The Zhirinovsky Threat

Jacob W Kipp. Foreign Affairs. Volume 73, Issue 3. May/June 1994.

In the ongoing drama of what Russia is to be—state or empire, democracy or autocracy—Vladimir Zhirinovsky has shouldered his way to center stage with a bellicose, attention-grabbing performance. Some Russian and Western observers have quickly concluded that this ultranationalist is a bit player, thrust forward less by his own devices than by the inadequacies of Russian reformers in the December parliamentary elections. Yet it would be dangerous to dismiss Zhirinovsky, with his rash, outlandish statements to the press, as a self-destructive clown. His writings and the statements by key ideologues of his Liberal Democratic Party, as well as his electioneering skills, make him a potent threat to Russian democracy. Post-election surveys indicate voters support his ideas, and not just as a protest against economic conditions.

Zhirinovsky and his year-old Liberal Democratic Party surfaced in June 1991 when he drew six million votes, almost eight percent of the total election returns, to finish third in the Russian presidential election won by Boris Yeltsin. Two and a half years later, in December's parliamentary elections, his populist television campaigning garnered the LDP nearly 25 percent of the vote. Russia's political leaders and intellectuals, along with the West, were aghast to find this demagogue commanding a strategic position in the new 450-seat assembly, along with: a fairly large bloc of hard-line, anti-reform communists. Although mutually hostile on a number of key issues, the communists and the LDP are proving capable of selective cooperation. Together they voted to release those who had led both the 1991 coup against former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the October 1993 insurrection in the parliament. Zhirinovsky instigated the surprise anti-Yeltsin maneuver fully aware that freeing Aleksandr Rutskoi might empower a more centrist rival for the political leadership of nationalist forces.

With hindsight it is evident that Zhirinovsky expertly organized for election success while openly portraying the effort as merely positioning himself for the next presidential election, whenever it may come. Rising discontent about Russia's declining economic condition increased Zhirinovsky's appeal between the 1991 and 1983 elections, and as the economy continues to falter, Russian commentators suggest that his appeal will continue to grow. His base of support consists of relatively well-educated young males from larger cities, older less-educated males from smaller cities, disgruntled rural residents and numerous members of the Russian armed forces. Zhirinovsky pledged to resolve the country's problems—by granting privileges to Russian businessmen facing foreign competitors, increasing arms export sales, ending Russia's "humiliations" abroad and even getting husbands for hand cheap vodka for all.

In response, Yeltsin has shorn his government of reformers and adopted Zhirinovsky's calls for a crackdown on crime, an assertive foreign policy and strong state controls over economic and social activities. Some experts, including former U.S. State Department official Paul Goble, see the real danger not in Zhirinovsky but rather "in the way Boris Yeltsin and other Russian 'reformers' are likely to exploit the Zhirinovsky vote to pressure the former Soviet republics, and in the extraordinary likelihood that the West will complacently accept whatever demands the Russian president makes on them."

Russian reformers and Western observers have tended to underestimate the appeal of Zhirinovsky and his party. Even as late as the summer of 1993, foreign observers played down the threat to Russian democracy and the West coming from Zhirinovsky and other "Red-Browns." Richard Pipes, a leading historian of modern Russia and the Soviet Union, writing on the eve of the constitutional crisis that would pit President Yeltsin against his vice president and the Supreme Court, dismissed the Red-Brown threat as portrayed in Walter Laqueur's Black Hundred, a work devoted to the rise of the extreme right in Russia. Pipes spoke of fanatics seeking power and "the ravings of extremist intellectuals" but concluded that Laqueur's warning was a "false alarm." As the events of the next few months would show, Russia was far less stable than Pipes' analysis suggested.

