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Russia: Zhirinovsky -- A Disrupter No Longer Taken Seriously

Far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is Russia's longest-running and most persistent presidential contender. In the election four years ago, he won close to 8 percent of the vote, but polls say he is likely to get only half as much this time. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 21 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Zhirinovsky's role in Russian politics is a double one: In public -- and particularly on television -- he is a loud-mouthed, uncouth buffoon. In the State Duma (lower house), he is a serious, loyal ally of the Kremlin.

When Zhirinovsky's stridently nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party came in third in 1993 parliamentary elections, its success was widely seen as orchestrated by the Kremlin to divert some support that would have gone to the Communists to populist Zhirinovsky. If that was so, the Kremlin's safety valve has less of a role to play now that the communists are no longer considered a realistic threat.

This time, Russian voters almost had to do without Zhirinovsky's outrageous performances. The Central Electoral Commission refused to certify him as a candidate because he had failed to mention a two-room apartment in Moscow owned by his son in his declaration of family revenue and property. This was an extremely minor omission, as the apartment is worth less than 1 percent of the Zhirinovsky family fortune.

Overturning several lower courts' decisions, Russia's Supreme Court agreed to re-instate Zhirinovsky's candidacy three weeks ago. Russian commentators said the Kremlin, trying to spice up a lackluster campaign, was behind the decision to allow him back in the race. The Kremlin is said to be worried that with no excitement in the race, the turnout could be under 50 percent, which would invalidate the election.

Zhirinovsky's television commercials this year are more subdued than in earlier elections. Still, at a rally in Kazan earlier this month, he used classic xenophobic images -- like the West robbing Russia of its riches -- to heat up the crowd:

"Everything should be on a mutual basis. If you buy our goods, we'll buy yours. Then everything will be all right. But if you deliver rotten goods and take away our good raw materials, then our brains are being robbed. We prepare our students [here] and they are bought over there [abroad]. Things can't go on that way."

Sometimes he plays on the deep Russian theme of longing for order:

"There will be a [real] state when there is a good president. A very strict president. A very powerful president. A dictator in the good sense. Dictatorship means order."

And this is Zhirinovsky's description of a glorious future:

"When we will have a new president with a 'knut' (a Russian whip) in his hands covered in black -- not white -- gloves, [those making difficulties] will be more fearful, they will work more, they will shut their mouths more, and submit. And work for a healthy economy. And the children will be healthy. Yes, there will be less freedom. But do you want to die under freedom or live a good life with a few people unsatisfied?"

His nationalist rhetoric takes many forms. Zhirinovsky has pledged to reserve university studies to Russians, and supported the creation of an all-Russian army. Last year, he organized the registration of Russian volunteers to fight in Kosovo on the side of fellow-Slav Serbs.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky's favorite quip in this campaign -- in which Vladimir Putin leads the polls with more than 50 percent support -- is that he knows for sure that Russia's next president's name will be -- Vladimir. While that joke may sound a bit stale, many Russians clearly still find him entertaining. But Zhirinovsky is no longer perceived as a serious politician.