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Canny clown plays media's own game: Zhirinovsky is using hostile news coverage to his own advantage, writes Tony Barber

SINCE his startling success in last December's Russian elections, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has proved remarkably adept at using the world's news organisations for his own purposes. His bizarre antics and outrageous statements have received so much publicity that he has rapidly established himself as one of the most notorious politicians on earth.

From his point of view, it matters little that foreign media coverage of his doings has been almost universally hostile or mocking. The important thing is that he keeps making the headlines and keeps getting talked about. This feeds back into Russia, consolidates his image there and serves to undermine the stature of his rivals, especially Boris Yeltsin.

The international media are virtually unanimous in viewing Mr Zhirinovsky as an ultra-nationalist demagogue who could prove extraordinarily dangerous in power. Yet there is also a temptation to treat him as a kind of Slavic Tommy Cooper, a political comedian whose performance is often so ludicrous that it becomes too good a story to pass over.

Mr Zhirinovsky exploits this factor with considerable skill. He ensures that his remarks are as ridiculous, abusive and eye-catching as possible. One minute he talks about a secret Russian super-weapon that is more powerful than a nuclear missile. The next minute he derides Bill Clinton by saying he would have whipped him with branches in a sauna if he had met him in Moscow last month.

Much of this gets reported. One reason is that most newspapers and television and radio stations subscribe to the major international news services - Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse - which, since December, have carried hundreds of colourful stories about Mr Zhirinovsky. Reading these items every day, and often conditioned to believe that any agency item must be real news, the rest of the media find it hard to resist giving the 'Zhirinovsky story' one more go.

Some news media have decided to ignore much of what Mr Zhirinovsky says and pay more attention to his shadowy past and business dealings. Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an article on 24 January that detailed his financial links with a front company operated by the West Berlin affiliate of the former East German Communist Party.

Other news organisations have offered Mr Zhirinovsky what amounts to a free platform for his views. Last Thursday's Nine O'Clock News on BBC1 carried an interview with him on Ireland, a subject on which British television does not normally solicit the opinions of Russian politicians. Predictably, Mr Zhirinovsky seized the opportunity to make a string of foolish and offensive observations.

An even stranger example occurred last Tuesday when the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, a London-based satellite television service, aired an interview with Mr Zhirinovsky that concentrated on Arab and Muslim matters. He wasted no time in suggesting Arabs should live in tents or mud houses, travel exclusively by camel or donkey and abolish Arabic script for Latin or Cyrillic.

Few if any news media advocate a black-out on Mr Zhirinovsky. The Russian parliamentary election results demonstrated that, however clownish he seems on the surface, he has a solid electoral base and is a genuine force in politics. It is quite conceivable that he will contest and win the presidential election due in 1996 and thus inherit the formidable array of powers incorporated into the presidency by Mr Yeltsin.

For that reason, most media believe it is important to let their readers and viewers know what he stands for. Accordingly, the European last week published a map of Europe on its front page with Mr Zhirinovsky's felt- pen markings showing how he would redraw the continent's borders. His scribblings indicated that Russia and Germany would carve up Poland, Germany would absorb Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and Russia would take over Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic states except for the cities of Tallinn and Kaunas.

Sometimes Mr Zhirinovsky's interviews provide what seem to be valuable insights into his character and thinking. Talking last month to the Belgrade newspaper Vecernje Novosti, he said: 'I love the army, the KGB and the secret political police. That is my flaw. I love them. Other people go fishing or have other hobbies, while my hobby within the framework of politics is my sympathy for the structure of power.'

Some news media have implicitly questioned Mr Zhirinovsky's sanity, but it is as well to remember that he is a man who emerged from humble origins to win a place at Moscow University's elite Institute of Oriental Languages, where he studied Turkish. He also served as a lieutenant in an intelligence unit of the Soviet army, and he ran a highly effective election campaign in December.

He is therefore too intelligent not to appreciate the benefits of intensive media coverage. Indeed, he needs such coverage since it transforms him from the leader of a minority party into the most dynamic player on Russia's political stage.

One of the most perceptive remarks about him came from the Czech Prime Minister, Vaclav Klaus. Asked to comment on Mr Zhirinovsky's remark that the Czech Republic would soon be reduced to Prague and a few breweries, Mr Klaus replied: 'There is no need to make witty comments about Zhirinovsky's statement. The issue is what kind of contribution can be made to deprive such Zhirinovskys of their fertile soil.'

(Photograph omitted)