A major problem was that Yeltsin's government used its control of the media during the electoral campaign to play down the growing power of the Red-Browns in general, and Zhirinovsky's LDP in particular. During the last week of the campaign, when the LDP bought 220 minutes of television time to get its message to the voters, that attitude began to change. A last-minute effort by Vyacheslav Bragin, then chief of Ostankino Television, to use a program on Zhirinovsky and the LDP to "sober up" the electorate to the Zhirinovsky threat backfired. Only on the eve of elections did Russia's Choice, the top reform party, led by Yegor Gaidar, warn that it was time to stop considering Zhirinovsky a "harmless clown" and to recognize him as "a threat to Russia's existence."

There has been a strong tendency to dismiss Zhirinovsky's success as part protest vote and part personal charisma. Laqueur characterized Zhirinovsky as "a fine orator-demagogue" with shrewd political instincts but no real party or program. Political columnist William Safire dismissed the "panic over Mr. Z" as excessive. More recently, "60 Minutes" broadcast a feature on Zhirinovsky by Australian television entitled "The Mad Russian." In an interview with Zhirinovsky, the reporter asked him to comment on whether he was "a harmless clown or an evil clown." Zhirinovsky dismissed both those characterizations as "propaganda" by his enemies.

Such commentary underplays the real threat Zhirinovsky represents to Russian democracy. Were conditions to worsen, Zhirinovsky's skills at marshaling public distemper and the appeal of his ideas could produce additional unwanted surprises. Thus the ideas that propel him, apart from his impromptu, headline-grabbing outbursts, are worth serious examination.

What's in a Name?


At first glance the designation "liberal democratic" seems a misnomer. Yet Zhirinovsky's choice of the terms liberal and democratic to describe his party is no accident. It is a conscious effort to distinguish his movement from other nationalist movements that range from monarchist to communist.

In Zhirinovsky's hands "liberal" is an ahistorical category designating his outsider status. This is necessary for his political success because it allows him to invoke a mythic past before Soviet power and to place himself outside the political process that brought about the current crisis. "Liberal" in this sense is used by Zhirinovsky to invoke the idea that his party stands in the center of the political spectrum, while the democrats and communists occupy the extremes. The party's slogan, "Through a pluralism of opinions to the superiority of the law," consciously invokes ties with past Russian liberalism.

Previously, Russian liberalism carried a notion of moderate reform and Westernization. Russian liberals sought to build a civic society under law and were hardly radical democrats. Moreover, conservative nationalists, populists and Marxists, who were at odds with one another on almost every issue, were united in their rejection of liberals. Liberalism was branded as part of a utopian dream, disconnected from Russian realities. Liberals were depicted as compromisers, spouting noble sentiments but achieving petty deeds.

No concept was more rejected than the idea of gradual reform. Indeed, Western scholars, in gauging the failures of prerevolutionary liberal bureaucrats, zemstvo reformers (locally and provincially elected assemblies created by the tsarist government) and Constitutional Democrats, have emphasized the disjunction between backward Russia and the liberals' advocacy of individual freedom within a civic society. For prerevolutionary liberals, the emancipation of the individual and society from the oppression of an autocratic state could come only through a state under law. But how to create such a state in a multinational empire proved an unsolvable dilemma. For Zhirinovsky, statism is a key ingredient, but unlike the historical liberals and more like Lenin's Bolsheviks in 1917, his LDP is ready to take state power into its own hands.

State and Empire


For Zhirinovsky, the idea of a strong Russified state is not antithetical to empire. Rather, it is the preferred tool for recreating the Russian imperial reality of old. Thus, he starkly rejects the 75-year-old Soviet totalitarian experiment based on federalism in form and empire in content.

In his memoirs, Zhirinovsky speaks of going "forward bravely toward a European model of society: a free economy, the rights of the individual in first place, a civic society." But he would pursue such an objective through a revolution from above, wrought by a state that is centralized, authoritarian and expansionist. He has only contempt for the doctrine of separation of powers: "What is needed is a strict, centralized authority, otherwise no reforms will be achieved. There must be one state, one president. But without a centralized economy." Finally, there must be no challenges to Russian sovereignty and authority. For Zhirinovsky, Russia is the empire. "For us the main [point] is the territory of our state. Return to us the historical borders and name of the state—we only want that!" He has no time for federalism and expects "small nations" to accept their fate.

