Imperial Russia rides again

January 26, 1996

Russia watchers should ensure that the name "Gennady Zyuganov" is in their computer spell-checkers. They will need it a lot in the next few months, and probably for several years to come.

The experienced Russia watcher is by now an even warier beast than his or her immediate predecessor, the Kremlinologist, with the erratic progress of the early post-communist era showing that all predictions have to be qualified.

But the consensus emerging from a panel of in-house experts and researchers convened last week at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London was that Zyuganov and the communists have the initiative following their victory in last month's parliamentary elections, and every chance of capturing the presidency in June.

Geoffrey Hosking, professor of Russian history and former Reith lecturer, said the Communist Party's victory had received little attention compared to the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's success two years ago. "The communists undoubtedly won, winning three times as many votes as any rivals and one third of the seats - meaning they should have very little difficulty constructing a majority in the new duma. Zhirinovsky had actually only come second. And this duma has a lifespan of four years and will be extremely difficult to dissolve before its term is completed," he said.

He thinks Zyuganov, although a ponderous performer, will probably be the communist candidate for president. But his party should not be confused with the new social democrats carrying the communist banner in parts of eastern Europe. "They are pretty unreconstructed, with their origins in the party set up to oppose Gorbachev in 1990, and stand for the repudiation of virtually everything that has happened since. The one respect in which they differ from the old CPSU is that they are now explicitly a party of Russian imperialism."

Peter Duncan, lecturer in social science, said that Marxism and nationalism was a peculiarly potent ideological mix, while postgraduate research student Paul Pirie, an observer at the elections, comfirmed that the communists were by far the best organised.

Dr Duncan argued that Boris Yeltsin's actions in recent months - including the hard line in Chechenia and the removal of reformist minister Anatoly Chubais - suggested strongly that he would run again in June: "Yeltsin is bidding openly for nationalist support," he said.

But the second decisive round of the election will be contested by the communists and Zhirinovsky.

Professor Hosking argued that Russia's reformists "have become identified with crime, corruption and ostentatious wealth. The irony of Yeltsin's Chechenia policy was that it would allow the openly imperialist communists to attack him for running a violently nationalist foreign policy".

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