Was Vladimir Zhirinovsky calling for the restoration of the Russian monarchy, commenting on President Vladimir Putin’s enormous power and authoritarian rule, or just pulling another prank?
The jury is still out after the flamboyant ultranationalist seemed to liken Putin to a tsar, quoting from an Imperial-era Russian anthem as Putin stood by at an awards ceremony at the Kremlin on September 22.
“The Russian Empire had the best national anthem. ... ‘God save the tsar, the strong, sovereign one. Reign for our glory, reign to strike fear in our foes, Orthodox tsar. God save the tsar,’” Zhirinovsky intones in a video clip, wearing a medal Putin has just awarded him around his neck and raising his hands high, as if to God as the president stands nearby.
Zhirinovsky has been a fixture of Russian politics since 1993. The striking clip, shown by state-funded RT television, put him in the headlines again following September 18 elections that keep his party in the State Duma while handing the ruling United Russia party a massive majority in the lower parliament house.
The official results mean that Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999 and could seek a new six-year term in an election scheduled for 2018, can change the constitution without even seeking support from the other three parties with Duma seats: Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), the Communist Party, and A Just Russia.
Those three parties are widely known as the “systemic opposition” -- they do the Kremlin’s bidding on most issues, particularly when it comes to foreign policy, but are rivals of United Russia and sometimes criticize it vocally.
In a rambling rant posted on the Internet earlier this week, Zhirinovsky accused United Russia of stealing votes in the Duma election and screamed: “I hate you.” But, as always, he steered clear of any criticism of Putin.
In the video clip from the medal ceremony, after a brief silence as Zhirinovsky steps away from the podium in the video clip, many in the audience -- other recipients -- applaud. Putin’s reaction is not visible.
Putin has cultivated the image of a strong leader with unparalleled authority and has used imagery and methods from both the tsarist and Soviet eras in his efforts to encourage patriotism and consolidate power. He has cast the Russian Orthodox Church as moral compass for citizens.
Critics say Putin appears to use state awards to repay those who have done him a good turn and send signals about what kinds of activity he values.
In the ceremony on September 28, Zhirinovsky was awarded the Order For Service To The Fatherland, 2nd Degree -- a high honor.
Yury Luzhkov, a longtime Moscow mayor who was fired in 2010 during a battle with then-President Dmitry Medvedev amid Kremlin concerns over public allegations of corruption and mismanagement, received the Order For Services To The Fatherland, 4th Degree -- a possible sign that he is no longer out of favor.
The dozens of honorees also included Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and friend of Putin’s who was named in the “Panama Papers” leaks in April. Media reports based on the leaked documents alleged that he had established a business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to Putin.
Putin has said that Roldugin did nothing wrong and claimed the leaks were part of a campaign to destabilize Russia by fabricating corruption allegations.