While declaring that he is not a chauvinist, Zhirinovsky speaks of a state run only for Russians and tells other nationalities who do not like it to leave. An ethnically pure Russian state is his answer to the threat of anarchy. In place of the existing federal system, which safeguards the rights of national minorities, Zhirinovsky has proposed a return to a provincial system of local government, where the provinces, as in tsarist times, are controlled by the central government through the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Zhirinovsky posits that the Russian empire is not a luxury but a means of national survival. Of current conditions in the federation and adjacent new states, he writes, "Russians everywhere become a national minority, gradually being destroyed. This will be the slow murder of the Russian nation. Because nowhere is there purely Russian territory, nowhere...If we follow such a path, then the Russian nation will die."

Zhirinovsky speaks of restoring Russia to the imperial frontiers of 1900, when Russia included parts of contemporary Poland and Finland. He warns that denying Russia its historical borders will only lead to war. Thus the mere acceptance of the dissolution of the Soviet Union into sovereign successor states is an act of treason. The Liberal Democratic Party rejects the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States as an "illegal, anti-constitutional act." Party ideologues refer to the commonwealth as consisting of "the countries of beggars and the hungry" and "a public toilet."

While he speaks of restoring Russia's historical frontiers, Zhirinovsky has also called upon Russia to expand southward. Zhirinovsky has associated this final spurt to the south with a "final division of the world." This geopolitical coup is to be done as "shock therapy, suddenly, rapidly and effectively," and will end with Russia and India sharing a common border. This would bring order from Kabul to Istanbul, eliminate the "red, Muslim, Turkic and Islamic threats," and remove the threat of a third world war.

The final 'thrust' to the south: As I dream of it, Russian soldiers will wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and forever change to summer uniforms ...We must pacify that region forever.

Rejecting communist federalism as "a pretty Bolshevik myth," Zhirinovsky's supporters oppose the idea of a territorial state in which citizenship is a function of residence. They reject a multinational Russian Federation in favor of a centralized Russia of one nationality, Russian, sharing one culture and language. In short, they reject a civic state in favor of an ethnic state. According to Zhirinovsky, nonRussians would be Russified and the Orthodox religion given a "dominant position."

The new Russia is a state under law, an enlightened state. This is a powerful presidential regime, a powerful, mutiparty parliament. This is legislation, which is for the ages, which we won't have to change every ten years. This is a constitution, which respects everyone from infant to elder. This is a unified symbol throughout the entire country—the black, yellow, white flag, the state flag of Russia. It must wave over all state institutions in every region of our huge Fatherland. This is the country's anthem, one anthem. This is the state language, the language of interethnic communication, Russian. This is a single monetary unit—the ruble.

Zhirinovsky's LDP ideologues understand the force of such ideas in the struggle for power and note the weakness of their communist and democratic opponents in trying to enlist Russian nationalists. Those democrats who were responsible for establishing the commonwealth and the ensuing reforms, according to the LDP'S ideologues, embraced radical reform and revolution in the interests of their master, the United States. Thus Gaidar, the architect of "shock therapy," and his supporters are labeled "false democrats." With its notion of a national bourgeoisie in the service of foreign capital, Zhirinovsky's use of the term is a throwback to Marxist criticism but from a nationalist perspective. Thus, the struggle for power in Russia is depicted as being among corrupt party apparatchiks, corrupt democrats in the service of foreign capital, the domestic mafia and the noble liberal elite, led by the LDP. Under these circumstances a multiparty system is an excess. In its place, for the transition period, there would be strict centralization under the LDP to resolve economic problems.

