Russia's Communists are bracing for a showdown with President Boris Yeltsin, sensing that with the financial crisis they can seize their biggest share of power since the Soviet Union collapsed seven years ago.
This is the Communists' big moment to gain political ground, with Russia poised on the abyss of financial collapse and drifting without a government since Mr. Yeltsin fired his Cabinet Aug. 23, analysts say.
They do not discount the possibility that the Communist-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, may block Yeltsin's choice for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, three times and risk the dissolution of the Duma and new elections.
Suddenly analysts are talking seriously about a possible return to power of the Communists - or at least a greater say in governing. This could mean greater state control of the economy and the media, and more distance from the West. But the Communists have grown more moderate since Soviet days, and no one expects a return to the cold war.
The Communists of today are not the repressive, expansionist party of the Soviet era. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's party no longer talks about class struggle and defending the proletariat, and he says it would not ban other parties or religions. Analysts liken Russia's Communists to the Indian National Congress or Argentina's Peronist movement.
"We have a different strategy and ideology now because the world has changed," says Yuri Petrakov, the Communist Party's deputy secretary of ideology. "Our main objective is to contribute to a multiparty society. We are concentrating more on patriotism."
Despite diminished military might, the implications of increased nationalism in this sprawling nuclear power are not pleasing to the West. A Communist government would likely be more isolationist and more anti-American. But even if there was more critical opposition to NATO expansion eastward, there is little Moscow would do except issue angry rhetoric.
More uncomfortable for the White House would be a strengthening of Russian ties with Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Technology transfers to pariah states are already a source of contention between Moscow and Washington.
On the domestic front, the Communists would probably develop closer coalition ties with ultranational politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and seek a union with neighboring Belarus. Resurrecting the dissolved Soviet Union, however, is a notion everyone recognizes as unviable.
On economic policy, the Communists have faded from red to pink. They want more state control of prices and currency. They favor nationalizations and the strengthening of monopolies. They want to bolster industry, which has declined radically in seven years of reforms.
But this does not mean they want to turn the clock back and remove all free-market reforms. They would, for instance, still allow private business. "They understand that we live in a different world now and that it is impossible to go backward," says Alexander Chepurenko, deputy director of the Russian Independent Research Institute for Social and National Issues.
The changing world order means policymakers should put Russia in a proper perspective, some analysts say. Russia's importance to the United States has declined in the aftermath of the cold war, and its international role has likewise deteriorated.
There has been a "more nuanced US depiction of Russian politics," says Arnold Horelick, vice president for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think the US and Russia will count for less in each others' foreign policies," he said in a talk in Moscow Aug. 31.
Perhaps the most dangerous scenario for both Russia and the West is if the Communist Party refuses to confirm Mr. Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin disbands the parliament and calls early elections, now scheduled for next year.
Such a gamble may be dangerous for national stability and would have sweeping implications for the economy and a West worried about a less friendly nuclear power.
"It appears now that the Communist Party is ready to go ahead with the crisis if they do not win concessions for more parliamentary control over the government. They are ready to go for elections and to try to force Yeltsin to resign," says Sergei Markov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
In late August, Mr. Chernomyrdin thought he had reached a power-sharing deal with the Communists, under which they would support his nomination in return for diluting Yeltsin's near-autocratic powers.
But Aug. 31 the Duma rejected his candidacy, saying they wanted more guarantees that the president's power would be weakened. Mr. Zyuganov said his Communist Party would vote unanimously against Chernomyrdin in a second vote planned for Sept. 7. Such assertiveness spells a shift for a party that has been largely toothless in opposition, despite holding with its allies 222 of the Duma's 450 seats.