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Russia: Communist Zyuganov -- Opposing The Oligarchs

Acting President Vladimir Putin may be heavily favored to win the presidential election on Sunday, but he does have rivals. The main one is Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Zyuganov no longer has much to say about anti-Marxist enemies of the state. Instead, he sees the oligarchs as the new exploiters of Russia.

Moscow, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In all Russian elections since the implosion of the Soviet Union nine years ago, the Communist Party has sought to reach a larger public than those merely nostalgic for a state-controlled economy. To strike a patriotic note, the Communists have also collaborated with the Kremlin on enough occasions to belie the party's reputation of being irreconcilably opposed to the government -- or to a market economy.

So it comes as no surprise that in his packaged campaign speech -- a six-minute discourse broadcast by his supporters during rallies -- Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov focuses more on denouncing Russia's oligarchs -- or wealthy business tycoons -- than on criticizing market economics:

"The oligarchs who ruined the people know better than others that a new economic collapse is rapidly approaching. In order to stay in power, they decided to deceive you one more time by choosing an early election before the truth comes out. They decided to put in Yeltsin's seat [acting President Vladimir Putin,] an obedient and ruthless subordinate who will oppress the hungry and protect the oligarchs' property."

Zyuganov's speeches are replete with practical pledges to increase salaries and decrease taxes. He seeks to evoke the nostalgia of many Russians for what they remember as the low cost of everyday Soviet life:

"[Under a Communist president,] minimal salaries and pensions won't be inferior to 1,000 rubles. The salary of a teacher, a doctor and a soldier [will be] 3,000 rubles. We will reinstate citizens' rights to low rents, to free education and health. The state will restore strict control of the prices of basic food products."

To achieve all this, Zyuganov says, it is simply necessary to expropriate the holdings of the oligarchs, those who privatized big chunks of the country's profitable natural resources -- oil, gas and metals. What he calls a "rational blend of state, collective and private property" should then guarantee equality to all.

In Zyuganov's current rhetoric, the Soviet Union is no longer portrayed as a lost paradise, but rather as a system whose advantages should not be completely rejected. Yet his campaign does not entirely exclude openly anti-Semitic and Stalinist expressions -- especially in the regions.

Zyuganov has also called for the creation of a parliamentary republic that would reduce the president's present large prerogatives in favor of the legislature. He is carefully critical as well of the Kremlin's handling of the war in Chechnya.

The Communist electorate is thought to number up to 17 million. The party's power base has predominantly been among older voters, and that base may now be growing collectively older. Youth who once may have sympathized with Communists are now attracted by Putin's talk of restoring Russia's lost dignity.

To ordinary Russians, Zyuganov is the head of the Communist opposition. But to Communist hardliners, Zyuganov is increasingly seen as having compromised himself by becoming a more or less secret ally of the Kremlin, and therefore a traitor to the Communist cause.

In the past several months, the party's economic program has ceased calling for renationalization of privatized property. And two months ago -- in one of the hardest blows of all to hardliners -- Communist deputies formed an alliance with the Kremlin-controlled Unity party to divide up key parliamentary posts among themselves.