State Capitalism to the Rescue


The economic program of the Liberal Democratic Party could be described as a return to state capitalism under the banner of a highly efficient, socially oriented economy that would embrace privatization and even private property. But it is a program designed to protect the state structure and promote stability. State-directed "industrialization" under Peter the Great, tsarist reformers after the Crimean War and Stalin serve as the models for building a national economy and catching up with the West. This position, which owes more to Friedrich List than Karl Marx, rejects shock therapy in favor of state-directed development in order for Russia to avoid becoming an economic colony within the world market—supplier of raw materials and importer of industrial goods. One model for such a course is imperial Japan, where the state directed the gradual transformation of the country into an industrial superpower. This has led S. F. Dergunov, one of the LDP'S key ideologues, to posit the following thesis regarding Russia's economic transformation: the transitional economy must operate on the basis of state programs that create competitive sectors, modern infrastructure and the structural transformation of the economy. Moreover, "an obligatory element of these programs is a plan for gradual organized curtailment and transfer of state property into market structures."

For Dergunov, there are two key reasons why this program of state capitalism would work. First, it is true to national traditions: "For our country state programs are natural." Second it would require minimal retraining for the industrial managers of the communist era. The model of state capitalism invoked here assumes "tough mobilization methods" like those used in the relocation of industry in 1941. In this manner the LDP'S program combines the supposed benefits of communist enterprise managers working under state direction with personal enrichment through state-directed privatization. The program promises to take privatization out of the hands of bureaucrats and put it into the hands of citizens. It calls for a three-year process that converts most enterprises into "self-financing" ventures, a leasing arrangement with funds used to cover social programs, and financing for the privatization fund run by the Russian State Bank. In the first year, resources would be divided evenly between the three efforts. After that, more would go to the privatization fund to finance state privatization certificates on which an annual dividend would be paid. The ownership of such certificates would be confined to Russian citizens and Russians living abroad in order to avoid the injustice of "foreign or shady capital" buying up enterprises cheaply.

Playing on the economic chaos created by hyperinflation, the LDP blames declining production and the collapse of many enterprises on the Yeltsin government's "slavish" behavior in the face of the demands of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The LDP'S program calls for a state-regulated program to stimulate production by gradually converting the monetary system to a "noncash, convertible ruble" that would exchange at one ruble to one dollar. This would be achieved by restoring state control over trading in foreign currencies via the state bank, which would control the buying and selling of noncash, convertible rubles and would effectively restore state control over exports and imports.

Nowhere is Zhirinovsky's reliance on a particularly Russian version of state capitalism more evident than on the issues of land ownership and the peasant question. Stability and order are viewed as paramount, and their genesis lies in the link between Russian national consciousness and the village. Russians are, in this view, a colonizing people, and their forms of landholding, especially the commune, are ways to preserve order and prevent the emergence of a rural proletariat. It is not an argument about economic rationality or efficiency, but a social policy of stabilization, reflecting the interests of the collective and state farm managers. Thus the interests of the industrial and agricultural managerial elite are served in Zhirinovsky's state capitalism.

The LDP views capital as objectively "antinational" and will use state control to limit such tendencies by controlling investments and profits. This system of political economy would seek to exclude the possibility of foreign trade "tricks" stemming from the difference between internal and world prices. In short, this would be a state dedicated to national self-sufficiency of a statist and militarized nature: "Of course, all enterprises necessary for the functioning of the state structures must be state property. For example, defense industry enterprises, railroads, major enterprises under the control of republics." This position, of course, rejects the economic reforms of Yeltsin's democrats, which the LDP blames for bringing inflation, unemployment, poverty, chaos and disorder. By rejecting communism and democratic reform and using them as scapegoats, the LDP ideologues have positioned themselves as saviors with no responsibility for past failures or current problems.

Hitler Reconsidered


Along with small bands of overt Russian fascists, such as A. P. Barkashov and the Russian Nation Unity movement, Zhirinovsky takes a revisionist view of Adolf Hitler and national socialism. While noting that some of Hitler's "extreme" measures did harm Germans, Zhirinovsky concludes that "in general, his ideology does not contain anything negative in itself." Ideologues of the Liberal Democratic Party have gone further in claiming ties to Nazi Germany and Hitler. LDP theorist Igor Minin has said that national socialists form the "third force" in Russian politics between communists and democrats, both of which have discredited themselves by their hostility to the national idea. "The true carrier of the ideals of national socialism is the national-patriotic movement " of which the Liberal Democratic Party will assume leadership. In this fashion Zhirinovsky's party intends to co-opt and militarize the Russian right. The national-patriotic movement will require its own paramilitary formations, called the druzhina (guard) and organized into "agitation and propaganda groups" and "protection-assault groups" for street operations during electoral campaigns. These groups are to be organized by district, block and factory and be composed of "10 to l5 persons, including one or two experienced activists and several military."

