Since 1993, when President Boris Yeltsin used tanks and artillery to put down a rebellious parliament, the line-up in the State Duma has been fairly predictable: a communist-nationalist majority on one side, a pro-Kremlin minority on the other, with various independents, regional interests and democrats unaligned with either side.

That has now changed. When the newly elected State Duma convened for its inaugural session on January 18, the largest pro-Kremlin faction, the new Unity Party, lined up with the Communists, creating a new majority that divvied up committee chairmanships accordingly. The self-styled right-wing groups that had expected to work with the pro-Kremlin forces were frozen out. So was the Unity Party’s ideological twin and rival, the Fatherland-All Russia coalition, the Duma’s third-largest faction.

The Kremlin-Communist alliance stirred deep passions. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a chief target of the alliance, called it “one of the first manifestations of the coming dictatorship of the Bolsheviks.” Grigory Yavlinsky, Russia’s leading democrat, compared it to the Hitler-Stalin pact, because it links communists and “unprincipled people.”

The new majority is a strong one. Two hundred fifty-eight of the Duma’s 450 deputies voted to elect Communist Gennady Seleznev speaker, a position he held in the previous Duma. Like the Mensheviks of old, the losers walked out. One hundred eighty-three deputies-mainly from Fatherland-All Russia, the Union of Right-Wing Forces and Yavlinsky’s Yabloko-did not vote and declared a boycott of the Duma’s plenary sessions. Several members from the minority parties have refused the committee chairmanships offered to them.

Although he has not spoken publicly on the subject, Acting President Vladimir Putin was clearly behind the deal. The parliamentary alliance with the Communists seems to falsify the hypothesis that Putin is a reformer (“one of the leading reformers,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called him). Certainly putting Communists in charge of Duma committees on economic policy, industry and technology and federal-regional relations will not make reforms easier to legislate.

The deal in the Duma illustrates the difficulty of viewing Russian political groups in a spectrum from left to right. Among the main players-the Unity Party, the Communists, the Union of Right-Wing Forces and the Fatherland-All Russia coalition-differences of principle are minor compared to differences in personal loyalties and alliances. All the main parties support some form of “nomenklatura capitalism,” in which the state helps to ensure that wealth and income flow to pretty much the same crowd that was on top in the Soviet era. The struggle in the Duma, and the struggle for the presidency, are mostly about which individuals in that crowd will gain the advantage, and what will happen to the losers.