Struggling Zhirinovsky tries sex appeal

Russian elections: The man who dominated the last poll for the Duma has lost the power to shock
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Vladimir Zhirinovsky, at risk of being eclipsed by a new generation of Russian hardliners, appears to be getting desperate. He may still be a bogeyman in the West for his nationalism and nuclear sabre-rattling, but he looks as if he is losing his power to shock and fascinate at home. So he is resorting to sex appeal and mud-slinging in the hope of attracting votes in this month's Duma elections.

The lesson of the last such poll in 1993 was clear: never make any predictions about Russian politics. Then, Mr Zhirinovsky, widely dismissed as a nutcase, swept in and grabbed the largest block of seats in parliament. Not one of the pundits saw him coming.

Mindful of how he will jeer at them if they turn out to be wrong again, analysts are being very cautious about dismissing Mr Zhirinovsky this time. But all the signs are that his star is waning as the resurgent Communists look poised to win the protest votes he took in 1993.

And General Alexander Lebed, whose voice booms like a cannon compared with Mr Zhirinovsky's angry rasp, has now emerged to compete with him for the patriotic constituency.

The latest opinion poll, published by Sevodnya newspaper this week, showed the Communists out in front with an expected 12 per cent of the vote, followed by two different groups of economic reformers and the Women of Russia. Only then did Mr Zhirinovsky's misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) feature with a predicted 4 per cent. He was sharing the expected nationalist vote with General Lebed, right behind with 3 per cent.

Opinion polls are worth little here, of course. More indicative of Mr Zhirinovsky's shaky position are his own campaign tactics.

While others are more or less addressing the issues in their television adverts - General Lebed's show prison bars crashing down on a bribe-taking bureaucrat - the LDPR leader has resorted to sex in an attempt to arouse the voters. "He is going for the lumpen vote," commented Michael McFaul at the Moscow Centre of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

The clip shows a middle-aged man in bed with his wife, hair in curlers. "Who are you going to vote for, Dusya?" asks the husband. "For him, of course," she purrs, "All the others are just too awful." Perhaps the jokey advert could be interpreted as an expression of Mr Zhirinovsky's supreme confidence, that he believes he is so well known he does not need to repeat his promises of making the world tremble before Great Russia. But his vicious verbal attack on President Boris Yeltsin this week suggests something closer to panic.

Mr Zhirinovsky may have abused his domestic opponents and democratic politicians around the world, but he has been careful never to be rude about the Kremlin leader, especially during the President's two bouts of heart disease this year. On Wednesday, however, he broke his own rule and appeared on television, ridiculing Mr Yeltsin in a manner which could backfire. For many Russians, though critical of their President, dislike seeing a man being kicked when he is down.

Mr Yeltsin was like Leonid Brezhnev at the end of his life, sneered Mr Zhirinovsky. "He is a puppet. They bring him in and out." The LDPR leader then went on to claim the credit for giving the Russian leader heart failure. "He was laid up in the Kremlin in July after talking to me. I said, 'Boris Nikolayevich, the country's in a mess, the factories are at a standstill, the people are hungry, sick and dying.' He turned dark red, and then all green, and fell ill."

Mr Zhirinovsky was quite different when he first appeared on the political scene back in 1990. It was perhaps suspicious that a man who had been declared persona non grata in Turkey in the 1970s should be the first to set up an independent party after the Communists renounced their monopoly on power. But he came across then as a liberal in the Western sense of the word.

In the 1991 presidential election, which Mr Yeltsin won, Mr Zhirinovsky did surprisingly well by promising the voters free vodka. Only in the parliamentary elections two years ago did his totalitarian tendencies and imperial ambitions become unmistakable, with his promise that Russian soldiers would "wash their boots in the Indian Ocean" while foreign objectors would risk nuclear attack and domestic dissidents be sent by cattle truck to the Arctic Circle.

Many Russians, disgruntled with economic reform, sent a warning to Mr Yeltsin by voting for Mr Zhirinovsky in 1993. But this time they see the stakes are too high and will choose the more sober Communists.