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In Russia, the Man Who Would Not Be President

Politics: Gennady Zyuganov's lackluster campaign fails to broaden support beyond the Communist Party faithful.


NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — In the vast Red Sormovo plant in northern Russia, submarines and ships are marooned for years on the factory floor, rusting without ever having touched the water.

This dying industrial giant, which once turned out Soviet nuclear submarines, is a natural habitat for Communists. But even Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader campaigning for president, seemed a little bemused when workers at the plant in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, mobbed him for autographs this week.

With Russia's presidential election only days away, no one expects Zyuganov to win. But he does seem guaranteed second place behind the runaway favorite, acting President Vladimir V. Putin, due to the sheer size of the Communist electoral support base, about 20% to 25% of the vote.

The Communists are Russia's biggest party, with half a million members and the best-organized grass-roots base. Despite Zyuganov's admittedly lumbering efforts to attract youth and soften the party's rhetoric, however, the Communists haven't managed to broaden their bedrock support of industrial workers, miners, pensioners and rural farm workers.

There is plenty to be nostalgic about and little to look forward to at the Red Sormovo plant in this sprawling industrial city of 2 million on the Volga River, one of the final stops in Zyuganov's plodding presidential campaign.

The last submarine on the production line, the diesel-powered Varshavyanka, has been sitting on blocks for eight years without a peck of interest, while a cargo ship nearby has been waiting six months without a buyer, leaving the shops idle and the workers desperate.

"Why don't you come more often?" a worker cried to Zyuganov. "We don't have much to do here."

In the 1950s, with more than 27,000 workers, the plant turned out a submarine every 10 days, and in the early 1990s, nuclear submarines and other military production accounted for 76% of its output. Now there are 8,000 employees and work has come to a stop for want of orders.

In a crowd of several hundred workers who came to hear Zyuganov speak, the optimistic ones were the Communist supporters, who believed he could somehow re-create the plant's glorious past--though they knew in their hearts he will not win. The most pessimistic, casting their lot with Putin, were convinced the acting president will win but that it won't change a thing.

"A lot of politicians come here," said Alexander Burlakov, 28, an assembly worker who seemed deeply dispirited about the electoral process. "They all promise the same things, Communists or not," he said. "I'll probably vote for Putin. He won't change anything. It's just that there's no one else to vote for."

Even with 11 time zones to cover and just a few days left before Sunday's vote, there is no urgency in Zyuganov's step. Running second, far behind Putin in the polls but far ahead of the other 10 candidates, he has slowed to a crawl, with a few low-key events penciled in for the final week.

An insistent aura of defeat hangs over Zyuganov, so much so that his campaign, plowing along with all the charisma of a Soviet-era tractor, has a kind of pathos about it.

Zyuganov is a man so ordinary it is disarming. He wears it like a badge of honor, taking the night train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod instead of flying, because "I am one of the ordinary people."

The final stretch of the race has been littered with symbols of ill portent as former allies turn against him. The low point came last week when Komsomol, the Communist Youth League, advised members to vote for Putin.

Zyuganov's campaign is so flabby that he is accused of deliberately running dead as part of a conspiratorial deal with the Kremlin.

"What we are seeing now can hardly be called a race," said analyst Andrei A. Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Strategic Studies. "What Zyuganov is doing is pretending to be fighting for the presidency. But you can see through this pretense quite easily because Zyuganov is not even making a good job of that."

Piontkovsky contends that Zyuganov got what he wanted in January when the Communists and Unity, the pro-Putin faction in parliament, made a deal dividing all the key posts between themselves, assuring the Communists a comfortable position as the leading opposition force.

Ilya V. Konstantinov, deputy chairman of the Spiritual Heritage movement, which supported the Communist leader in the 1996 presidential election won by Boris N. Yeltsin, said it was clear then that Zyuganov didn't really want to be president.

"He is barely going through the motions in this campaign too," Konstantinov said. "He is quite comfortable in the role of the leader of the legal opposition force. And he has long resigned himself to this role."

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