Anti-Semitism is an organizing tool for Zhirinovsky as it was for Hitler. At home it results in the LDP'S persistent caricature of former Finance Minister Gaidar as Yeltsin's "ideological Jew." Gaidar the democrat became Gaidar the thief, the court Jew, using his position for personal gain. Abroad, the LDP seeks to build connections through an international anti-Semitic alliance. The chief source of antinational forces is Zionism. Minin has asserted that "Zionism has as its final goal the establishment of the economic and political supremacy of Jewry in all the leading countries of the world and is a direct result of the basic features of the national character of the Jewish people." The LDP claims that it will practice a "humane" policy toward Jews and confine its version of the final solution to Zionists. Viewing the governments of the United States, France and Great Britain as tools of international Zionism the LDP ideologues want to reduce contact with those governments. They would also accelerate the emigration of Jews from Russia and reduce the influence of Jews in the mass media by imposing proportional representation on such positions. They view proportional representation as the vehicle for maintaining Russian hegemony in a centralized, multiethnic state.

In seeking to create an alliance motivated by anti-Zionism, the LDP ideologues look to capitalist countries that have retained a government with a "national," as opposed to cosmopolitan, character. Not surprisingly, this leads to a rather ahistorical interpretation of contemporary German and Japanese societies and a search for nationalist allies in those societies. Minim writes:

We are speaking first of all about Japan and Germany. Everyone knows the patriotism and faithfulness to national values of the Japanese people. The Japanese government maximally, to that degree allowed by capitalism, has used the features of Japanese national character and in its turn has adapted to them as much as possible. Now it feeds off the fruits of its correct strategy. Germany has had a difficult fate. It is located in the very center of Europe and that means in the very epicenter of subjective antinationalist forces and, as a consequence, 150 years of its history have taken place under the influence of the continual struggle of the German nation against these influences. We will not discuss the details of this struggle or the mistakes made by the Germans. What is important is that this struggle did not end with the unification of the German states but entered a new phase.

National socialism supports the maximum widening of cooperation with the most nationalist governments, in particular Japan and Germany. Only this cooperation can bring good to our nation and help in the matter of constructing a national government.

In short, the foreign policy objectives of Zhirinovsky's movement can only be achieved by overthrowing the existing world order and undermining the position of the United States. In December, at the end of the electoral campaign, Zhirinovsky penned and then signed his own map of a new Europe and gave it to Rolf Gauffin, the former Swedish ambassador to Russia. The map shows two great powers dominating Central and Eastern Europe. The first is a revived Russian empire that reincorporates Ukraine and Belarus. The second is a Grossdeutschland that includes Austria, Bohemia-Moravia and Poland's western territories. Poland would be compensated by getting the Lvov region back from Ukraine. Slovakia would go to Russia. Russia would give up Kaliningrad to Germany and be compensated by getting back the Baltic states, except for Tallinn, which would be turned into a city-state "like Luxembourg or Lichtenstein." Lithuania would disappear and be replaced by a special zone around Kaunas, its capital during the interwar years. Yugoslavia would be partitioned between Croats and Serbs. Zhirinovsky would sanction the creation of a "Greater Bulgaria," which would include Macedonia and Thrace. Romania, it would appear, is to gain at Moldova's expense.

