Decoding the Russian message: Zhirinovsky has set a puzzle for Yeltsin and for us, say Alexei Pankin and Andrew Palmer

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The Independent Online
IN THE three weeks since his successful showing in the Russian elections, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has distinguished himself with a torrent of intemperate remarks about Russia's neighbours and its ethnic minorities. Even if one believes that the majority of those who voted for him do not subscribe to these views but voted for him as the only alternative to both the Communists and the pro-government blocs, there is no reason for anyone to be complacent about his political prospects.

Mr Zhirinovsky is the one person for whom the recipe for continued success is fairly simple. In fact, the scale of his success could not have been better: any larger, and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would have had to share responsibility for government failures to come; any smaller, and the LDP would not be the unmistakable focus for opposition.

As long as he remains distinct in the electorate's mind from the government, the President and the Communists, he is therefore likely to reap rewards: any economic upturn will take time to affect the Russian people, and there is a large question mark over President Boris Yeltsin's continued popularity. Moreover, the results have severely damaged the standing of some of Mr Zhirinovsky's main potential rivals for the presidency, should Mr Yeltsin step down.

For Mr Yeltsin and the ruling blocs, the options are dangerous, unfeasible or highly inconsistent with previous policy. He could, for instance, attempt to pre-empt a future President Zhirinovsky by trying to water down the Constitution, but that is inherently unlikely given his efforts to have the Constitution adopted in the first place; and anyway, the document is extremely difficult to amend.

He might also, perhaps, be tempted to try to dissolve the Parliament again - but this would invalidate his perceived democratic status in the West and at home, and would be extremely risky. Mr Zhirinovsky scored well with the armed forces in the elections, and if their support for the President was hesitant in September and October when the Parliament was unpopular, there is no guarantee that it would be forthcoming at all if events repeated themselves.

The President and the government have three more realistic courses available to them: first, they could attempt to sideline Mr Zhirinovsky by keeping him out of government and forming as broad a coalition against him in the Parliament as possible. The solidity of this coalition, however, would be questionable, since it singularly failed to emerge during the campaign among the ruling blocs themselves, let alone between them and the Communists. The sizeable presence of 'independents' in the Parliament, whose political affiliations are unclear, coupled with an absence of party discipline, make an anti-Zhirinovsky alliance look at best extremely unwieldy. More important, even if such an alliance were to prove effective within the Parliament, the vilification and isolation of Mr Zhirinovsky would only seem to reinforce his standing as an untainted alternative.

Second, the President could attempt to bind Mr Zhirinovsky in by inviting him to join the government, and hope that he slips up in political work in practice. This option would have to be a long-term one, and it would hold great risks with which Mr Yeltsin should be familiar: Mikhail Gorbachev followed a similar strategy against Mr Yeltsin - and that battle is now long over. Mr Yeltsin could also try to over-expose Mr Zhirinovsky, and hope that this produces a reaction against him. If, for instance, the most popular foreign television soap operas were cancelled to make way for broadcasts by Mr Zhirinovsky, the demagogue would soon find his popularity threatened.

Third, the President and the government could shift on to Zhirinovsky-type political ground, in order to render him obsolete. A less extreme and better disguised doctrine of xenophobia would not be entirely inconsistent with current Russian policy towards the so-called 'near abroad' - the other former Soviet republics.

The remarks of the presidential spokesman in the immediate aftermath of the election, to the effect that the pro-reformists could find common ground on 'social issues, a strong Russia and patriotism' with both nationalists and Communists, indicate how the President might try to strip Mr Zhirinovsky of a monopoly on this most conspicuous of political issues. By so doing, however, Mr Yeltsin would surely alienate the West, Russia's neighbours, and some of his own political allies, while at the same time offering no guarantee that his own standing would improve or that Mr Zhirinovsky's popularity with the electorate would be reduced.

Ultimately, the key factor in the fortunes of the various political players remains the economy, and the extent of its growth in the short term. If Russians start to feel more secure in their jobs and have more money in their pockets when they next go to the polls, then their perception of the government and the President will be correspondingly more favourable. Unfortunately for the men in power, long-term economic improvement in Russia depends largely on short-term suffering, and many more politically harmful decisions must be taken before any improvement begins to show.

It is worth noting that the Zhirinovsky phenomenon has posed problems for the West that are not dissimilar to those faced by Mr Yeltsin. The United States Vice- President, Al Gore, has already described Mr Zhirinovsky's views as 'anathema to all freedom-loving people'; accurate though this statement is, it does not necessarily play well to the gallery of the Russian electorate, may only serve to give the Liberal Democratic Party increased momentum, and ignores the paradox of Mr Zhirinovsky's success in elections that have received the approval of the international community.

The prospect of Mr Zhirinovsky benefiting in 1996 from the terms of a constitution that can arguably be said to enshrine something approaching dictatorial powers is alarming; yet, given the catalogue of dilemmas that face the authorities, the fact that Mr Yeltsin himself will now possess such powers is not especially reassuring, despite continued Western faith in him as the guardian of Russian democracy and reform. The use of labels such as 'democrat', 'fascist' and 'free-marketeer' to make sense of the Russian political landscape is understandable, but the result is gross oversimplification.

During the campaign, for instance, Mr Yeltsin threatened to remove free television airtime from blocs that criticised the Constitution, and nearly doubled the minimum wage for government workers, to the displeasure of the finance ministry. After the imposition of the state of emergency in October 1993, large numbers of non-Russians were arbitrarily expelled from Moscow. Moreover, talk of an alliance between pro-reform blocs and the Communists to nullify the far right threat makes the shelling of the parliament building in October appear somewhat futile.

The categorisation of blocs and personalities in Russia today is valid only to the extent that it applies to what people say, not what they do. Some are undoubtedly better than others, but it is inadvisable to demonise one group and laud another at so early a stage. The political agenda in Russia over the next two years will not be set by ideologies, and the election results themselves fit no doctrinal pattern. The people have spoken, but it is difficult to understand their message.

The authors work for the East-West Co-operation Programme of the European Institute for the Media, Dusseldorf, Germany. The Institute carried out a media-monitoring mission in Russia, funded by the European Commission, during the election campaign.

(Photograph omitted)