Zhirinovsky's Success Draws Disturbing Parallels to Hitler

West may be handing Russia to a telegenic fascist by making country pay for losing cold war

VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY'S spectacular showing in Russia's legislative elections seems to have rekindled Europe's memories of the Third Reich. Germany and other European countries have recently banned the Russian ultranationalist from crossing their borders. Fifty years after World War II, Europe still remembers what could happen if Russia opts for a third scenario that is neither democratic nor communist: home-grown fascism.

In affluent Western societies, extremists such as David Duke or Jean-Marie Le Pen may make worrisome inroads into mainstream politics. However, the appearance of such demagogues is much more dangerous in Russia, a collapsed military power with an impoverished citizenry, since it evokes the disturbing example of Weimar Germany.

Russia resembles Germany in the 1920s in several ways.

As with Germany after World War I, the Soviet Union's de facto defeat in the cold war resulted in a loss of territory, military might, and great-power status. In both cases Western nations sought to extract huge reparations or debt payments from the former powers. Compliance with these measures only fueled extremist movements and challenged fragile governments.

Adolf Hitler seemed to come out of nowhere. But actually, Hitler initially received support from powerful right-wing industrial and military interests who hoped to use the Nazis as their own tool.

Three years ago Mr. Zhirinovsky also appeared to be a political nobody. Like Hitler, he too had powerful backstage patrons. In 1990 Zhirinovsky attended several well-publicized meetings with the chiefs of the Communist Party and the KGB. When Zhirinovsky failed to get enough popular signatures to qualify for the 1991 Russian presidential elections, the powerful Communist bloc in the Supreme Soviet voted to place him on the ballot.

Contemporary Russian ultranationalism also echoes Nazism in its attempt to mobilize a humiliated country through hostility toward neighboring states. Hitler wanted more ``living space'' for Germans and swallowed one country after another. Zhirinovsky promises to rebuild the Russian Empire and expand its frontiers to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. At a Moscow press conference last year he stated: ``I will solve our domestic problems through foreign-policy breakthroughs.''

Finally, both right-wing demagogues knew how to use the media to whip up nationalist sentiments and attract voters. Hitler employed the technology of his time, loudspeakers, to reach huge crowds with his emotional oratory.

In the recent election Zhirinovsky also showed his media savvy by using Russia's newest, most potent campaign tool, television, to maximum advantage. By offering simple political solutions via outrageous sound bites, he stood out from less telegenic competitors.

Not surprisingly, his television campaign was successful precisely because he played to people's emotions and not their intellect. With political parties weak and disorganized, the future of Russian politics will belong to candidates who can package their personality and message succinctly for a television audience.

Since television is the main source of news for Russians, Zhirinovsky's media skills could be a major asset if he runs for president of Russia in 1996.

Even if Zhirinovsky turns out to be a temporary figure in Russian politics, ultranationalism will likely find other torchbearers with a knack for using television to mobilize confused and angry voters. In St. Petersburg, for example, voters elected right-wing TV journalist Alexander Nevzorov, notorious for his sensationalist news show, ``600 Seconds.''

As Hitler demonstrated, demagogues are dangerous because they dare to say out loud, then glorify, the baser thoughts of millions of citizens. In an interview with the authors two years ago, Zhirinovsky already knew the secret of his appeal: ``For a long time now our citizens have wanted to hear the things I'm saying. I said things out loud that they had been thinking silently for decades.''

Again, the example of 20th-century Germany offers a clue as to what the United States and its allies can do at this point.

The West can adopt one of two policies toward Russia. The first is to repeat the mistakes of the Versailles Treaty and essentially make Russia pay the price of having lost the cold war. In that case the world's richest countries will share the blame if a xenophobic dictator comes to power in a country with a huge nuclear arsenal.

The second is to recall the benefits of the Marshall Plan and provide massive financial assistance to resuscitate a vanquished former rival. Such an approach offers the best chance of producing a stable, prosperous, democratic Russia integrated into the world economy. This would be the best guarantee for world peace and, consequently, US security. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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