Panic over Mr. Z

December 17, 1993|By William Safire

IS Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the racist demagogue whose party took a surprisingly big chunk of the vote in the new Russian parliament, an incipient Adolf Hitler? No.

Is Russia, in the painful throes of transition to capitalism, another Weimar Germany? No.

Are we pumping up this man's support by insulting voters who used him as their vehicle of protest? Yes.

He won a Perot-sized slice of the ballots by organizing a party first; by outspending his dozen rivals on television in the final two weeks; by staying on his message of resentment of corruption, crime, unemployment and loss of national pride; by inheriting the support of fringe parties foolishly banned by a remote Boris Yeltsin; and by running against an establishment slate that took its pompous campaign style from Thomas E. Dewey.

He won a fourth of the seats in half of the lower house at the same time a constitution squeaked through that shifts power from parliament to president. Russians split their vote, as some of us concerned about dictatorship had hoped -- but with a vengeance.

That sometimes happens in democracies. It's no cause for "a new Hitler wins" in Germany's largest paper; for France's Le Figaro to castigate "a bewildered, exhausted and desperate" electorate; for Britain's foreign secretary to find it all "alarming"; and for Vice President Al Gore, in Moscow for what he assumed would be a Yeltsin celebration, to mix into a local scrap by declaring the winner's views "anathema."

The Gore plan was to say nothing until the high-riding Mr. Zhirinovsky said something outrageous and then to zap him with "reprehensible" and "anathema" (the same hifalutin language that marked Yegor Gaidar's campaign).

Although the big Z tried to adopt a moderate stance in his press conference here -- "I am not a fascist" -- he soon blamed Jews on television for creating anti-Semitism.

Then, asked about coalitions with like-minded parties, he made a tasteless wisecrack about the Women of Russia movement, whose 9 percent vote had also stunned the experts: "In our cabinet we have a number of intelligent, good-looking men who are in good shape in all senses."

That sent me to have a talk with the other unexpected winner in this week's election: Alevtina Fedulova, a grandmother at 53, a longtime Soviet apparatchik heading the Women of Russia movement, which has been widely described as anti-reform, mainly concerned with housing for the military, a likely Communist-agrarian or Zhirinovsky ally.

"We are Women for Russia," she corrected me, "and we are for a transfer to a market economy, but with less social tension. We say no to Gaidar of Russia's Choice; Yavlinsky is closer to our views. We will tighten our belts but not around our necks." They'll be independent.

Seven out of 10 of those thrown out of jobs are women; salaries that used to be 70 percent of men's are now 45 percent.

Half the members are in their 20s, with young children and little opportunity, and most of the other half over 40, being shoved aside with no retirement protection.

They are resentful but espouse neither fascism nor communism, and are turned off by Mr. Zhirinovsky bellicose bravado of reinstating Russia's czarist empire.

Why did the reformers do so badly? "All they did was talk against the past, without offering anything more appealing.

Mr. Zhirinovsky played the string of patriotism, and none of his opponents questioned him to show the difference between desires and capability."

How to stop him? "Don't think of Zhirinovsky voters as you think of Zhirinovsky himself," Madame Fedulova advises. "Our Russian people very often vote against, not for. In struggling against Zhirinovsky, do not struggle against the people who voted for him. If we take that approach, we could raise him up."

Mr. Yeltsin has created a constitution that gives him the power to advance reform, but gives his successor the power to reverse it. He will now use the threat of Mr. Z to discipline his own support. We should not let Mr. Yeltsin use the same threat to manipulate the West.

Mr. Zhirinovsky has a kooky charisma, but lacks the key quality that takes politicians to the top. Do you trust him, Madame Fedulova? "Nyet!"

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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