Captain Vlad whips his crew into line

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MOSCOW - Russia's ultra-nationalist politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, barred internal opponents from a congress of his misnamed Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) this weekend and had no trouble in persuading delegates to rubber-stamp dictatorial powers he has assumed for the next 10 years, writes Helen Womack.

'To reach the harbour of victory named 'President', you must give your captain a chance to hold the steering wheel firmly,' he declared. So the delegates voted without debate to make him party leader until 2004 with the sole right to appoint all office-holders. Naturally, he is also the LDP's presidential candidate. And the party has given up its right to hold annual conferences and will now meet only once every three years.

Mr Zhirinovsky, whose party proved to be the dark horse of the parliamentary race in December, is confident he will win presidential elections which Boris Yeltsin must hold by 1996 at the latest. 'We are the main party in opposition to the present regime,' growled the LDP leader. 'The government is unable to do anything. The longer it stays in power, the more votes we will get at the subsequent elections.'

Mr Zhirinovsky reiterated that his policy would be to restore the borders of the old Soviet empire, raising the Russian flag over independent republics such as Kazakhstan and Georgia. 'Every man has a hobby,' he said to titters from his xenophobic audience. 'Some people collect stamps, some people collect coins, but I must admit to a weakness for collecting border-posts.'

The LDP congress was attended by delegates from Serbia and Iraq who applauded his promise to work for the lifting of economic sanctions against Belgrade and against what he called the 'inconsistent, passive approach of Russia's ruling circles towards Baghdad'. Later, at a separate World Congress of Slav Nations, attended by Serbs and Bulgarians as well as LDP members, Mr Zhirinovsky called for a Slav union which would stand up to the 'diktat of Paris and London'.

Under the bluster, however, Mr Zhirinovsky must be concerned about the cohesion of his party. A few weeks ago several LDP deputies in the State Duma (lower house of parliament) challenged his leadership. They objected to his aggressive rhetoric during his trips abroad and to the fact that he had allowed himself to be photographed naked with men in a sauna on a visit to the former Yugoslavia. Mr Zhirinovsky may bar his critics from congresses but he cannot stop the dissatisfied from leaving and, if he continues to give offence, he may find he is dictator of a party of one.

About 10,000 Communist sympathisers marched peacefully in Moscow yesterday in memory of comrades who died last October when President Yeltsin resorted to force to put down a hardline uprising.

(Photograph omitted)