Russia 'is no Weimar Republic': President pledges to defend his country's infant democracy against forces of fascism

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - President Boris Yeltsin yesterday confronted the question that has spooked foreign capitals and his own government like no other: is Russia another Weimar Republic and is Vladimir Zhirinovsky its Adolf Hitler? The answer: probably not, at least not yet, writes Andrew Higgins.

'Some people are now comparing the Germany of the 1930s with Russia of 1993. I don't think there are grounds for this,' Mr Yeltsin told his first news conference since voters endorsed a new constitution granting the President sweeping powers but rebuffed his government's radical reforms.

But, added Mr Yeltsin: 'In some cases there are similarities. Wounded national feelings, dislocation, poor living conditions. But there is a key thing that Germany did not have and we have - a president and a constitution standing on guard against fascism.'

Support for ultra-nationalists in elections on 12 December stunned the cabinet and panicked foreign countries, particularly Baltic states and other former Soviet republics along Russia's rim. 'Russian democracy,' warned Mr Yeltsin, 'has not yet outgrown its childhood.'

Parallels between Germany and Russia, made immediately after the poll by Yegor Gaidar and other members of the government, are perhaps overstated. Inflation in Weimar Germany peaked in October 1923 at some 45,000 per cent. Russian inflation last month was some 15 per cent, higher than the double-digit rate initially promised by the end of the year but still nearly half what it was six months ago. Suffering, though, is real. Some 40 million are living below the poverty line, official statistics show.

The Liberal Democratic Party, an ultra-nationalist group led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, won 24 per cent of the votes cast for 225 seats in the State Duma allocated by proportional representation. This compares with around 18 per cent for Hitler in 1930. Russian reformers fared better in first past the post constituency races but, said Mr Yeltsin: 'In such conditions the most unusual turns are possible.'

Mr Yeltsin said Mr Zhirinovsky had been 'puffed up' by the press and might not prove as dangerous as feared. He condemned 'primitive nationalism, outright lies and even dangerous provocation' and added: 'Let us look at what he and his party do, at what they do in parliament and then we will decide how to co-operate with them.'

The constitution gives Mr Yeltsin a relatively free hand to appoint the government. Sooner or later, though, he will have to decide whether to confront Mr Zhirinovsky or try to co-opt him. Von Hindenburg faced the same decision as president of Germany 60 years ago. He appointed Hitler chancellor.