at the Duma.

If they can't find a way to rekindle popular support, it may be the beginning of the end for the party, whose core of support is an aging population that grew up with a communist ideology. When those voters are gone, the party will not last long, analysts predict.

The once mighty Communists are split by defections and dissatisfaction in the ranks and no longer sure of the commanding election victories they once thought were guaranteed by widespread poverty, disappointment in reform, and popular fury at Yeltsin.

The president has been on the attack, hinting that he is considering a ban on the party and publicly declaring that the body of Soviet founder and Communist icon Vladimir Lenin will be removed from public display at its tomb next to the Kremlin and buried.

Just six months ago, after Russians lost millions, if not billions, in a national banking crash and the ruble fell to a quarter of its August value, the Communists predicted the protest vote would be so big that they would have to split into three parts to absorb it. In addition to the middle-of-the road Communist Party, leaders said they would create a radical party and a moderate party in the vein of the European social democrats, an admission of divisions that have long existed.

"The problem is that the Communist Party is not a homogeneous entity as it used to be, 20 or even 15 years ago," says Yevgeny Volk, director of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It is composed of very different groups and political views."

The local daily Moskovsky Komsomolets recently compared the party's fractious subgroups to "red scraps" in a patchwork quilt.

Radical communists, whom Mr. Volk estimates at 20 percent of party supporters, are disgusted by what some of them call "collaboration" with the Yeltsin government, blaming moderates for promoting private property, approving belt-tightening budget measures, and for scuppering the Communist-inspired bid to impeach Yeltsin that failed by only a few votes in May.

Moderates, meanwhile, express alarm at the radical nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies in the party.

Caught in the middle is Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, the target of anger from each side for coddling the other.

The party's credibility with the public was sapped, moreover, by the spectacular failure of the impeachment attempt. And the anti-Yeltsin vote, once monopolized by the Communists, is seeping away.

New political parties founded by powerful regional leaders, namely the Fatherland movement of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, are siphoning it off. Leaders of those parties have something the Communists don't: a track record in post-Soviet governing for voters to examine.

Hoping to shore up popular support, the Communists are trying to reassemble the powerful coalition from 1995 that won virtual control over parliament, with 150 seats going to Communists and 70 going to their allies.

But many of the small Communist-aligned parties that rode in with the Communists back then are no longer sure they want back in the fold. On Thursday, the Agrarian Party, a key member of the 1995 coalition, announced it would run for parliament on its own this year even though its chances of winning are slim.

The reason, says analyst Sergei Markov of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow, is an "idea crisis" in the party in the run-up to elections. The Communists cannot win on an anti-Yeltsin platform alone.

"They barely managed to beat Boris Yeltsin, a weak opponent, in 1996. Now they can't explain how they can beat a strong enemy like Yury Luzhkov's Fatherland," Mr. Markov says.

The one person who could galvanize the Communists to unify and unite public opinion behind them is their archenemy, Yeltsin.

If the president makes good on the threat of an attempted ban, "It would give them new impetus," says Volk.

"In Russia people like those who are persecuted by power."

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