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Fascist threat or court jester?

Russian poll: Zhirinovsky rides a new hobbyhorse
On a hot afternoon late last month, a dozen park workers in the city of Yaroslavl were leaning on their shovels, taking a rest from digging the flower beds. Only one of them had made up his mind how he intended to vote in the coming presidential election. The rest, like about half of the Russian electorate, were still wavering.

"I'm for Wolfovich [Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky]," said Alexander Zabelin with a grin. "And what's wrong with that? Germany had Hitler and see how well the Germans live now." Gradually his workmates began to take up the idea, and soon it was a chorus of "Zhirinovsky, Zhirinovsky, Zhirinovsky."

The incident was very instructive. Russia's presidential election is being portrayed by the domestic and foreign media as a two-horse race between Boris Yeltsin and his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov. The notoriously unreliable Russian opinion polls predict Mr Zhirinovsky, extreme nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) will win about 5 per cent of the vote. But Mr Zhirinovsky says he has a realistic chance of finishing third in the first round of voting on 16 June.

If he does beat contenders such as the market reformer, Grigory Yavlinsky, the moderate nationalist, General Alexander Lebed, and the eye surgeon, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, he will be in a powerful position to bargain with Mr Yeltsin and Mr Zyuganov, who are widely expected to face each other in the second round.

In the latest election campaign, the bad boy of Russian politics, who in the past has threatened to extend the Russian empire over half the globe and nuke any countries which object, has been projecting a more moderate image. Coalitions are his new hobbyhorse.

Last week, he suggested he would be prepared to co-operate with Mr Zyuganov against Mr Yeltsin - "if Zyuganov goes down on his knees to me". Then this week he came up with the idea of a government made up of all the election candidates under Mr Yeltsin. The Communists could have the social welfare portfolio, he said, General Lebed could be the defence minister and Mr Zhirinovsky himself could be in charge of justice and propaganda.

Six years after Mr Zhirinovsky appeared on the political scene, it is hard to know what to make of him. Does he represent a genuine Fascist threat? Or is he just a mad joker?

He emerged in 1990, arguing for Thatcherite-style market reforms. In the presidential election of 1991, in which he came third, he became more populist, but there was little sign of the rabid nationalism which was to help the LDPR to do so well in the 1993 parliamentary election when, at his victory press conference, he gave out copies of his book Last Thrust to the South, in which he spoke of Russian soldiers "washing their boots in the ... Indian Ocean". Last Wagon to the North followed, in which he described how those who disagreed with him would be carted off to Siberia in cattle trucks.

If, however, one cuts through the outrageous bluster, one sees that in practice, Mr Zhirinovsky has done very little to undermine Mr Yeltsin, even remaining loyal to him over Chechnya. Is he then a licensed jester, acting as a safety valve for the Kremlin incumbent by drawing off the loony vote?

Who the mystifying Mr Zhirinovsky really is may become clear if he gets to hold the balance of power. But until then, it seems, he is trying to be all things to all men.