YEGOR Gaidar, the leader of Russia's most militant reformers, was waiting June 14 outside Moscow's Savyolovsky Courthouse for a face-to-face encounter with his archfoe, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The fiery Mr. Zhirinovsky, whose misnamed Liberal Democratic Party surprised everybody by garnering more votes than Mr. Gaidar's Westernized liberals in last December's parliamentary elections, had filed suit against the former Russian economics minister for comparing him to Adolf Hitler. But Mr. Gaidar, flanked by reporters and placard-carrying supporters, waited in vain for his challenger to arrive.
In the end, only Zhirinovsky's lawyer and a spokesman showed up, claiming that their boisterous employer had dropped the suit June 7 after Gaidar had published some newspaper articles, which they generously interpreted as an apology. They added, however, that Zhirinovsky planned to file a new lawsuit against Gaidar for an article published May 17 in the daily Izvestia, in which Gaidar again described him as a fascist.
An unconvinced Gaidar
Gaidar was unconvinced by this convoluted explanation of surrender. ``If he considered my articles to be an apology, then I must say he has very interesting taste,'' he said in a hallway of the dimly lighted courthouse. ``But, as they say, there's no accounting for taste. I hope ... eventually we'll have the opportunity to listen to him tell us why he is not a fascist.''
Gaidar hardly conceals his view of Zhirinovsky as a fascist and warns that Russia today could be heading down the same path as Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He has staked out a position on the Russian political spectrum as the most die-hard opponent of the extreme Communist and nationalist forces, who now make up almost half of the parliament and are uniting in preparation for 1996 presidential elections.
At a June 12 meeting forming his Russia's Choice electoral bloc into a new political party, Gaidar took up the task as his rallying cry. Speaking on a public holiday marking the third anniversary of Russian independence, he said that the struggle against fascism would be a primary task of his new Russia's Democratic Choice.
Zhirinovsky's political goals include destroying the existing political system, severing all contacts with the West, whipping up ``xenophobia and a military-nationalist psychosis,'' and establishing a dictatorship, Gaidar wrote in Izvestia. All the ``classical attributes of a fascist party, ideology, and personality'' are easily applied to Zhirinovsky, he added.
``I don't state that he is an original. To be sure, he is a Hitler imitator, and a very miserable one,'' Gaidar wrote. ``He is not the only fascist in our country, but the man whom I am writing about today is the most popular fascist leader in Russia. That means he poses the greatest threat....''
Touting his own goals
Gaidar, who resigned from President Boris Yeltsin's Cabinet following elections after accusing Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of stalling reforms, touts his own goals as pushing privatization, stabilizing the ruble, and implementing defense cuts. The Gaidar-led Russia's Choice bloc has taken an often critical stance toward the Chernomyrdin government, while continuing to back Mr. Yeltsin.
By founding the party, Gaidar is seeking to gain the leadership of Russia's splintering liberal-reform movement. But pro-reform forces are split into at least four parliamentary factions, with many challengers to Gaidar's claim for leadership. Although Yeltsin refrained from specifically backing Russia's Choice and has not officially supported the new party, members include the president's chief spokesman, Vyacheslav Kostikov, his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, and Deputy Prime Minister and privatization chief Anatoly Chubais.
What remains to be seen is what support Gaidar, who many hold responsible for initiating the reforms that have brought the country to ruin, can muster among average voters.
``I hate Zhirinovsky! I want democracy, I've worked all my life for it, and I want my children and grandchildren to live in a democratic society,'' said Gaidar supporter Vera Andreyeva, a pensioner who was picketing the courthouse. ``Zhirinovsky is a fascist. I lived through the war, and he is against the people.''
Earlier this year, Zhirinovsky successfully sued the English-language Moscow Guardian after they labeled him a fascist. About 20 similar lawsuits are currently pending, including one against a Finnish newspaper.
``Zhirinovsky is sick and tired of always being compared to Hitler,'' Sergei Belyak, Zhirinovsky's lawyer, told reporters. ``Every day, another person compares him to Hitler.''