RUSSIAN ELECTIONS; Zhirinovsky meets his match in Vulgar Vlad the Vulgar

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The Independent Online
Although there have been a few lapses, like the day this week when he appeared before the press wearing a canary-yellow Mao suit, the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky has conducted his campaign for president with relative taste and moderation.

It is generally agreed that the cap and bells have now passed to a new jester of Russian politics, an astonishingly vulgar self-made millionaire called Vladimir Bryntsalov.

He still has a lot to learn from the master. While Mr Zhirinovsky sits stony-faced, allowing his audiences to roar with shocked laughter at his pronouncements, Mr Bryntsalov laughs at his own jokes, brays in fact. "Money is mankind's greatest invention, ha, ha, ha," he says.

But of the also-rans of the election, Mr Bryntsalov, 49, has managed to get noticed. Even if he only gets 1 per cent of the vote, as most of the the polls predict, he has become a nationally known figure, with the chance of a future in Russian politics.

He has been helped by his sexy young wife, Natasha: "My second wife but not my last. Ha, ha, ha!" He is reported to pay her $18,000 (pounds 12,000) a month for housekeeping and "keeping up the family image".

She has followed him everywhere on his election trips. On the road to St Petersburg she was filmed by the side of the Bryntsalov motorcade, coyly picking wild flowers.

On another occasion the strawberry blonde dropped her trousers for the cameras while her husband smacked her bottom. The now-famous bottom has launched a new political career.

But backside apart, what are Mr Bryntsalov's policies? This is harder to say, for he seems mostly interested in flaunting his wealth. Dubbed by some observers the Ross Perot of Russian politics, Mr Bryntsalov can perhaps be described as a nationalist capitalist. Elected to the State Duma in December, he sits with the nationalists and Communists.

But he is far from Communist where economics are concerned. Voters are asked to believe that, because he founded a company with an annual turnover of three trillion roubles (pounds 400m), he can run a country of 150 million people.

His business career is, indeed, interesting. He claims to have come from humble stock in the Stavropol region of southern Russia, the same place which gave the world the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1979 he was expelled from the Communist Party for revealing "petty- bourgeois tendencies" after building himself a three-storey house.

But he flourished in the era of perestroika, setting up a bee-keeping co-operative that earned him $800,000, with which he bought the Soviet Kirov Pharmaceutical Factory in Moscow, turning it into a market leader called Ferane.

He is said to pay $800 a month, a generous wage by Russian standards, to his 15,000 workers who produce antibiotics and other medicines.

But there is another side to Mr Bryntsalov, who has been nicknamed Moonshiner by his colleagues in parliament.

He also produces vodka: bottles with his rugged face on the label are on sale in kiosks all over Moscow. Much of his money has evidently come from the vodka business, as he has taken advantage of the tax breaks given to companies in the health sector. The tax police in Moscow say that he owes 40bn roublesin back-taxes.

Mr Bryntsalov has an interesting past, too. He carries a gun and brags that when he was starting out, he had to fight off the protection racketeers.

"Their bones have long been rotting in Moscow's forests," he claimed recently. A natural showman, he has grasped that you need a big mouth for politics. But if he wishes to achieve respectability, on some subjects he might be advised to keep it shut.