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The aging standard-bearer of Russian nationalism appears to be on his last political legs.by Aleksander Kolesnichenko 2 December 2011
MOSCOW | Elena Chinkova is a graduate student in political science at Moscow State University. Her thesis is on Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the old lion of Russian politics, and she is planning to defend it next year. But Chinkova says she is being urged to hurry.
“Wrap it up quickly,” she recalled her adviser saying. “Vladimir Volfovich was on TV today. He doesn’t look well at all."
Zhirinovsky, the longtime leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, started his career in the Gorbachev era and has stayed on the scene through the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitry Medvedev. He has promised to outlast Putin's next presidency.
But his popularity is waning, his health is apparently deteriorating, and political observers are virtually unanimous in predicting that the country’s 4 December parliamentary elections will be his last, even if his party, long the political standard-bearer for Russian nationalism, succeeds in entering the Duma for the sixth time.
At 65, Zhirinovsky is the oldest among the country's political leaders. Responding to an interview request, Yuri Rizhov, his press secretary, warned a reporter not to bring up his boss's age and health. “He doesn’t like talking about it at all,” Rizhov said.
Zhirinovsky might not talk about it, but many on Russia’s political scene do. His imminent departure from the public stage is widely expected. Since suffering a heart attack three years ago, he has become noticeably heavier and less cheery, and his once-quick tongue has slowed. Online news site Novopolitika reported last month that he has a serious illness of the digestive tract; his party issued a denial.
Zhirinovsky himself has yet to announce whether he will stand in the March 2012 presidential election, saying only that the Liberal Democrats will pick a candidate at this month's party congress. A July report by the Agency for Political and Economic Communication in Moscow noted the party’s “inertia” and said insiders view Zhirinovsky’s “forthcoming resignation” as a death blow for the organization.
Though he has never held an office higher than deputy in the Duma, the twilight of Zhirinovsky’s career marks the end of an era in Russian public life. Capturing the nationalist vote, he finished third in the 1991 presidential election. Two years later the Liberal Democrats entered parliament as the biggest-single vote-getter, with 23 percent of the vote; it currently holds 40 of the 450 seats in the Duma. The party does not have a clear successor.
As much as for his politics, he is notorious for his pronouncements and pranks. He would throw money into the crowd at demonstrations and pick fights at TV debates. In his presidential campaigns he has offered voters free vodka, promised to find a man for every single woman, and pledged to deploy the Russian army as far as the Indian Ocean. During the avian flu epidemic, he called for Russian men to be armed, stationed at the borders, and ordered to shoot every bird flying into the country.
“Zhirinovsky gets the votes of those who want to spit in the face of the political class,” said Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
NEVER A MINISTER, EVER THE ENTERTAINER
When Zhirinovsky turned 40, he recounted in an interview with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, his wife and son hung a poster on the wall with pictures of him and the words, “40 years without accomplishments or victories.” After graduating from the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University and earning a law degree, he was stuck in the mid-level of the Soviet apparatus, serving on various state committees and heading the legal department at the Mir publishing house.
Zhirinovsky promised his spouse she would soon be a minister’s wife, but his early attempts to enter higher politics failed. He was unable to secure a nomination to run for a seat in the short-lived Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 and lost bids for seats on the Supreme Council of the Russian Socialist Republic and a Moscow district council.
As the Soviet regime weakened, Zhirinovsky – who was not a Communist Party member – cast about for a political grouping to join. He took part in the founding congress of Democratic Unity, an unofficial opposition group founded by dissidents, but, according to Chinkova, who is also a reporter for Komsomolskaya Pravda and has extensively researched his career, he left it with the words, “I can't earn money with you.” Zhirinovsky flirted with monarchists and social democrats, even writing a draft program for the latter, but soon joined the initiative that became the Liberal Democrats, the first sanctioned opposition party in the Soviet Union.
The new party’s ideology had little to do with liberalism and democracy and much to do with populism and nationalism – paradoxically, for a group whose leader was half-Jewish. (Zhirinovsky’s father, Volf Eidelstein, emigrated to Israel shortly after his son was born. In the early days of his political career, Zhirinovsky famously said of his origins, “My mother is Russian, my father is a lawyer.”) In the 1990s the party campaigned on the slogan, “I will lift Russia from its knees!” In the early 2000s, its motto was, “We are with the poor, we are with the Russians!” For the current election that has been shortened to “With the Russians!”
The Liberal Democrats are “a nationalist party that advocates for Russia’s return as a great power, without its division into national republics,” said Moscow State University political scientist Elena Shestopal. “The party doesn't have any program of social reforms. They only suggest individual steps, such as a state monopoly on alcohol and tobacco or a ban on the export of capital.”
Zhirinovsky never fulfilled his promise to his wife, although not for lack of trying. Chinkova said he “begged Yeltsin for any position. Minister of labor, or head of the state committee on fisheries – it didn’t matter which. He later said he wanted to become head of that committee because he liked eating fish a lot.”
