Fascism stalks Russia: Poll surge for party of cheap vodka and resurgent nationalism alarms republics

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The Independent Online
A SURGE of support for the far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky sent a tremor of panic yesterday through Russia's neighbours, spreading dismay among supporters of President Boris Yeltsin, and stirring warnings of fascism stalking Russia's fragile democracy.

Yegor Gaidar, Economics Minister and leader of the pro-Yeltsin Russia's Choice party, said that Russia today resembled the German Weimar Republic, which fell victim to Hitler.

'Fascism is the plague of the 20th century and we are living in the 20th century,' said Nikolai Ryabov, chairman of the Central Election Commission. 'This plague does exist and it is ripening.'

He said 55.9 million out of 105 million registered voters had gone to the polls on Sunday. But, more than 24 hours after polling ended, the only solid result was that a new constitution, voted on in tandem with a new parliament, had been approved. About 56 per cent endorsed a Kremlin-drafted charter granting the President sweeping powers.

That offset the gloom of the reform camp, but compounded fear for the future. 'I don't know what Yeltsin will do with this power,' said Grigory Yavlinsky, economist, presidential hopeful and leader of a reformist party trounced by the far right. 'But I am far more anxious about what will come after him.'

President Yeltsin, strengthened dramatically on paper by his tailor-made constitution but undermined by the poor performance of pro-reform candidates, remained silent apart from a brief statement from his office pledging to protect democracy. An exit poll by the RIA news agency suggested that he would probably lose if he calls an early presidential election next June, which now seems unlikely.

The main winner is Mr Zhirinovsky, who ran against Mr Yeltsin for the presidency two years ago and has said he will again. His Liberal Democratic Party, largely a vehicle for his own eccentric vision of cheap underwear, cut-price vodka and a resurgent Russia stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, won 24.53 per cent of the vote for 225 State Duma seats filled by a proportional system, according to unofficial results from 53 of Russia's 89 regions. The main pro-Yeltsin reformist party, Russia's Choice, got 14.46 per cent, followed by the Communist Party with 11.31.

Mr Zhirinovsky's party, seen as a clutch of misfits during most of the campaign but generously financed by still obscure backers, seems to have done particularly well among the military. Interfax news agency said it had won 43 per cent of the vote from soldiers in Tajikistan - one of the many former Soviet territories he wants reabsorbed into Russia. Russia's Choice got only 7.3. Mr Zhirinovsky also did well in Far Eastern military bases, where sailors died earlier this year form malnutrition.

The Finance Minister, Boris Fyodorov, warned that the State Duma may prove harder to work with than the old Supreme Soviet, disbanded on 21 September and shelled by tanks on 4 October. But free-market economic policy, he said, should remain on course, though the suffering it has brought is seen as the main reason for the voter revolt.

Mr Gaidar called for a 'broad democratic coalition', complaining that voters had listened to 'sweet lies rather than boring unpleasant truth'. President Yeltsin is under no obligation to change the government, he said, but a reshuffle will have to be 'discussed'.

Hardline nationalists also did well in single-member constituencies for another 225 Duma seats. Among those elected was Sergei Baburin, a stalwart opponent of Mr Yeltsin in the Supreme Soviet, and a stridently nationalist TV reporter from St Petersburg, Alexander Nevzorov. Two of those accused of treason for involvement in the 1991 putsch, Anatoly Lukyanov and Vasily Starodubtsov, also won seats.

Three Baltic states - the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - called an emergency summit meeting tomorrow in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to discuss what the election may mean for their often prickly relations with Moscow. Officials in Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus also expressed alarm. The White House in Washington declared the Russian poll a 'good thing' by the mere fact of having taken place but the US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Pickering, said Mr Zhirinovsky may be a disruptive force.

The loudest alarm bells were sounded in Russia itself. Concern was deepened by a statement by Mr Yeltsin's spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov that the Kremlin and the far right might be able to find some common ground. They shared an interest in a 'great Russia', he said.

Sergei Kovalev, a member of Russia's Choice and a former human rights campaigner who worked closely with Andrei Sakharov, was gloomy. 'Four years ago we lost Sakharov. Today we can lose our country. The threat of fascism has risen tall and high. Zhirinovsky means war, blood, poverty and final death for Russia,' he said. 'The people have been deceived by populist slogans, unrealisable promises and cheap acting. Sobriety can come too late and will be too horrible.'

(Photograph omitted)