RUSSIAN ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky's often outrageous behavior is sparking a contentious debate in German political circles about how a democracy should deal with demagoguery.
Germany's governing coalition is divided over the issue of granting a visitor's visa to Mr. Zhirinovsky, dubbed by some ``Russia's Hitler.'' The comparison to the Nazi dictator is especially troublesome for Germany, whose current leaders are still struggling to come to terms with the nation's past.
The debate started in late December when Bonn denied entry to Zhirinovsky, who had wanted to visit Berlin. The visa denial came after Zhirinovsky, a leader of the powerful nationalist-communist bloc in Russia's new parliament, called for Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev's removal and labeled Romanians as ``Italian Gypsies.'' He has threatened to unleash war on Germany and Japan.
Now, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel appears to have changed his mind about the Zhirinovsky ban. The Foreign Ministry said Jan. 3 that engaging Zhirinovsky might better promote European security than isolating him. Mr. Kinkel told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper that Zhirinovsky could receive a German visa if he conducted ``true political discussion,'' and not propaganda.
``We can't deny that based on the number of votes he garnered he does have a following in Russia,'' Kinkel said.
The foreign minister's stance has angered political friends and foes alike. The Social Democratic Party, Germany's main opposition party, insists on a blanket Zhirinovsky ban. Meanwhile, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), senior coalition partner to Kinkel's Free Democratic Party in the Bonn government, also criticizes the Foreign Minister's position.
The concern is that Zhirinovsky will inspire German right-wing extremists, possibly resulting in increased violence and instability in Germany. German officials already face popular discontent due to the nation's worst recession since World War II. ``It would be a grave error ... to politically boost [Zhirinovsky] by organizing public discussion with him,'' CDU Secretary-General Peter Hintze told the Berlin newspaper BZ.
German extremists are trying to stir things up. One group, the German League, last week invited Zhirinovsky to attend an ultraright congress in Cologne in early February.
Some political observers say Bonn's handling of Zhirinovsky will have serious implications for German democracy and European security, adding that there is a danger of making a martyr out of Zhirinovsky. ``This republic should not regard itself as so weak that it has to protect itself against Zhirinovsky's tirades,'' said an editorial in the newspaper Die Welt. ``It has already proved to be a strong democracy, not prone to instability.''