Russia's own democrats miss party for Clinton

January 14, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- A witty, sophisticated Muscovite, the kind of person who believes in democracy and reform, looked around at last night's glittering reception for President Clinton and suddenly exclaimed, "Goodness! I'm surrounded by Communists!"

That, in fact, was no accident -- or, at least, only half an accident.

The Communists were there, in goodly numbers, because Mr. Clinton wanted them there. And there were others, too. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher called it an "eclectic" cross-section of Russian political culture, all clutching eagerly sought invitations to an up-close evening with the president.

And then there was the man who wasn't there -- Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, leader of the noisily extremist Liberal Democratic Party, who astonished parliament with his outbursts yesterday.

The Americans made sure not to invite him. Mr. Christopher actually called him "unfit" to associate with Mr. Clinton.

But there were also a fair number of democrats lacking, not because they weren't invited but because they had more pressing business.

Russia's new Duma, or lower house of parliament, was in particularly raucous session, and the democrats, whose position there is precarious, didn't dare leave as the house moved toward selecting its first chairman.

That left the reception with something of a surplus of Communists, and their allies, who came full of confidence about their place in the Duma.

Not only do they have a larger share of power in parliament, but the Communists are a sufficiently disciplined party that their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, knew he could meet Mr. Clinton without everything falling apart in his absence.

Traded pleasantries

So, beneath the brilliant chandelier of the U.S. ambassador's residence, Mr. Zyuganov traded pleasantries with the American visitor.

He was followed a little later by Sergei Baburin, who is not a Communist but was one of the hard-liners holed up in the White House, the old parliament building, in defiance of President Boris N. Yeltsin in October.

Mr. Baburin, elected from his hometown of Omsk to the new Duma, is projecting a moderate image these days. He has shaved off the pointy black beard that inevitably brought the word "Mephistophelean" into play whenever he was described in print, and he merely told Mr. Clinton that he was glad the president was listening to both sides.

"The parliament is the bulwark of democracy," he said. Mr. Clinton smiled broadly, nodded and said little in reply.

Servers walked through the crowd with trays of little pizzas, mushroom shells, caviar on hard-boiled eggs, and drinks -- beer, wine, gin and tonics and shots of vodka, as well as juice and soda.

There were, to be sure, a few democrats here and there, though none of the party leaders.

Anatoly Shabad, who won renown a year ago for getting into a fistfight on the floor of the old Congress of People's Deputies with a foe about twice his size, told Mr. Clinton that they had had their picture taken together in Washington last winter but that, alas, the photo had burned up in the parliamentary bombardment in October.

Glossy grin

Instantly, a White House photographer was standing before them, and Mr. Clinton was flashing a glossy grin in Mr. Shabad's direction. Photo taken, job done.

In all, just 195 people were invited to last night's reception, to make a manageable mix for Mr. Clinton.

"You wouldn't believe the calls we got this past week from people who wanted to come," said one diplomat.

But there's one big apology that probably won't be made any time soon -- that for the spurned Mr. Zhirinovsky, who has been on a one-man angry crescendo ever since the new parliament first met Tuesday.

Mr. Zhirinovsky was not invited, and it was made clear several times that he was not invited, and in case he didn't grasp the essence of the snub, Mr. Christopher said yesterday, "We didn't invite Mr. Zhirinovsky because his actions and his language and his statements do not make him fit to be in a meeting or invited by the president of the United States."

In a little speech he gave at the reception, Mr. Clinton seemed to take aim at Mr. Zhirinovsky's virulent nationalism when he said, "The oldest of society's demons plague us still, the hatreds of people for one another based on their race, their ethnic group, their religion, even the pieces of ground they happen to have been born on."

Not subdued

Over at the Duma, meanwhile, Mr. Zhirinovsky was not to be subdued. He all but swaggered through the day, enjoying every moment and every television camera.

At one point, when Vice Premier Anatoly Chubais gestured toward his watch as if to indicate that Mr. Zhirinovsky's speaking time had elapsed, the Liberal Democrat burst out, "Next time you point to your watch, you'll be at Lefortovo Prison."

He then declared, "I can't look the members of the Cabinet in the eye, because it is dangerous to my health, and my health is precious to the nation."

When some fellow legislators began talking during one of his speeches, he suddenly shouted "Molchat!" which is a particularly harsh Russian way to say "Shut up!" -- one that would be used, as a Russian onlooker pointed out, only when talking to army recruits or dogs.

It was effective, though. A momentary hush fell over the chamber, one of pure astonishment.

Finally, one member of parliament called out, "That man is crazy. Take him away!"

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