Right seduces poor and downtrodden

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Liberal-minded Russians were yesterday reeling from the shock that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra-nationalist politician whom they had dismissed as a crazy clown, has done so well in parliamentary elections as to become the likely leader of the opposition to President Boris Yeltsin and a strong contender for the presidency in future. 'The lumpenproletariat voted for him. He will be like Hitler,' said one Moscow artist who has for some time been considering emigrating and is now determined to do so.

Yegor Gaidar, the economic reformer and leader of the Russia's Choice bloc which took a drubbing from Mr Zhirinovsky's supporters, said the situation in Russia today resembled that in Germany's Weimar Republic before Hitler rose to power. Yelena Bonner, the wife of the late physicist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, said reformers had brought a catastrophe on themselves by failing to work together and they must urgently learn the lesson of Mr Zhirinovsky's victory at the polls.

Mr Zhirinovsky first emerged on to the political stage in 1990 when the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed non- Communists to join the May Day rally for the first time. Leaders of some Western liberal parties marched with him, taking at face value his claim that he was close to them on the political spectrum. A lawyer and linguist, Mr Zhirinovsky chose as his flag a cheerful yellow sun on a sky-blue background and called his party the Liberal Democratic Party. In the 1991 presidential election campaign Mr Zhirinovsky, almost an unknown, amused the voters with his irreverent rhetoric and promises of free vodka, and surprised everyone by coming third in the poll which Mr Yeltsin won.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a hawk and a map of Greater Russia were added to his flag and it became clear the party was anything but liberal. He promised to recover not just the Soviet empire but the whole Tsarist empire, which included parts of Poland and Finland. Yesterday he denied ever speaking of annexing neutral Finland. 'Finland? Incorporate? No, it's just malicious propaganda,' he told the Finnish press. But he definitely had made the threat, in the hearing of scores of foreign correspondents.

As he dumped the pretence of being a Western-style liberal, he had his curly hair shaved short and took to wearing battle fatigues. When Iraq was isolated after the Gulf war, he organised a military parade at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport to see off a handful of his volunteers whom he sent to Baghdad as a gesture of support for Saddam Hussein.

In 1992, I attended one of his rallies where he said that Western ambassadors going out to the newly independent Baltic states should 'pack their cases and the Japanese insisted on their right to the Kurile Islands, 'let them remember 1945, let them remember Hiroshima'. He denied he was racist and anti-Semitic but said: 'Why is it that all the shit written about me is signed by journalists with Jewish names?'

For this election Mr Zhirinovsky, 47, whose party claims 100,000 members, tried to tone down his aggressive image. His television appearances, paid for by mysterious sponsors, were made in lounge suits rather than military uniform. His slogan - 'You'll be all right with me' - appealed to the impoverished, downtrodden and humiliated.

The new Zhirinovsky line is that the empire will be recovered not by force but by economic pressure on the former Soviet republics. The poor will live well under him, as there is much state revenue to be made from arms sales, and only criminals need fear his summary justice. But even when he was on his best behaviour, Mr Zhirinovsky let slip some insane remarks, including predicting that Russia would one day achieve its nationalist ambition of extending itself to the Indian Ocean.

Such comments did not deter the voters, but on the contrary struck a chord with people longing to be proud patriots again. Many soldiers, including the men from the Taman division who helped Mr Yeltsin crush the old parliament in October, appear to have voted for Mr Zhirinovsky.

Those who have observed the Russian fascist leader explain him in different ways. Some say he is mentally ill, some say he is a brilliant strategist and populist who taps into people's emotions without worrying about logic. Some say he cannot relate to women, some say he suffered humiliation as an ethnic Russian growing up in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Some say he must be linked with the KGB - how else did he learn four languages, including Turkish, and even spend some time in Turkey in a period when the Soviet authorities discouraged ordinary citizens from having contacts with foreigners?

Whatever the truth, Russians can no longer laugh at Mr Zhirinovsky and the reformist politicians are going to have to deal with him. The Privatisation Minister, Anatoly Chubais, said he would never offer his hand to a fascist but Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, was more conciliatory, saying there were points in the LDP programme that corresponded to the President's ideas. Mr Zhirinovsky says he will co-operate but wants the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Mr Gaidar sacked and the defence, security and interior portfolios for his party.

(Photograph omitted)