Zhirinovsky may prove to be election wild card Russia's undecided voters will be a crucial factor

June 14, 1996|By NEWSDAY

MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, resplendent in a high-collared, custom-made jacket as yellow as a Yellow cab, was brandishing a bottle of his namesake vodka and half a hard-boiled egg topped with red caviar.

"Bill Clinton pays $200 for wrinkled gray suits and what do you get? A cowboy! You see this suit? Look at the lining! This costs $1,000!" boasted the ultranationalist Russian presidential candidate. "I have my own vodka. Does Clinton have that? No! Can Clinton provide all this caviar? No!"

For five years, Zhirinovsky has been the wild card in Russian politics, threatening war against NATO, hobnobbing with neo-fascists, declaring Clinton to be Russia's "main enemy," and spinning anti-Semitic and racist conspiracy theories.

Confounding pollsters, his party was the top vote-getter in the 1993 parliamentary elections. It placed second in December's voting.

Now, in the 10-man race for the Russian presidency -- and with up to 40 percent of Russian voters undecided -- Zhirinovsky may well play the joker again.

Alone or in combination with other second-tier candidates, such as free-market economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky or law-and-order Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, he could draw a surprising number of wavering voters from the main contenders in voting Sunday.

Some recent surveys have shown President Boris N. Yeltsin surging in popularity compared to his chief rival, Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov. But insiders in both camps privately say their own numbers show the two are neck and neck, with perhaps 30 percent solid support each.

To win outright, a candidate must get an absolute majority. Otherwise, the two top vote-getters will go to a second round, tentatively set for July 3 or 7.

Convinced by weeks of media speculation that the decisive race will be a second-round face-off between Yeltsin and Zyuganov, Russian voters may well decide to gamble with their first votes.

"I could end up in the second round!" Zhirinovsky said this week, as he regaled supporters at a vodka-and-caviar Clinton-bashing banquet. "Why? Because people don't want to vote for the current course and they are afraid of returning to the old forces."

The race between the two leaders is so close that the undecided and alienated voters will be a crucial factor.

"Today, 5 percent here or there can be significant," said Sergei Filatov, head of the Yeltsin re-election campaign.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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