Zhirinovsky: A Fanatic, Or Is He An Opportunist? He Was Helped By A Hypnotist, But He Also Got Some (unintentional) Help From Yeltsin.

Posted: January 01, 1994

To all the explanations of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's strong showing in the Russian parliamentary elections, add mass hypnosis. A prominent candidate on the ticket of Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democratic Party" (LDPR) is Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a hypnotist famous for televised sessions during which you could supposedly be cured of all ailments by staring at the screen. A rival TV psychic healer suggests that the pro-LDPR voters were under Kashpirovsky's spell.

The real reasons may be far more prosaic, but this is hardly the most bizarre thing about Zhirinovksy, his party, or his success. The man who now embodies virulent Russian nationalism - who wants to put real Russian faces on TV and rebuild the czars' empire and blames Jews for anti-Semitism - turns out to have been involved in Russia's nascent Jewish movement in the late 1980s.

Reports have focused on Zhirinovsky's efforts to project a moderate image in contrast to his noxious rhetoric during and before the campaign. However, what makes this zig-zagging especially curious is that it's not just a post- election attempt at self-repackaging but a part of Zhirinovsky's public persona from the start.

His party's incongruous name is no accident. (Before he founded the LDPR in early 1990, Zhirinovsky was briefly active in the Democratic Union, an opposition group advocating the dismantling of the Soviet state, individual rights and the free market.)

At an appearance in December 1991, Zhirinovsky was asked by a woman in the audience why the party was called "liberal democratic." Because, he replied, "the values of liberal democracy suit us best: the primacy of the individual over state or ethnic interests." He denied accusations of ethnic chauvinism, pointing out that one of the top men in the LDPR was of Tatar origin.

Minutes later, Zhirinovsky chided the Jews for insufficient loyalty to Russia (and griped that most of the articles bashing him were signed with ''Jewish names") and praised David Duke and French right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. He threatened that if the West continued to "meddle" by recognizing ex-Soviet republics as independent states, "we have plenty of weapons we could gladly provide" to separatist terrorist groups worldwide.

He also said that as a lawyer, he strongly supported the rule of law and opposed the death penalty. In another speech around that time, he bluntly promised "a dictatorship": "Those who have to be arrested will be arrested quietly at night. I may have to shoot 100,000 people, but the other 300 million will live peacefully." In an LDPR gazette in early 1992, the "good" Zhirinovsky was back, warning that new presidential elections were needed to avoid a "Pinochet": "Personally, I wouldn't want dark forces to come to power."

This jumble is typical of Zhirinovsky's speeches and LDPR papers. Talk of equal rights for all coexists with rants about the danger to "white civilization" from Asians and dark-skinned peoples and calls for restricting property ownership and trade in Russia by "aliens" from the Caucausus and Central Asia.

Talk of "liberal values such as a free-market economy" mingles with programs calling for a largely state-controlled economy, with private enterprise as "a supplement to the state sector." This has made it much easier for Zhirinovsky and his backers to claim that the LDPR and its leader have been unfairly maligned.

Unless Zhirinovsky has multiple personalities, he is a consummate opportunist who does not believe a word he says. Suspicions of KGB ties, strengthened by the murky sources of his funding, have dogged Zhirinovsky for most of his political career. When his party was launched, the communists still ruled and opposition parties were not viewed kindly; yet the LDP's founding convention was covered by state TV.

The party was widely seen as a stooge for the Soviet regime, particularly since, while preaching "liberal values," Zhirinovsky condemned anti- communism as divisive and urged democrats to cooperate with the ruling oligarchy.

An unprincipled opportunist is less dangerous than a sincere fanatic. But regardless of Zhirinovsky's mindset, the success of his demagoguery is an alarm signal to be taken seriously.

Hypnotism aside, several factors contributed to Zhirinovsky's near-triumph - in part, baffling decisions by Yeltsin's team. Most other nationalist parties were banned because of ties to the rebellious Supreme Soviet, which Zhirinovsky cannily declined to support; their followers flocked to the LDPR, as economist and commentator Boris Pinsker predicted in a mid-October interview.

The democratic opposition, such as the bloc led by economist Grigory Yavlinsky, got almost no coverage on television (which is still government- run) and lacked the funds the LDPR had to buy airtime.

In the last 10 days of the campaign, the Central Election Commission banned media disclosure of opinion poll data so as not to "influence" voters - perhaps, some observers speculate, because things looked bad for the pro- Yeltsin Russia's Choice bloc.

In a Dec. 10 poll released after the election, 20 percent favored Zhirinovsky's party. Had these figures been revealed earlier, they might have scared many disillusioned non-voters into going to the polls.

It's not the end of democratic reform in Russia. With the results from districts with individual-candidate rather than party-preference votes tallied, Russia's Choice will be the largest bloc in the new assembly. But no one should breathe a complacent sigh of relief: not Yeltsin's democrats, and above all not the capitalist-minded young Russians who thought they could focus on money and forget politics. They can't afford that yet.

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