Russian Communist Revives Party and Stirs Uncertainty - Former Rulers Take 21% of Vote -

Article excerpt

HE IS A LIFELONG party man whose anonymous ascent through the ranks brought him only as far as an office in the Communists' ideology department during the final days of the Soviet Union.

Now the Soviet Union is dead and, for many Russians, so is ideology. But Gennady Zyuganov, 51, a career propagandist, is finally making his mark by presenting the once-moribund Communist Party as the savior of Russia's economy and restorer of its empire.

With Zyuganov at its helm, mesmerizing audiences with his conspiracy theories of a Western master plan to cripple Russia and his Utopian promises of painless prosperity, the Communist Party swept last Sunday's parliamentary elections.

As a party, it has won more than 21 percent of the popular vote. Once the ballots cast in individual races are officially tallied and added to the votes for party lists, Communists could end up with about 200 out of 450 seats in the new Duma, or parliament, some analysts say.

Zyuganov, a virtual unknown on the political scene only five years ago, is now the leading figure in the opposition to President Boris Yeltsin's free-market revisions. His face is on the front page of most newspapers every day. His comments, delivered in a slow rumble, are broadcast faithfully on the evening news.

Moreover, through his leadership of what will be the largest single bloc in the parliament, Zyuganov acquires a bully pulpit from which to criticize capitalism without having to defend an alternative. He is widely considered to be the most serious challenger to Yeltsin if presidential elections are held as scheduled in June.

In short, Zyuganov is Russia's political star. But it's not clear whether he is a reconstructed Communist or simply a repackaged one.

The Communist leader's intentions, should he gain power, are obscured by his message, which changes according to his audience.

In 1990, the hottest days of perestroika, Zyuganov was a fervent opponent of then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's attempts to revise the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

When many of his party colleagues jumped ship with the collapse of the empire, he hung on, and when the ban on the party was lifted in 1992, Zyuganov registered it anew and set about rebuilding it as a fighting political machine.

Before this month's elections, he assured the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Moscow that he would not harm foreign investment in Russia. He assured Christian and Jewish figures, both from Russia and abroad, that the Communist Party has shed its traditional atheism and supports religious freedom.

In the last few years, he has traveled widely in Europe, Asia and the United States, where he spent a few weeks at Harvard University.

"He tends to be among the more pragmatic of party leaders and believes there should be no return to the past, although there are some things from the socialist ideal worth retaining," said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. …