Race figures prominently in LDP foreign policy. LDP ideologues speak of the yellowing, reddening and blackening of the world's population and even use the metaphor of a white Fay Wray in the hands of King Kong to describe the threat facing the white race. To avoid such a fate and preserve the white race's civilization, "which gives more than it receives," the LDP would challenge the dominant cosmopolitan order represented by the United States. In its place, the LDP wants an international order of "parallel civilizations," the development of each being directed by a dominant regional power. Zhirinovsky predicts the United States will collapse because of the internal contradictions stemming from its cosmopolitan character. This crisis will force a weak and divided America to give up its leading role in defending the current world order and lead it to adopt its own version of the final thrust to the south, bringing Latin America under its authority.

The Army to the Rescue


Zhirinovsky views the army as a potential ally in restoring order if it can be won over to the LDP. "I see such a Russia: she will have the most powerful army in the world, strategic rocket forces, our missiles with multiple warheads. Our space combat platforms, our spaceship Buran and our Energiya missiles—this will be the missile shield of the country."

Zhirinovsky's approach to winning over the army is to mobilize the nation around a shared image of a "foreign enemy." For all practical purposes the enemies are the United States as a power and Zionism as an ideology. He is holding out future glories to the army through which it will be reborn. At the LDP'S Third Congress, many speakers addressed the military and its fate. The LDP set out to use the politicization of the military to its own ends, seeking to discredit the government and the current military leadership. It played on the loss of prestige felt by the officer corps. K. N. Popov, a spokesman for the military In the LDP, talked about the collapse of discipline, tanks rusting in Siberia, warships that were not seaworthy and planes that could not fly. He criticized the current military commanders as mere businessmen. The only hope, he argued, was to spread the party's ideas among the "mid-level officer corps, where many are sympathetic to our ideas." The party's propagandists were instructed to take their message into the barracks and academies to gain support against a compromised military leadership. The implications of this position were made clear in another speech, when a naval officer spoke of the party's efforts to organize its own detachments within the armed forces.

In the election campaign for parliament the LDP, more than any other party, recruited candidates from the military—a total of ten candidates were listed as military servicemen or members of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. While some other parties recruited star candidates from among the established military leadership, the LDP chose mid-level officers, the strata that the LDP had identified as the military's center of gravity.

The LDP'S efforts in the military paid off in the December elections for parliament. President Yeltsin attributed one-third of the vote within the military to the LDP. At a press conference he said, "We are worried about this and appropriate measures have been taken." These measures included a shake-up of the military leadership. The significance of these developments for Russian political stability should not be underestimated. Zhirinovsky and the LDP have penetrated the army from below to mount a challenge to the president's authority as commander in chief.

While the ideology and program of the Liberal Democratic Party are important guides to the popular appeal and intentions of the LDP, Zhirinovsky as a leader and symbol has much to do with the movement's success. There is no shortage of radical Red-Brown opponents to Yeltsin, but Zhirinovsky has been able to steal their thunder and emerge as the undisputed voice of the opposition. He cultivates the clown image to attract media attention, which he skillfully uses to his own ends. In an age of sound bites and shallow coverage, he is a powerful orator who speaks simply and persuasively to his constituency.

Zhirinovsky's propagandists present him as a man of the people, who understands their suffering and longing. As a Russian in Kazakhstan he found his path blocked by what he called "colonialism in reverse," so he had to develop his skills as a fighter and expend his energy in the process of entering into the political arena. He is depicted as the continual victim of distorted press reports: unfounded charges that he is a fascist, communist, drug abuser or KGB spy. Reading this propaganda, one is struck by the utter naivete of these representations and by his calculated image as a cult figure, whose power and appeal are vested in the masses themselves, who see in him the imbodiment of their collective experience.

The difficulty of containing threats such as those posed by Zhirinovsky has been poignantly captured by the Polish writer Adam Michnik:

Today Russia stands before a dramatic dilemma, to which no one has yet given a reasonable answer. What is better: Disrupt the rules of democracy and chase out the totalitarian parties while they are still sufficiently weak? Or respect the democratic order and open to these parties the road to power?

Russia, burdened with a young, weak democracy and staggering economic and social problems, does not have the capacity to resolve Michnik's "dramatic dilemma" alone. Nor does it stand alone as a potential victim of the Zhirinovsky threat.