Today Zhirinovsky says he has long since lost his ministerial ambitions. “A minister’s job is very narrow, technical; it is connected with figures. A deputy’s activity is more interesting. You always get to travel around the country. Every day you meet new people, participate in new projects, feel emotion up to your eyeballs.”
To political analyst Dmitry Oreskhin, Zhirinovsky is “the highest-paid artist in Russia.” His public appearances are theater – a Soviet-style motorcycle escort through Moscow for his 60th birthday, arrival for a 2008 presidential meeting of party leaders in a Maybach luxury car. His speeches are widely viewed as performances that enliven dull Russian politics. Last month at a Liberal Democratic roundtable, he blamed the Greek financial crisis on the Orthodox religion: “All the Orthodox are lazybones. They love to have long celebrations of weddings and funerals. Unlike Catholics and Protestants, who work day and night.”
In a political environment dominated by problems and fears, “here comes Zhirinovsky, always ready to hector and amuse,” said Jana Dubejskaya, director of the Center of Applied Psychoanalysis in Moscow.
Zhirinovsky bristles at the notion. “Have they read a single one of my books? Have they been to a single event organized by my party?” he said of those who dismiss him as an entertainer. “How can they judge a person they’ve never talked to?”
“A MISERABLE OLD MAN”
Oreshkin does credit Zhirinovsky with a signal service to Russia. In the 1990s, he said, the Liberal Democratic leader, by virtue of his style, helped prevent civil war.
“There could have been another [nationalist] leader in his place, with other ambitions, and who knows what could have happened? Zhirinovsky led the people like a pied piper, but he led them only to the cash desk.”
Zhirinovsky peaked politically amid the economic shocks of the Yeltsin era; his and party’s popularity waned with the relative stability of the Putin and Medvedev years. Still, last month the Russian Public Opinion Research Center pegged the party’s support at 9 percent, and the independent Levada Center polling agency said 11 percent of voters back the Liberal Democrats – up from their ratings over the summer, and enough to usher the party back into the Duma along with Putin’s United Russia and the Communists.
Still, Oreshkin is convinced the balloting will be Zhirinovsky’s last. “He is a miserable old man who has troubles in the family and with his health,” the analyst asserted. “He has had enough of acting like a clown.”
According to Makarkin, of the Center for Political Technologies, that would spell the end of his party as well. “[The Liberal Democratic Party] and Zhirinovsky are the same in the public mind, and the party’s prospects are tightly connected with its leader’s,” he said.
Zhirinovsky contends the party is not a “theater of one actor.” He reeled off the names of other party leaders: deputies Alexei Ostrovsky, Igor Lebedev, Maxim Rohmistrov, and Iaroslav Nilov, and Sergei Kalashnikov, deputy secretary of the Russian-Belarusian Union. “But they aren’t asked for interviews, and everyone comes to me with the very same stupid question: ‘Where are the rest?’ ”
Lebedev, Zhirinovsky’s son and the head of the party’s parliamentary delegation, would be the most logical successor, but he appears ill-suited for the role. In an interview, Lebedev said the only job he has held outside his father’s party was as a teenage assistant at a clinic, where he took patient files to doctors. He said he does not remember the field in which he earned his university degree and does not know how many cars and apartments are registered in his name. (All party assets, including offices and vehicles for party use, are registered to Zhirinovsky’s immediate family and relatives.)
If the Liberal Democrats do fade away, Oreshkin predicted, the Fair Russia and Patriots of Russia parties will seek to fill Zhirinovsky’s nationalist niche. They are polling at 5 percent and 1 percent, respectively, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.
But Zhirinovsky insists he isn’t going anywhere. “What sources tell you that I have health problems?” he demands.
Lately he has been visibly more attentive to his health. Long a heavy smoker who often seemed drunk at public events, he has given up tobacco and claims that the Liberal Democrats are now the “party of non-smokers and non-drinkers.”
“I will continue working as I have been working before. No retirement!” he added. He promises to outlive Putin just as he outlived Yeltsin – both “random people,” he said, “who did not plan or know that they would end up in politics. But I dreamed of that.”
The party is “my love,” he continued. “Shakespeare wrote his sonnets out of love, [revered Russian poet and singer Vladimir] Vysotsky wrote out of love, and I practice politics out of love.”
But Putin, at 59, with up to two more six-year terms in the Kremlin awaiting him, continues to demonstrate he is in good condition: practicing judo with the Russian national team members, riding a motorcycle, scuba diving in the Black Sea.
Campaigning last month, Zhirinovsky joined a game of indoor “mini-soccer” with a group of teenagers in a Moscow sports complex. While the boys ran around him, the Liberal Democratic leader walked up and down the field, trying to score at whatever goal he was closest to, then appointed himself referee and gave himself penalty kicks.
Afterward Zhirinovsky lay down on a bench and tried to lift a weight but changed his mind after one attempt. Sports is an “abuse of the body,” he said. “You should do whatever your body demands. So if you body wants to sleep – sleep.”