GOODBYE, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extremist rabble rouser. Welcome Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian statesman and political leader.
Hordes of reporters and television cameras dogging his every step, the Russian ultranationalist is clearly basking in the legitimacy granted him by a stunning victory in the Russian parliamentary elections. Before a packed house of Western and Russian reporters on Dec. 14, Mr. Zhirinovsky talked as if his ascension to the Russian presidency in the next election was an accomplished fact.
The tall, husky former lawyer is not bothered should President Boris Yeltsin choose to back off from a pledge to hold early presidential elections next June but instead stay in office until the end of his term in 1996. ``I will turn 50 then,'' he says. ``It will be a nice birthday present for me.''
As the final tallies of the Russian vote come in, Zhirinovsky's arrogance - and the fearful reaction of his reformist opponents to his rise - is understandable. One of out every four Russian voters cast a ballot for his party, making it the front-runner by a large margin over the reform bloc Russia's Choice. Overall, parties opposed to the market economy and democratic reforms of the government gained about 60 percent of the vote.
``Russia's Choice has suffered a crushing defeat,'' says Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. His revived Communists came in third place, and together with their allies in the collective-farm based Agrarian Party, they command almost a fifth of the vote. ``Socialist ideology is alive in Russia and the number of its supporters will go on growing,'' a happy Mr. Zyu-ganov told reporters Dec. 14.
But the man with his eyes most firmly on power is Zhirinovsky, who is proving himself a master chameleon. Eschewing the extremist rhetoric that has made him famous, he now talks about ``democracy, peace,'' and ``a better life'' for Russians. He denies ambitions, frequently voiced in the past, to restore the Russian Empire, or that he holds anti-Semitic and other racist views.
As the leader of what may be the largest bloc in the new parliament, Zhirinovsky proclaimed his readiness to cooperate with anyone, from President Yeltsin to any other party. He is ready to join the government, he told reporters, or give it advice, ``so we can avoid any confrontation that would lead to a new crisis.''
But occasionally, the ``new'' Zhirinovsky slipped, revealing the fiery talk that has contributed to the characterization of him and his movement as the new face of Russian fascism. The ``reforms that hurt people are over,'' he pronounces, saying that among the current government, he demands only the heads of Yegor Gaidar, the architect of reforms; Anatoly Chubais, the leader of the privatization effort; and Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.
``We are not anti-Semites,'' Zhirinovsky pronounces. ``But our voters are tired of seeing so many non-Russian announcers on television.... [Anti-Semitism] is provoked by Jews themselves. We Russians have never been anti-Semites ourselves.''
It is this kind of talk that has prompted reformers to call, as Mr. Gaidar did on Dec. 13, for formation of an ``antifascist coalition'' to oppose Zhirinovsky. He proposes opening the government to other parties, including even the Communists as a possible partner.
Zyuganov's Communists are eager to separate themselves from Zhirinovsky, uncomfortable with his nationalism. While favoring a restoration of union with former Soviet republics, particularly the Slavic-populated Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Zyuganov says, ``anything connected with restoring the pre-1917 borders of Russia, marching to the east, west, or south, has absolutely no realistic basis to it.''
At the same time, ``we are not going to participate in any coalitions `against,' '' he says. ``We will sit down at a negotiating table only if we are invited to participate in coalitions `for for peace and progress.''
The final balance of power in the parliament is not yet known. Half the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house, are awarded proportionally to the parties getting more than 5 percent. But the other half are elected in single-seat districts where reformers hope to do better. Zhirinovsky has not done well in those races.
But still out of 133 seats where results are known, reform parties have won 28, whereas antireform groups have 38 seats. The Communists claim to have won 30-38 seats and together with the Agrarians are like to hold the largest bloc of seats. Some 60 seats went to independents, many of whom will side with antigovernment forces.
Pro-government forces will be strongest in the Federation Council, the upper house, which has two representatives from each of Russia's 89 regions. Most ran as independents but many are officials of the existing Yeltsin-appointed regional administrations.
Government officials have tried either to play down or simply ignore the overwhelming rejection they received from the electorate. Instead, they are stressing the approval of a new draft Russian constitution, proposed by Yeltsin, in a referendum held concurrently on Dec. 12. The constitution, according to final figures, gained only a 52.4 percent approval.