Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the neo-fascist Russian politician whose misnamed Liberal Democratic Party took a scary 23% of the vote in legislative elections earlier this month, is back home after a quick European tour that saw him carrying on pretty much as he does in Russia, which is to say spreading ill will and raising political anxieties wherever he went.
On a one-day visit to Munich he had a comradely meeting with the leader of one of Germany’s biggest right-wing parties. In Austria his host was an industrialist who denies that the Nazis used gas chambers to murder Jews during the Holocaust. In Bulgaria garbage was thrown at him in the streets after he made insulting comments about the country and its president.
Zhirinovsky stayed away from Romania, which is just as well after he described that country as a collection of territories stolen from other countries and peopled by “Italian Gypsies.” His plan for an encore visit to Germany fell through when the Bonn government, once burned, wisely chose to deny him a visa.
It’s hard to know what to make of this man who has emerged as Russia’s second most prominent political figure. Begin with the obvious--that he is a boorish clown, a racist, an avowed expansionist whose geopolitical fancies can best be described as demented. Some of those ideas are expressed in his recently published autobiography, a book notable for its candid self-pity and whining recollections of repeated family, social, athletic and sexual failures, and for its megalomaniacal vision of a greater Russia whose southern boundary extends to the Indian Ocean.
For all that, it would be dangerously shortsighted to dismiss Zhirinovsky--the way some dismissed Adolf Hitler in the 1920s--as simply another crackpot destined soon to fade into political oblivion.
His party outpolled all others in the legislative elections, he appeals strongly to many Russians who feel they have been dispossessed and left behind by President Boris N. Yeltsin’s reforms, and he has all but announced that he will run for president in two years. A nut or not, it’s clear that serious attention must be paid.
Certainly, thoughtful Europeans are paying attention, especially those on Russia’s periphery, who know something about the reality or the threat of Russian domination. It hasn’t helped matters that the Russian government itself has all but decided to pretend that Zhirinovsky doesn’t exist. Only after he was booted out of Bulgaria did the Foreign Ministry issue a statement saying that “it does not share the ideas” Zhirinovsky espouses.
Yeltsin himself, presumably still the most authoritative voice in Russia, has yet to comment on his rival’s behavior. All this predictably feeds European fears, however exaggerated for now they might be, that because of Zhirinovsky’s demonstrated political clout Yeltsin might be tempted to co-opt some of his ideas.
When Europeans get nervous about where Russia’s international policies could be tending, Washington must pay heed. Like it or not, the United States continues to be perceived in Europe as the only country able to deter any possible cross-border threat on the continent. Russia’s neighbors may well be inflating Zhirinovsky’s significance. Surely it would help greatly if Yeltsin and his government began to say and do things to assure them that they are.