Yeltsin’s challenge

A hard-liner seeks to turn back the clock

MALCOLM GRAY March 30 1992

Yeltsin’s challenge

A hard-liner seeks to turn back the clock

MALCOLM GRAY March 30 1992

Yeltsin’s challenge



A hard-liner seeks to turn back the clock

In a shabby central Moscow office where the chill forced him to wear a navy-blue parka over his suit coat, Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky interrupted a monologue about Russia’s future revival to look for his name in the newspapers. With a slight smile of approval, he quickly focused on references to him in several front-page reports on a failed March 17 attempt by Communist hard-liners to reconvene the now-defunct Soviet legislature. The former Soviet deputies were unable to muster a quorum of half the old 2,250member parliament. And because Russian authorities had banned them from meeting in the Kremlin, the 150 former legislators who did attend the so-called extraordinary session met in bizarre circumstances: the darkened auditorium of a state dairy farm, 55 km south of Moscow, where the power had been cut. Among those who did show was Zhirinovsky, although he is not a Communist. Instead, he is a would-be dictator, who favors private enterprise and whose championing of Russian nationalism has brought him recognition across the old union. Said the 45-year-old lawyer in an interview with Maclean’s last week: “The congress organizers invited me to be a guest because we share the same goal: to restore Russia’s greatness.”

A farcical atmosphere surrounded the Communist hard-liners’ attempt to turn back the clock. At one point, five busloads of delegates got lost en route to the farm. And television cameras spotted Zhirinovsky engaged in a vigorous argument at roadside with traffic policemen as he tried desperately to find out which way the deputies’ convoy had gone. But the flamboyant politician at least managed to get himself noticed. Reports in the Russian media prominently featured his heated charges that the authorities had harassed deputies seeking to attend the session. And getting noticed is a big part of the continuing battle that Zhirinovsky is waging to wrest the Russian presidency from Boris Yeltsin and return the country to its imperial greatness.

To be sure, the hard-liners' assertion that the Soviet Union still existed—in a resolution that the delegates had to approve by candlelight—posed little immediate threat to Yeltsin. And later that day, a rally to protest the dismantling of the old union drew only about 15,000 demonstrators to the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow’s Manezh Square. Organizers had predicted that many more people would turn up to vent their displeasure with such government actions as widely unpopular price increases on most consumer goods. But the

setbacks are unlikely to check the strengthening alliance between old-line Communists and hard-line nationalists like Zhirinovsky. The leaders of both extreme factions of Russian politics argue that there is only one way to restore the motherland to power and greatness: through a dictator’s iron rule.

Zhirinovsky first gained national prominence through his surprise bid for the Russian presidency last spring. At that time, Russian legislators had sought to screen out frivolous contenders in the first popular election of a national leader in the 1,000-year history of the Russian state. They did so by requiring poten-

Near his desk, a symbol of his controversial stature was slung on a chair: a bulletproof vest

tial entrants to submit signatures from at least 100,000 supporters. But Zhirinovsky, the leader of the tiny Liberal-Democratic party, sidestepped that hurdle. Of the six contenders, he alone joined the race through a little-known provision in a recently enacted election law that grants entry to anyone who can secure backing from at least 20 per cent of the Russian parliament’s legislators. In a manoeuvre that angry democrats charged was simply a KGBengineered tactic to divert votes from Yeltsin, the legislature’s Communist bloc quickly endorsed Zhirinovsky, at the time a political unknown. Declared prominent democrat Nikolai Travkin after Zhirinovsky launched his campaign with a rabble-pleasing pledge to halve the price of vodka: “This nomination is sheer clownery.”

Certainly, Russian and foreign journalists alike discounted Zhirinovsky’s chances of success. But Zhirinovsky proved himself to be a compelling and effective stump speaker. Away from such sophisticated urban centres as Mos-

cow and Leningrad, he struck a chord with ordinary people who sought reassurance and leadership as the old system collapsed about them. Softpedalling his possession of two university degrees and knowledge of English, Spanish,

German and French, Zhirinovsky presented himself as an average man. “I am one of you,” he repeatedly told the voters. “I am an ordinary Russian who lives in a two-room apartment and earns 200 rubles each month.”

When the final ballots were counted, Yeltsin drew about 47 million votes to win handily over his nearest rival, former Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov.

But Zhirinovksy received six million votes for a surprising thirdplace finish. It was a remarkable show of support for a candidate who talked about the need for Russia to control the Moslems of Soviet Central Asia, and who routinely complained that the strongest attacks against him were launched by journalists with Jewish names.

