A ``new democrat'' from Russia buffs his hard edges for US audience

SELF-CONTROL is not a trademark of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia's flamboyant ultranationalist, who became the latest figure from Moscow to come to the United States looking for an audience.

But, during a speech in San Francisco on Nov. 7, Mr. Zhirinovsky displayed remarkable restraint, tightly gripping the lectern or clasping his hands behind his back to contain the wild gesticulations and podium-pounding that usually accompany his interventions on the floor of the Russian parliament.

Denounced across the globe as a fascist and a clown, Zhirinovksy showed here that he is not to be underestimated as a wily manipulator of potent themes in Russian life. His performance suggests that his outbursts are calculated, designed to rouse a crowd or grab a headline when needed.

Outside on the streets, however, things were not so rehearsed. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at a downtown hotel to protest the decision to grant Zhirinovsky a visa to United States. Jewish organizations and others distributed leaflets documenting his inflammatory language: ``I am a tyrant! I will follow in Hitler's footsteps!'' he is quoted as saying once.

Zhirinovsky spoke to the World Affairs Council during the first stop on a US tour. He was pressed repeatedly by questioners about his anti-Semitic statements, his threats to reclaim Alaska for Russia, and his promise to lead the Russian Army on a campaign of conquest that would end up with soldiers ``washing their boots'' in the Indian Ocean. He calmly brushed these queries aside, accusing his ``radical democratic'' opponents of sponsoring a campaign of ``lies and propaganda'' against him.

But Zhirinovsky pushed the same buttons he always has, those that brought him from obscurity to a stunning first-place finish for his misnamed Liberal Democratic Party in December 1993 parliamentary elections. Given power - only a matter of time, he told the audience - his party will carry out a real war on crime and corruption, stop ethnic conflict, carry out real privatization, restore Russian industry, and end starvation.

While pledging to ``bring Russian boys home'' from trying to control wars in Central Asia and the Caucasus, he spoke of dark threats over the horizon. Chinese hordes were poised to grab the Russian Far East, he said. To the south are ``Turks and Muslim fundamentalists who would like to create a new Turkish-Muslim state on the territory of the former Soviet Union.''

There are those who suggest that Zhirinovsky has already passed his political peak, pointing out that the Russian economy is starting to pull out of the depression that gave him a ready-made following.

But it is far too early to count him out. Zhirinovsky's bold style still has great appeal, especially among ordinary Russians. Even if an economic upturn takes place, it is likely to be sporadic, leaving many Russians in near-poverty.

Zhirinovsky is not without challengers. The Communists and other would-be ``patriots'' play on many of the same themes. Even President Boris Yeltsin, while defending democratic reforms, plays the nationalist card with increasing frequency.

The greatest danger of complacency about Zhirinovsky may be that even if his popularity wanes, the ideas he has popularized are certain to be a powerful force in shaping modern Russia.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.