Russia: Rise and rise of the wild man who would be tsar: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose ultra-nationalists won the largest number of votes, has set his eye on President Yeltsin's job

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The Independent Online
VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY was yesterday catapulted from a grubby back-street block, with a broken lift and a heavy-metal shop selling plastic skulls, to a lectern before 50 television cameras in a luxury Moscow hotel. He assured South African whites they could find refuge in Russia; his own people they would see Slav faces on television and the world that it had nothing to fear.

'I will not send a single soldier abroad,' he said, dressed for his debut before the world's press in a dinner jacket and black bow-tie. 'We will send weapons but we will not send our blood.'

Russia held the key to world peace, he said, outlining a bizarre world without borders, with singing camps for children on the Black Sea and everyone fluent in a multitude of languages. How this will come about is explained in his geo- political treatise, a 143-page volume entitled The Last Thrust to the South, a mix of Mein Kampf, Foreign Affairs magazine and 1984. 'The world is tired of domination, but groups of countries can co-operate. Read my book attentively. Let it be the book on your bedside table. Boris Nikoleyevich (Yeltsin) is reading one page a day.'

Two days after parliamentary elections carried him from the lunatic fringe to the centre of Russian politics, Mr Zhirinovsky, 47, introduced members of his shadow cabinet and read aloud congratulatory messages sent by Russian sailors in the Baltic and the DVU neo-fascist organisation in Germany.

'We are not anti-Semitic,' he told a room packed with journalists from Korea to California, 'but our voters ask us to change certain things. They are tired of so many non-Russian faces on television. They want normal Russian faces who can speak with normal Russian accents. In this respect we would like to help them. The majority of the people should be addressed by Russians. If non-Russians are on every day it provokes anti-Semitism.'

He made it clear he would not content himself with a career on the back benches of the State Duma, the lower house in which his Liberal Democratic Party will be the dominant force, having scored around 24 per cent of the vote in voting for party blocs, compared with 13 per cent for Russia's Choice.

Declaring his party ready to join any coalition government, he said: 'If the President wants us to work, we are ready to work tomorrow.' His party is particularly keen to link up with the Women of Russia Party, he said with a leer: 'We have lots of men capable of co-operating with this movement.' A claque of supporters at the back snickered and applauded the prospect.

But Mr Zhirinovsky is more interested in replacing Mr Yeltsin as president than serving in a new government, which could damage his credibility as the angry rebel and undermine his promises of easy solutions to problems such as unemployment and inflation. 'I don't think President Yeltsin will run and I don't think the Communists will win,' he said, 'I will run for president. But I am a little hesitant. I don't want to be the sole candidate.'

Mr Yeltsin has promised to call a presidential poll next June, two years before time, but is under strong pressure from reformers like Yegor Gaidar, trounced on Sunday, to wait until 1996 so as to prevent a far-right wave from carrying Mr Zhirinovsky any further.

Mr Zhirinovksy came third in the 1991 presidential race with 7 per cent of the vote. Should his next attempt be successful, he would inherit the sweeping powers set out in a constitution drawn up to Mr Yeltsin's specifications and approved by voters on Sunday.

For all his clowning and populist ranting, Mr Zhirinovsky is a shrewd political animal with an instinctive sense of what voters are anxious about and a skill for long- term strategy. He was about the only Russian political leader not to get involved on either side of the conflict at the Russian White House in September and October. He has also proved a talented fundraiser, though yesterday he denied rumours of support from Iraq or other secret sources.

He said his party would not insist on posts in the government, but added: 'If we are asked for our advice, we would object to Chubais and Gaidar. I want them out of government.' Both Mr Gaidar, Economics Minister and head of Russia's Choice, the main reformist party, and Anatoly Chubais, a vice-premier responsible for privatisation, condemn Mr Zhirinovsky as a fascist, refuse to shake his hand and rule out sitting in the same cabinet. Mr Zhirinovsky mocked their remarks as the 'song of a dying swan' and the disarray among reformists: 'They are like quarrelling children.'

Mr Zhirinovsky made few concessions to his audience, offering a familar mix of homilies - 'the time of reforms that hurt people is over. Time of reforms that help people has begun' - denials - 'I am not a fascist' - and bizarre tangents - 'I was born in the year of the dog. Our party will bring happiness. Dogs are faithful. They serve you. This is how dogs are. Our party will never betray you.'

He said he had no objections to Poland and other countries joining Nato and denied wanting to revive the Soviet empire by force. It would happen naturally. 'We do not want territorial expansion.' Former Soviet republics were 'doomed' and would soon 'beg with tears in their eyes to be taken back into Russian state. We don't want anybody. But if world community asks, if they plead for us to take them back we will make a decision.'

Asked why many of his followers often wore sunglasses indoors, he said there had only been one such case and this was due to an eye illness: 'He has left us now. Unfortunately he has gone blind.'