Is he a clown or a dictator? This time the West had better get it right

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The Independent Online
THE historian Konrad Heiden first encountered Hitler in 1920. Heiden was a student in Munich; Hitler a headbanger on the nationalist fringe. What Hitler said seemed then utter nonsense to Heiden. Here was somebody worth hitting, but not worth taking seriously.

'In 1920, and the years following, my friends and I certainly did not view our modest fist-fights and other encounters with the National Socialists as an attempt to put an end to the career of the modern Genghis Khan, and I would have jeered at anyone who had prophesied that this was the beginning of a new epoch in world history.' With those honest words, Heiden began his great biography Der Fuhrer, published in 1944 as the final destruction of Europe and millions of its people began. They are words for this hour.

The question of Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky is so enormous that it becomes absurd. It is an 'either/or' whose poles are so far apart it is hard to describe them without sounding like a Jewish joke about philosophy.

Either Vladimir Wolfovich is going to destroy half the world and the happiness of all our children, or he is going to do nothing at all. Either he is a new Hitler, or he is a trivial clown whose name will hardly be remembered in five years' time. Either he is about to become dictator of Russia and use the threat of nuclear war to reconquer the Soviet empire, or he will be laughed off the stage and end his days renting out videos in Nizhni Novgorod. Well, which? If we can't answer a question that simple and that big, what the hell can we answer? Or do we know nothing about the world in which we live. Fair points] But, unfortunately, all our shame still cannot tell us which alternative is true about Vladimir Wolfovich.

Governments have to make up their minds even if we cannot; that is what we pay them for. Almost every foreign minister, prime minister and head of state in the Western world has now said that the views held by Mr Zhirinovsky - his intention to reconquer lost 'Soviet' territories, his contempt for democracy, his screaming racialism directed against Jews but also against a constantly changing selection of foreigners - are horrible and deplorable. What they do not say is whether he is to be taken seriously and, if so, what they would like to do about him.

All the same, a sort of Western line is emerging - in Europe at least, for the White House is plainly still baffled by last weekend's election results. This line does not exactly deny that there are two Zhirinovsky possibilities, Hitler or clown. But it prefers to look in the brighter direction, like this:

'In the Duma, the 'Liberal Democrats' led by Zhirinovsky will be in a strong but not commanding position. The new constitution will mean that Yeltsin can push ahead with reforms without paying much attention to parliamentary resistance. Admittedly, the sweeping presidential powers in this constitution raise the stakes; if Vladimir Wolfovich were to win the next presidential elections against Yeltsin, he could make himself a dictator without difficulty. But there is a good chance that by 1996, the likely date for that election, Zhirinovsky will have 'lost credibility' with the voters by 'failing to deliver'. We in the West should therefore encourage President Yeltsin to press ahead with economic reform, and not to conciliate the far right and the Communists by slowing down. And we should avoid 'anticipating the worst'. If we rush into extending Nato protection to Poland or the Baltics, for example, that would justify Zhirinovsky's anti-Western paranoia in Russian eyes and set off a downward spiral in our relationship . . .'

Such is the emerging Western view. It had better be right. If not, nobody still alive in 10 years' time will wish to remember it. The logic is beguiling: this clown is not Hitler, but if you react as if he were, then Hitler he may become. But I prefer an older, cruder logic: Wehret den Anfangen] - nip it in the bud] For three reasons, I do not feel like waiting to see what will become of Vladimir Wolfovich. (Yes, his father, Wolf Aronovich Zhirinovsky, was apparently a Jew.)

The first reason is 'rejectionism'. In October, a faction in the besieged parliament tried to carry out a coup d'etat. Those people did not just challenge Boris Yeltsin or the market economy; they rejected the whole republic that had emerged from the fall of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. People like that, who have denounced the post-imperial rulers as traitors and written the verdict in their own blood, do not go away. They return, using the democratic system they intend to destroy, until they have power. Zhirinovsky's showing last Sunday was their first counter-attack, only two months after the tanks blasted them out of the Russian parliament. Even if he turns out a clown, they will be back: farce repeated until it becomes tragedy.

My second reason is about centres that do not hold. The enemies of democracy do not have to win majorities. All they have to do is infect the centre with their own poison, until the rulers become so undemocratic that citizens no longer think the republic is worth defending. This happened in Germany in 1932-33. Hindenburg as President and Von Schleicher as Chancellor brought the Nazis into government at a moment when Hitler's electoral support was falling away, when Germany was ruled by an authoritarian clique concerned only with order. President Yeltsin's new powers make him an authoritarian ruling a people bitterly disillusioned with their new state. He, too, could try to bolster the state's authority by offering Zhirinovsky a taste of power. Who, then, would come into the street and fight to defend democracy against Vladimir Wolfovich?

The third reason for action is the danger to European security. Outside the military mutual-assistance guarantee of Nato's Article V, nobody is safe. Nato's reluctance to expand its membership eastwards is understandable; Yeltsin, with the army breathing down his neck, warns that to include Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia would be seen as an unfriendly act towards Russia. But the time when painful choices could be avoided is over.

The black smoke rising from the Russian parliament announ ced that Russia's future, and her external policies, will be incalculable and may well be dangerous to peace. Nobody suggests drawing Ukraine and Belarus into Nato; that 'inner abroad' belongs to the arrangements of the Commonwealth of Independent States. But to bring Poland, above all, fully into the guarantees and obligations of the pact would make Europe a safer place. Lines must now be drawn, uncertainties reduced.

Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky is one of those uncertainties. I want to reduce him by telling him exactly how far he can go. It is certain that he is a rabble-rousing clown with Nazi views; less certain that he will achieve his ambition to threaten world peace. But I do not feel like gambling on that.