Russia's Communist Party holds its fourth congress since 1991 this weekend, showing few signs that it can halt its drift toward irrelevance and concerned about a government assault on its sole remaining citadel, parliament.
Some 1,500 delegates will meet here to map out the strategy of Russia's largest opposition party, as President Boris Yeltsin makes a new bid to revive economic reforms. But few analysts expect any major changes that might energize the Communists into active opposition, once the rhetoric has died down.
"This is a party with no policies, no ideas, and no future," says one Western diplomat bluntly. "It has lost its sense of direction."
Since winning the 1995 elections, however, the Communists have controlled the Duma, the lower house of parliament. And aides to reformist Anatoly Chubais, the new first deputy prime minister, fear the Duma will block the next phase of reform the Kremlin is planning.
Behind the scenes, say Communist officials and sources close to the government, those aides are plotting to persuade Mr. Yeltsin to dissolve the Duma and call fresh elections.
The reformists - aiming to restructure giant monopoly businesses such as the railroads and natural-gas supplier Gazprom - "need four or five months to make their processes irreversible, and to this end, they may try to dissolve the State Duma," Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov warned at a press conference Wednesday.
Such a move would be risky for the Kremlin, which is bogged down in a wage-arrears crisis and is not popular at the moment. But some suggest that before a new Duma election, the electoral law might be changed, abolishing the proportional representation system under which voters elect half of parliament by voting for specific parties. The parties that gain more than 5 percent of this vote then select a proportional number of Duma deputies from party lists.
Such a change would be a heavy blow to the Communists, two-thirds of whose Duma members were elected from their party list in 1995. The Communists have a nationwide network of offices and activists that far outstrip any of its rivals, making it the country's only real political party, with around half a million members. But their supporters tend to be older voters, and the party is attracting few younger people.
"This is a very complex problem for us," acknowledges Vladimir Akimov, a close adviser to Mr. Zyuganov. "The party's image will be one of the main issues at the congress."
The Communist leadership has been cultivating a more nationalist profile in recent years, building around it a "National Patriotic Union" of like-minded groups, and at the same time cozying up to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. A cautious man who used to head Gazprom, Mr. Chernomyrdin, has been premier since December 1992 and has overseen a general slowing of the pace of economic reform. Seen as an ally of Russia's "natural monopolies," he is currently locked in a power struggle with young reformers like Mr. Chubais and the other First Deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov. This has earned Chernomyrdin the Communist leadership's sympathy.
Although it almost certainly has enough votes in the Duma to push through a no-confidence vote, this is a step that the Communist leadership has been careful not to take because it would give Yeltsin the constitutional right to dissolve the Duma and call for fresh elections.
The Communists would likely lose seats in such elections to retired Gen. Alexander Lebed's supporters, and to more radical leftist groups, even under current electoral law.
Outside the Duma, the Communists have shown little enthusiasm for organizing the broad discontent with government policies into serious pressure. They have tagged along with protests, but rarely marched in the vanguard.
That, explains Alexei Podberyozkin, a Duma deputy who has helped overhaul the Communist Party's ideology, is because "in the current circumstances, social demands cannot be controlled, and would for sure lead to unpredictable events."
Party leaders have been able to indulge this preference for stability, and for comfortable coexistence with the government, so long as reforms have been stalled and Chernomyrdin has been at the helm, ready to deal with the Communists.
Now that the Chubais-Nemtsov reformers are in the ascendant, however, the Communists are being pushed into a corner. "If Chernomyrdin were to resign, they would have to declare war on the government, however reluctantly," says Igor Bunin, a Moscow-based political analyst and consultant.
For the time, being, however, the Communists seem most likely just to continue to dither.
"There will be a lot of heated debate at the congress, a lot of angry words about the government," says a Western diplomat. "But then they will go back to business as usual if they can."