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Washington Post
December 27, 2001
And Now He Loves America
By Masha Lipman

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the notorious ultranationalist monster of Russian politics, has once again attracted the attention of the press and the public -- this time by appearing as a lover of America. He praised the American operation in Afghanistan. Russia and America are partners, he said, the Cold War is over, and Russia belongs in the same civilization as Europe and the United States.

It appears that this abrupt turn by one of the most passionate enemies of the West is more than another of Zhirinovsky's surprises. It signals important shifts in Russia's public sentiment and its politics.

In fact, Zhirinovsky never was an ultranationalist. Or, rather, ultranationalist rhetoric was but one element in his highly sophisticated political persona. Indeed, during his career as a lawmaker he said enough aggressive, hateful and shockingly anti-Western things to deserve the ultranationalist label from the Western press. He talked about installing gigantic fans on the border between Russia and the Baltic states so as to blow radiation upon them. He bragged about his close friendship with Saddam Hussein. He visited the Iraqi leader and was shown engaged in joyful conversation with him. He demanded that America return Alaska to Russia. In one of his most notorious statements, he promised that one day the Russian soldiers would wash their boots in the Indian ocean. Zhirinovsky was viciously anti-American as recently as right after Sept. 11. His faction, which he led, refused to join other Duma deputies when they stood in memory of those killed in the terrorist attacks.

But Zhirinovsky's shocking nationalism was both more and less than a political stand. It was in fact part of a skilled, perfectly calculated game by the best people's man Russian politics has ever had. Zhirinovsky's heyday was in the early '90s. He keenly sensed the frustration and confusion caused by the first post-Communist reforms -- the sense of being cheated, the helpless anger and humiliation of the Russian people who suddenly lost their secure, if shabby, routine lifestyles.

Zhirinovsky instantly read these feelings, rationalized them and "returned" them to the public. He spoke with great energy and passion, but there was always an exaggerated and buffoonish quality to his speeches. His connection with the public was perfect, and his constituency somehow knew that he did not mean literally what he said. They looked at him with a mixture of shame and admiration, sometimes laughed at him and shook their heads -- but they voted for him. And then they went back home relieved of their anger -- enough so as not to take seriously Zhirinovsky's calls for violence and his invitation to wash their boots in the Indian ocean.

Zhirinovsky's party came in first in the parliamentary elections in 1993, having won almost a quarter of the vote. Russian liberals were shocked, "Russia, you've lost your mind," a prominent liberal intellectual exclaimed on Election Day. But Zhirinovsky was the only one who knew how his people felt and how to capitalize on it -- in a nonviolent way.

And he knew how to capitalize on his popularity. His big faction in the Russian legislature was always for sale to the Russian government, which needed votes to overcome the resistance of the Communists.

Gradually, as the Russian people grew better adjusted to their new social and economic circumstances, the frustration and confusion have decreased and Zhirinovsky's constituency has shrunk. His penchant for buffoonery and scandal was unchanged. Moreover, he earned the reputation and the odd privilege of being an enfant terrible -- who can get away with just anything. He engaged in an ugly physical fight with a female deputy on the floor of the parliament and later claimed she had asked to be beaten because she was sexually attracted to him. He gave an interview to Playboy magazine and discussed his sex life in explicit detail. When a young woman TV reporter addressed him in the street with an unfriendly question, he grabbed her right before the camera, threw her in his car and drove away (she was safely released a couple of hours later). He had a vodka named after him with his face on the label. The list of his scandalous antics is virtually endless.

But while he never lost the public's attention, after the first few years his perverse attraction for the domestic audience had very little to do with the political preferences of the Russian voters.

Extreme rhetoric and shocking political speeches went out of fashion. At the parliamentary election of 1999, his party barely made it beyond the 5 percent minimum required for representation in the Duma. The next election, to be held in December 2003, may easily leave Zhirinovsky's party outside.

Today stability, respectability and conservatism have become the new vogue. The Russian people have readily entrusted their lives to President Vladimir Putin, and would not question his politics. The general mood is that of indifferent conformity. The new pro-Western course announced by Putin may not be consciously shared by the majority of the Russian people, but openly and aggressively anti-Western rhetoric will not earn you popularity in today's Russia. Nor will any public expression of sharp discord with the president.

Zhirinovsky sensed this new mood and declared surrender. But his unquenching desire to make a travesty of politics made his act of surrender look like a mockery. He announced his new political credo to his comrades-in-arms live on TV. Obviously embarrassed by this abrupt change of ideology, his fellow Liberal Democrats (this name for a party of extreme nationalists yet another act of mockery, no doubt) were exposed on TV mumbling incoherently. His sudden change may have been unexpected, but it must be the right one, one of them said. Was Zhirinovsky hinting at how the rest of the Russian public felt when Putin announced his new pro-Western course? Or did he mean to make his surrender sound like a joke so as to make his comeback easier if and when the public mood changes? Who knows?

Masha Lipman, a Russian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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