A barrage of bluster keeps Zhirinovsky in spotlight

FOR VLADIMIR Zhirinovsky, a week is definitely a long time in politics. After being expelled from Bulgaria, banned from Germany and told he was unwanted in Austria, he cancelled plans to visit Australia and said he would rather go to France.

He also recommended the removal of Bulgaria's President, called Romanians 'Italian gypsies' living in an artificial country, and was compared in newspapers around the world with Hitler, Stalin, Rasputin and Michael Jackson. He wrapped up the week by meeting a young Italian in Moscow who believes he is showing the stigmata of Jesus Christ. The Welt am Sontag reports today that he has threatened to station 300,000 troops in Germany and 'completely destroy' it in launching the Third World War.

Moscow-based reporters who hoped to question him about his antics were told by his assistants last Thursday that they would have to pay dollars 300 ( pounds 200) for a 10-minute interview. One news organ that will not be shelling out is the Romanian paper Meridian, which instead demanded 'a straitjacket for the lunatic'.

Mr Zhirinovsky, the far- right leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, stirred more controversy last week than most political figures do in their careers. Nor was it all media piffle. Bulgaria's President, Zhelyu Zhelev, made the point that, having seen what Mr Zhirinovsky is like at close quarters, he was more determined than ever that Bulgaria should bolster its security by joining Nato.

The Russian politician, before his expulsion from Sofia, had introduced a mysterious Bulgarian acquaintance, Svetoslav Stoilov, as the country's next president. Later he called Mr Zhelev 'scum' because a pilots' strike was delaying his departure from Sofia airport.

The German and Austrian authorities certainly do not find him a frivolous figure. Given his well-known contacts with a right-wing German extremist, Gerhard Frey, and like-minded Austrians, these two countries have excellent reasons for keeping him out. So do other West European democracies with far-right movements, and so do East European countries whose very right to exist Mr Zhirinovsky questions.

Australia might have let him in, but Mr Zhirinovsky abruptly withdrew a visa request that he had lodged on the grounds that he wanted to visit a niece in Sydney. Whether the niece exists is unknown. What seems certain is that, had he gone there, he would have held press conferences and made still more outrageous headline- catching statements.

Since his party took 23 per cent of the vote in Russia's parliamentary elections on 12 December, Mr Zhirinovsky has taken pains to keep himself in the public eye. He remarked, for example, that Russia possessed a secret weapon, the 'Elipton', which was more powerful than a nuclear missile. No less a figure than Russia's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was forced to deny this. But the damage was done: Mr Zhirinovsky had generated more publicity for himself.

Last Wednesday, the US State Department felt obliged to step into the picture. A spokesman said: 'Zhirinovsky has a history of inflammatory public statements, and the US government condemns the anti- Semitic, racist and xenophobic views expressed in (them).'

Clearly, foreign governments are not dismissing Mr Zhirinovsky as a clown or moron. His strong electoral performances - he also won 6 million votes when running against Boris Yeltsin for the Russian presidency in 1991 - mean that he, his voters and his financial backers are forces to be reckoned with. The identity of those backers is starting to attract attention. A Russian newspaper, Segodnya, suggested last week that Mr Zhirinovsky's recent election campaign had been financed partly by an Amsterdam-based company, Global Money Management Trust Financial Services (GMM).

GMM is run by Anton Nenakov, described in the Dutch press as a 'Russian investment adviser' - a species that has gone forth and multiplied so naturally in Russia recently that one might be forgiven for thinking that the Communist system did nothing all those years except breed merchant bankers and market analysts. Not much is known about GMM except that, according to Russia's central bank, it has no banking licence and therefore its operations in Russia are illegal. GMM advertises frequently on Russian television, promising huge returns on a minimum investment of dollars 1,000, by investing in stock markets.

The Dutch central bank wrote to GMM recently, warning it that, since it is not a bank, it is not allowed to attract money from the market and perform banking services. Firm evidence of a connection between GMM and Mr Zhirinovsky remains elusive, but no one believes for one minute his assertion that voters' donations paid for his election campaign.

Russian academic experts have told Western reporters that they believe Mr Zhirinovsky received funds from European far-right groups, notably in Germany. This may explain why he was so keen to visit Berlin last week. He claimed he was going there for a 'European conference', but German officials said that there was no record of plans for any such meeting in the city.

It is a fair bet that, as Mr Zhirinovsky solicits more and more media attention, so journalists and other investigators will uncover more and more murky details of his finances and shadowy political supporters in Russia. Whether that will finish him off with the Russian electorate is another matter.

(Photograph omitted)

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