A FASCIST having astounded the world by nearly winning the Russian elections, the world is now downplaying the outcome. President Clinton described Vladimir Zhirinovsky's 24 percent Liberal Democratic Party showing as ``not unusual.'' Some diplomats and reformers in Russia say the vote was a protest against hardship, not an endorsement of his anti-Western views.
To the extent that leaders must show calm, such statements can be accepted. But in circles outside the media, where strategic assessments are made, officials know that Zhirinovsky's showing changes everything. Even Russian reformers who have protested this week about a fascist in their midst will have to increasingly move in his direction. That is a grim problem. When President Boris Yeltsin met Vice President Al Gore Jr. Wednesday, he began a tirade against Ukraine. That was not accidental. Zhirinovsky wants to ``save'' the 25 million Russians living outside Russia, and this stirs the Russian soul. Can Mr. Yeltsin now really say that Russians in the Baltics and Ukraine must fend for themselves?
In a larger sense, the election signals a new rise of fascism in Europe - characterized by ethnic hatred, militarism, belligerent nationalism, and lurid propaganda. Nationalism, not democracy, has so far emerged as the most powerful idea after the cold war. Nationalism is most virulent in Serbia (Zhirinovsky called this week for a Russian-Serb alliance) but is gaining in eastern Europe, too.
Rather than downplay fascism, the West would be wise to begin trying to understand this trend. Fascism is more than temporary frustration. In Weimar Germany, fascism fed off economic chaos and wounded national pride - conditions present in Russia. Nationalist rhetoric fills a deep yearning in many Russians to believe in something. For 50 years, a nuclear standoff for survival on the planet negated the need to take beliefs seriously; communism has not had a meaningful hold on Russians for 20 years. People didn't believe it.
But a charismatic - backed by the KGB and Army, who wants to restore honor and territory and be ``honest'' about hate of the West - can, over time, offer a powerful message.
Comparisons with Nazism should not be overdrawn. Zhirinovsky's fascism is unlike the disciplined fascism of Hitler, which offered scientific and ``moral'' arguments. Russia is a country in collapse; it does not have Germany's systematized civil coordination and pro-active jobs program.
Still, as Russian historian Yuri Afsaneyev argues, ``The Russian consciousness has always been flawed by a yearning for expansion and a fear of contraction.'' It is time to look deeper at what is developing in Europe.