And it was a pointed warning to the West that there were other, more dangerous choices open to Russians than Yeltsin’s policies.

During the past 10 months, as the old union’s economy has shrunk by at least 12 per cent,

Zhirinovsky has maintained his self-proclaimed position as Russia’s czar-in-waiting and its most outrageous politician. In a gloomy assessment of Zhirinovsky’s appeal last December, the Moscow daily newspaper Izvestia concluded: “Zhirinovsky offers an attractive, comprehensible and concrete objective for everyone. For the poor: to loosen the purses of the rich. For business people: the opportunity to deal. For the military: to return honor and dignity. For pensioners: a peaceful life in old age. For all: to transform Cuba into a Soviet health resort.”

For now, Zhirinovsky’s power is limited to the presidency of his small party, an organization with its headquarters on the third floor of a crumbling pre-revolutionary building. There, in a high-ceilinged

suite of offices liberally plastered with huge posters of his image, the Russian nationalist revealed that he is married and that he and his wife, Yelena, have a 20-year-old-son, Igor, who is following his father’s example and studying law. Zhirinovsky added that his party had recently tripled his monthly salary to 600 rubles ($7.98 at the official exchange rate) because of rampant inflation.

Those few personal facts divulged, Zhirinovsky quickly turned the conversation back to

politics. During the next presidential election, he claimed, 60 million Russians would vote for him. After that victory, he added, he would replace the chaos and disorder of the democrats with an authoritarian regime. Declared Zhirinovsky: “If I win, I would do everything possible to ensure that the borders of Russia correspond to those of the Soviet Union. The Baltic states, for instance, are Russian territo-

ry.” Near his desk, a symbol of his controversial stature was slung casually across a chair: a bulletproof vest. Said Zhirinovsky: “That was a gift from some Soviet soldiers. But it is too heavy and I wear a lighter model at rallies and public meetings.”

In recent months, Zhirinovsky has kept himself in the public eye through such acts as unsuccessfully challenging Leningrad Mayor

Anatoly Sobchak to a duel over an imagined slight. He also led a small group of protesters to the walls of Matroskaya Tischina (Sailor’s Silence), a Moscow prison holding the leaders of August’s failed hard-liners’ coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, to demand their freedom. Said Zhirinovsky of the plotters: “They were trying to restore order and I publicly supported that last summer.”

Analysts in Moscow hold widely divergent opinions of Zhirinovsky’s political staying power. Georgy Satarov, the director of Moscow city council’s political research centre, dismisses Zhirinovsky as a marginal figure who did well in the last Russian presidential election only because Yeltsin was competing against an otherwise weak field of opponents. By contrast, Boris Kurashvüi, a senior researcher at the Moscow Institute of State and Law, says that Zhirinovsky has been shrewd enough to cast himself as a populist battling such members of the old Soviet elite as Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Last week, Zhirinovsky mildly rejected depictions of him as a Russian Adolf Hitler, a fascist who would rise to power in the midst of hard times and social breakdown. Said Zhirinovsky: “I much prefer to be compared to Bismarck, the 19th-century statesman who united Germany.”

That appeal has some currency in 20thcentury Russia. Satarov, Kurashvüi and other analysts acknowledge that there are vast numbers of discontented Russians who are ready to support a leader who can restore national pride and impose order on the chaos of post-Soviet life. Among them are members of the fragmenting Soviet army and large Russian communities outside the motherland—including a Russian minority in Ukraine that comprises 22 per cent of the republic’s 52 minion people. For the soldiers, Zhirinovsky promises nothing less than a return to the fuU-alert status of the Cold War era: an end to nuclear disarmament, no more personnel cuts and, indeed, reinforcements of a 300,000-member Soviet force that is stiU stationed in barracks located in eastern Germany. Such an undertaking would clearly damage relations between Russia and the West. But last week Zhirinovsky told Maclean ’s that such a prospect was preferable to Russia’s current status as an international charity case.

Meanwhüe, a shared dislike of democracy I has united Zhirinovsky and such Communist u hard-liners as Viktor Alksnis, the so-caUed “ Black Colonel and one of the leaders of the I Soyuz (union) faction, a pressure group that x opposed the breakup of the former superpow“■ er. But the relatively smaU turnout at last week’s anti-government rally suggests that the alliance of reactionaries is not yet strong enough to chaUenge Russia’s current administration. And as they pin their hopes of gaining power on people’s longing for order, Zhirinovsky and other would-be dictators are competing with a man who has a notable tendency for issuing decrees, ignoring parliament and ruling with a firm hand: Boris Yeltsin.