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June 11, 2003
Notes from Ulyanovsk:
Zhirinovsky the Unsinkable
The enfant terrible of Russian politics tells his party to look for a successor -- but is still eyeing a big-time part in Russian politics for himself.
By Sergei Borisov

ULYANOVSK, Russia--Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the man who has for over a decade staged some of the most riotous scenes in Russian politics and who threatened to revolutionize the political scene in 1993, has indicated that it may be time for his party to look for a successor.

But as he toured Russian towns and cities ahead of Decembers elections to the State Duma, he indicated he had not intention of stepping down. Indeed, he said his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), should step up its efforts.

At the least, we want what we had 10 years ago, he said in Ulyanovsk.

The 1993 elections proved to be the high point in the fortunes of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). It topped the polls with 22.92 percent of the vote for party lists, leaving behind the pro-Kremlin Choice of Russia and the Communist Party.

But since then the partys fortunes have slumped, and in December 1999 it could only muster 5.98 percent support for its controversial, far-right policies. The LDPR currently has 17 deputies in the 450-seat Duma.

The possibility that years of hard drinking, brawling, and traveling might be taking a toll arose on 2 June, when Zhirinovsky told party activists in Moscow that the party should begin looking for a successor when his current term as leader ends in 2006.

In Ulyanovsk, Zhirinovsky seemed uncharacteristically even-tempered, polite, and tired.

Asked about the possibility that he might leave his post, he said that there should be no eternal leaders, adding that it was bad that Frances Jean-Marie Le Pen, to whom Zhirinovsky is often compared, has headed his party for 30 years.

The same leaders begin to irritate even if they are working well. Even pupils at school are tired of teachers.

In Moscow, Zhirinovskys statement caused disquiet among his followers, according to the news agency RIA Novosti. But in Ulyanovsk, he did not look like a man planning to retire.

I am, in principle, for changes in leadership, he said, emphasizing that that he had told his party to find a successor on many occasions--but one who would not let the party down. When the situation ripens, another alternative candidacy could emerge in the LDPR, he said.

But he gave no indication that the time was ripe. The people want me, Zhirinovsky said. If I feel that the people dont want me, I will leave. To replace Prime Minister [Mikhail] Kasyanov, for example.

That might be a leap in logic, but Zhirinovsky is clearly prepping himself and the LDPR for the upcoming electoral battle. Speaking in Moscow, he said that over the next half year they should go into fighting mode, take no days off, and be more insolent and pushy.

For Zhirinovsky, insolence and pushiness have in the past meant full-scale fights in parliament and a litany of obscenities and insults.

This is not, though, what he now wants from his followers. They should not attack and curse political rivals, he said, but should instead be vigilant on the terrible night of the vote count so that [votes] arent stolen from the party.

It is not just Zhirinovsky, though, who will have to mend his ways. On 6 May, a drunken LDPR parliamentary deputy, Vladislav Dyomin, and his aide beat up two police officers in Moscow with baseball bats.

Even if the party fares badly in December, it looks strong in the provinces. In Ulyanovsk, the local LDPR branch produces a weekly program that is aired on a private TV station.

Despite his dark warnings of electoral manipulation and his strength in the regions, Zhirinovsky is all for a more centralized and stronger state. He has stated that Russia should not be a federation of 89 regions, but a unitary state consisting of 40 to 50 big regions, and that there should be no elected governors and mayors. If governors were appointed by the president, there would be no reason to kill them, he said, referring to the recent assassination of the governor of Magadan in Moscow.

Zhirinovsky remains his partys strongest asset. According to a poll conducted by VTsIOM, he was the second most popular politician in Russia, together with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. However, at 14 percent, they trailed far behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose personal rating was 70 percent.

As Argumenty i Fakty, a weekly political magazine, wrote, Zhirinovsky, who experts have repeatedly predicted would disappear from the political horizon, appears unsinkable.

The LDPR is currently running third in opinion polls behind the Communist Party and the pro-Kremlin party United Russia. The Public Opinion Fund gives it 7 percent and VTsIOM 10 percent.

Still, Zhirinovsky has his sights set on victory. Give the LDPR 31 percent, 29 percent to United Russia and 28 percent to the Communists, and everything will be OK in the country, he told a rally in Ulyanovsk. More realistically, he said, We plan to become the main opposition party.

Ten years have shown that left-wing ideas have exhausted themselves, he added, and reforms were flawed. As for the United Russia party, Zhirinovsky said that forming the parties from the top is both unproductive and historically unjustified. He has tapped into popular unhappiness about Russias post-1991 economic transformation, calling for oligarchs to be arrested, because, he claims, in Russia there are just oligarchs and paupers.

Zhirinovsky and the LDPR retain their trademark radicalism. A rally in Moscow on 7 June featured banners saying Finish off the terrorists in Caucasus and Defend Russians everywhere, while Zhirinovsky attacked the Dumas recent decision to amnesty some Chechen fighters as humiliating for Russians.

Asked what other enemies Russia has at the moment, he cites the United States, China, and Turkey. He sees the war in Iraq as vindication of a much-criticized statement made several years ago in which he said Russia should head south and its soldiers should wash their boots in the Indian Ocean. Then I was right and our ships are now there. But America is in Baghdad, and we should have been there earlier, Zhirinovsky told voters in Ulyanovsk.

The war in Iraq appears to have completed the United States transformation in Zhirinovskys eyes from a potential ally into an enemy. Zhirinovsky once said that Moscow must form an axis with Washington, and in August 2002, while on a visit to the United States, he suggested that English should become Russias second official language and that the United States should also make Russian an official language.

In February, however, he grabbed international headlines when Egyptian television and Russian Internet sites broadcast an interview he gave in Baghdad in September 2002. In it, a drunk Zhirinovsky, who needed to be held up on by his guards, cursed and threatened U.S. President George W. Bush.

Still, this change in Zhirinovskys stance toward Washington is unlikely to do him any harm. Analysts suggest it will prove another vote-winner for Russias perennial populist.

Sergei Borisov is TOLs correspondent in Ulyanovsk.

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