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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Comrades Sans Consensus

There was a strange mood at the one-day Communist Party conference Feb. 15 that fell a long way short of triumphalism.

I had expected the party to be emanating a buzz of confidence. After all, they were meeting en masse for the first time since they topped the poll in the State Duma elections.

They had successfully struck deals with all their main left-wing rivals to agree on a presidential candidate. Now they had come together to anoint the man who is definitely the favorite for June 16.

Not so. There were three groups represented at the conference and only one of them seemed genuinely happy about the choice of Gennady Zyuganov.

The first group was the militants. Deep stage left was Viktor Anpilov, the man who led the raid on the Ostankino television station in October 1993.

He was there to wave the flag for his Working Russia party, which gathered more than 3 million votes in December. Anpilov said he was supporting Zyuganov, but then laid out a shopping list of Communist proposals that he wanted to see Zyuganov accept -- and which would be political suicide for him if he did. Ideas like mass renationalization, the immediate abolition of the presidency, the restoration of all the soviets.

To a certain extent Zyuganov can ignore Anpilov, who has nowhere to lead his army except in formation behind Zyuganov.

But the presidential contender has a more serious problem to contend with in the shape of the militants in his own party. These are the thousands of party stalwarts who canvassed door to door and brought out the vote in December.

Mostly over 50, pensioners, factory and farm workers from central Russia, they find Zyuganov a bit soft and want to hear him say out loud that he will rebuild the Soviet Union they knew and loved.

They much prefer the thumping miner's rhetoric of Aman Tuleyev -- who is not even a party member -- to the didactic monologues of Dr. Zyuganov. This is no secret to the party hierarchy.

"Zyuganov is not so popular," the new Duma speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, told me in one of the conference breaks.

That is the background to the conference decision to back Tuleyev as a "reserve candidate" for June. The official reason was that they needed a back-up in case some accident befell the party leader. In reality it was move to appease the party faithful.

But this kind of gesture to the hardline rank and file is exactly what alienated the second group at the conference, the unaffiliated left. Two of the speakers, former Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and Siberian factory director Pyotr Romanov, could have called on a broader electorate than Zyuganov had they been made the presidential nominees, and both are more charismatic.

Romanov said he was not withdrawing his candidacy, but would probably do so at a later date. His price for doing so seems to be a place in a Zyuganov shadow cabinet and a say in the Zyuganov program.

Ryzhkov was blunter. "If the Communist Party goes into the election alone, without allies, we can say there will be no victory," he said.

Zyuganov had to broaden his electoral base and not be the candidate of one party, added Ryzhkov.

It was the exact opposite message to the calls of the militants, who want Zyuganov to be steadier in his commitment to the cause.

Arithmetically Ryzhkov is quite right. In December the Communist Party and its closest allies picked up about 24 million votes, but to win the presidency Zyuganov will probably need more than 36 million. That is a lot of ground to make up.

Only one group, the party bureaucrats, seemed happy with the nomination of the consensus candidate, Zyuganov. They were in a solid majority and ensured that all votes were unanimous. A lot of nondescript, graying men in gray suits, they confirmed the thesis that the bulk of the Russian Communist Party is comprised of the most mediocre cadres of the old Soviet Communist Party, those who failed to adjust to perestroika.

Zyuganov is very much their man and his speech was not one of a man who enjoys the limelight. Monotonous, verbose, full of slogans but with few facts, it was a dreadfully dull performance and made me think that Boris Yeltsin's best campaign tactic might be to devote two hours a night on ORT to the ramblings of Comrade Zyuganov. Millions of young people might be so put off that they would end up voting for Yeltsin.