Leading Article: Keep the outsider beyond the pale

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN must soon decide on a strategy for dealing with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, his far-right challenger. At his press conference yesterday he showed few signs of having made up his mind.

His choice is between containment and isolation. Containment is clearly tempting. Mr Zhirinovsky would be brought into government in the hope of associating him with unpopular policies, showing up his probable incompetence and giving him enough publicity to discredit himself.

The attraction of this option is that if Mr Zhirinovsky could be persuaded to go along with it, he would no longer be able to pose as the aggrieved, unsullied outsider. He would have to share responsibility for the failures as well as the successes of the government. But the policy could easily backfire. It would enable Mr Zhirinovsky to claim respectability and government experience and to demand regular access to the media. Mr Yeltsin would be falling into the same trap as demoralised President Hindenburg, who handed the chancellorship of Germany to Hitler in 1933 in the belief that the upstart could be controlled.

The other option is to go for maximum isolation by building up an anti-Zhirinovsky bloc in parliament, being prepared to use presidential powers to ignore or overrule the legislature and imposing still tighter controls over the media. The disadvantages of this option are that Mr Zhirinovsky would remain the angry outsider, a role that suits him very well, while Mr Yeltsin would be accused of trampling on the rights of parliament and stifling free expression.

On balance, however, this is the better option. A man as dangerously irresponsible as Mr Zhirinovsky should not be accorded respectability even for seemingly good tactical reasons. He is not the type of person who becomes reasonable and realistic when given responsibility. He needs to be kept firmly beyond the pale. That injunction applies as much to Western politicians as to Mr Yeltsin himself.

The confused signs emanating from Mr Yeltsin suggest that he is leaning in that direction. He has committed himself to retaining Yegor Gaidar, the Economics Minister, so there will be no sharp reversal of reform. He has abolished the KGB, which may have supported Mr Zhirinovsky. Less happily, he is tightening control of the media. Ultimately, however, he can destroy Mr Zhirinovsky only by persuading the voters that current policies are the right ones. To do this, he will need visible improvements in the economy before the presidential election in 1996.