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Russia: Challengers to Yeltsin Presidency Unite, and Wait

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, August 9 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian President Boris Yeltsin celebrated his inauguration to a second term today, a meeting of Russia's opposition parties this week showed that he is still far from winning his final battle against his Communist and Nationalist challengers.

The diverse Communists and Nationalist factions which backed Yeltsin's main rival in last month's presidential elections, Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, reconstituted themselves formally yesterday as the "Popular Patriotic Union of Russia." The Union named Zyuganov, whose Communist Party is already the country's largest political organization, as its leader.

The creation of the coalition ended any speculation Yeltsin's opposition might fragment following his re-election. Instead, the new coalition adopted a unifying theme of "patriotism" for the future, and set an immediate goal of taking full control of the legislature.

"Either we unite our patriotic feelings or we lose our beloved country," Zyuganov told the some 350 delegates at the meeting.

The Union will seek to get its candidates elected to Russia's upper legislative house, the Federation Council, in regional elections scheduled for this Fall.

The upper house, comprised of governors and other regional leaders, now consists mainly of Yeltsin's appointees and must approve legislation passed by the opposition-dominated lower house, or Duma. The Yeltsin-leaning council also currently protects Yeltsin from any impeachment challenges.

But Zyuganov's coalition also set its sights on one day taking the presidency itself. Zyuganov said yesterday that the movement must be ready to take advantage of "sudden changes."

As 3Washington Post2 Correspondent Lee Hockstader noted recently, so long as rumors persist that Yeltsin is in poor health, "it is never far from opposition thinking that another Presidential election may come sooner, rather than later."

A first face-off between the new coalition and Yeltsin could come as early as today. Yeltsin has re-nominated Viktor Chernomyrdin to head a second-term government, and correspondents say that it is still uncertain if the Communists and Nationalists in the Duma will support the move. The Duma can either confirm Yeltsin's choice, or reject it, creating a constitutional confrontation.

Analysts say that the coalition's key strategy is to expand its support among Russians by shifting away from communist appeals to a more moderate nationalism.

John Thornill of Britain's 3Financial Times2 reported yesterday that draft documents circulated at the coalition conference made no mention of socialism. He says that the shift seems to reflect the "perception of many politicians, including moderate Communist leaders, that nothing resembling old-style Communism could command enough support for electoral success in Russia."

Yeltsin recognized this by successfully running a "Red-scare" campaign against Zyuganov which stressed the Communists' hopes of restoring aspects of Soviet rule.

Thornill says that moderate nationalism appears to have a growing appeal in Russia "because many people yearn for the superpower status lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991." All the candidates in the recent presidential elections stressed themes of patriotism and Russian nationalism with voters during their campaigns.

A sign that the "Popular Patriotic Union of Russia" may already be distancing itself from too-Red a label came with its failure to include one of the hardest-line Communist faction leaders under its umbrella this week.

Viktor Anpilov, head of the radical Working Russia movement, declined a post in the new coalition by saying he would wait until this Fall to decide. He told Interfax that "an organization of revolutionaries" was still needed to unseat Yeltsin.