Media: The right image for Russia: Vladimir Zhirinovsky proved a master media manipulator. Michael Sutherland reports

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The Independent Online
Journalists took great care when dealing with Vladimir Zhirinovsky during Russia's five-week election campaign: he watches the media as much as the media watch him.

The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party does not like journalists calling him a fascist: ultra-conservative or right-wing nationalist may be acceptable, but if described as fascist, he tends to sue for libel, or not to speak to the offender again.

Russia's most extreme and outspoken politician is also the most sensitive about his image. From party propaganda papers such as Falcon of Zhirinovsky and Truth of Zhirinovsky to interviews with the foreign press, during which he moves between English, French, German and Turkish, Mr Zhirinovsky is selling Mr Zhirinovsky. Little wonder that his image was the most skilfully constructed of any politician in election campaign.

He used the media, particularly television, with a sophistication that set his campaign apart. In the party's free air time on state-run television and its advertisements, he was always the focus. He looked relaxed as he spoke to the camera about his policies, concern over Russia's future and even his sex life. In contrast, other political leaders - including First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar of the Russia's Choice party - looked ill at ease.

It was common to hear Russians say they understood Mr Zhirinovsky, and that other political leaders confused them. His media skills and ability to offer quick solutions to complex problems impressed Dr Elisabeth Schillinger of the Russian-American Press and Information Center, an independent nongovernment body that promotes a free press in Russia. 'He says things other people wouldn't dare simplify to such an extent.'

She cites a debate on the national television network a few days before the election. 'There were six candidates, but Mr Zhirinovsky received one-third of the air time. He simply out-talked everyone else. He was so glib, and explained himself in complete sentences.'

Dr Schillinger's centre found that in the last three weeks of the campaign, Mr Zhirinovsky received more television time than any other political leader - and even benefited from a documentary called The Hawk, which was intended to be an 'expose'. Its eve-of-election screening by a pro-government Moscow television channel, however, showed the paucity of his opponents' understanding of the media: rather than shocking voters, the image of a wildly nationalistic and at times merry Zhirinovsky is considered to have won him votes.

Unlike the reform parties, which offered sedate press conferences, the LDP held colourful, noisy rallies, complete with catchy 'Zhirinovsky Song'. The star was always its leader, surrounded by bodyguards and advisers, sweeping through supporters and mounting a platform to give them a fresh dose of his grand plans for a new Russian empire, and an impassioned denunciation of the government's economic reforms.

Although the results of the television survey were unexpected, Dr Schillinger is not surprised. 'A charismatic speaker who talks in short sound bites tends to get television time,' she says, 'and Zhirinovsky was the best.'

The LDP leader has tried to protect his image in the West by successfully suing an English-language magazine in Moscow for calling him a fascist in 1992, and having aides explain the nuances of his nationalism. Some Western journalists covering the election complained that, after reading an outrageous statement attributed to Mr Zhirinovsky in the Russian press, he would later dispute the accuracy of the quote or claim it had been taken out of context.

Such sophistication in the roughhouse of Russian political debate impressed a British political group, which held seminars in Moscow in November. The courses on the mechanics of organising political campaigns were organised by the British Embassy and run by a journalist and four representatives of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties.

Mr Zhirinovsky was the only political leader to attend, and the group noted he was better informed about campaign methods than representatives of the other parties. When Russians were asked to name the qualities they sought in a leader, they said he should be attractive, heroic and moderately articulate - trustworthiness and consistency were less important. And they all named Mr Zhirinovsky as Russia's most effective political leader.

Though the LDP leader's appreciation of the importance of his public image is acute, the treatment of journalists by some party helpers is not. Western journalists complain that intermediaries often demand payment for access to LDP leaders. And last week a Moscow Times reporter was ejected from party headquarters when he tried to hold a prearranged interview.

Mr Zhirinovsky's dealings with journalists are just as dramatic. One senior British correspondent says that, although he waves his arms during interviews, 'has the demeanour of someone addressing a large crowd . . . has no concept of personal conversation and speaks like a cartoon dictator', he gives the most lucid analysis of Russian politics.

No doubt Mr Zhirinovsky would attribute this to his credo, as he explained to Kuranty, a popular Moscow daily, on 16 December: 'Politics is the art of deception, and it's necessary not to be ashamed of that.'

(Photograph omitted)