Oftentimes in this country, national political leaders are harangued for back-pedaling on promises and, notoriously, saying what they think the American public wants to hear. Consider for a moment popular reaction to President Clinton's ever-tottering policy toward Haitian refugees. Along those same lines, think about media response to Ross Perot's get-tough, populist stance toward America's "less than fair" trading partners abroad. All this seems mundane, typical to politics-as-usual.
Imagine, then, if President Clinton came out with a new policy ordering Coast Guard cutters to machine gun all refugees attempting to enter by boat. Or Perot advocated a limited thermonuclear reprisal against Japan in order to curb the trade deficit? Certainly some Americans would whistle, catcall and respond with a hearty "Hell, yeah!" Most would simply laugh. Statements like those above would indelibly brand someone a lunatic not worth a second look in the American political scene.
What if similar statements were made by a politico of another country? "I say given quite plainly--when I come to power, there will be a dictatorship!" Sound absurd? People in the Kremlin aren't laughing. Enter the world of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, self-appointed savior of the former Soviet republic.
In the eyes of the Western world, Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a loudmouth megalomaniac somewhere between Benito Mussolini and Archie Bunker. Rising from the murk of obscurity in post-Cold War Soviet politics, Zhirinovsky pulled himself out of the depths with threaRTLÄo restore Russia's imperial borders, retake Alaska, partition Poland and even employ large fans to blow radioactive waste across Russia and into the Baltic states. Such threats had become trademark Zhirinovsky moves, ignored by many. But since last December when Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party captured 25% of the vote in the party preference poll, Russian liberals and pro-Yeltsin Westerners have taken notice.
In the past few months, Zhirinovsky has tempered his message in an attempt to broaden his base of appeal. Specifically, the Liberal Democratic Party targets disgruntled military officers, the new commercial merchant class and the middle-aged, all of whom Communism left high and dry. Supposedly, Zhirinovsky's LDP has met with considerable success over the past few months, and with the Russian political balance so historically unstable, many voices sound the alarm.
And so to history, the "wolfcriers" turn. In the most extreme cases, reactionaries have claimed that Russia is undergoing the Weimar syndrome. The Russian republic, according to this line of thinking, is a politically-inexperienced, fledgling democracy ripe for a takeover in much the same way as Weimar Germany in the 1930s.
With his violent nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric, Zhirinovsky seems the perfect Hitler figure for a possible takeover. Even Zhirinovsky's autobiography The Last Thrust to the South has been likened to Mein Kampf by members of the Library of Congress.
But Vladimir Zhirinovsky is no Adolf Hitler, and the current Russian republic is no Weimar. Russia is not the pariah among nations that post-World War I Germany was; there are no Western Allied powers lording over a defeated Russia. True, Russia has suffered economic hardship, but not to the point of 400% inflation in four years (1929-1933) such as in Germany. Moreover, the Western powers are well-armed, prepared and even interventionist these days (as opposed to the way we were under the Monroe Doctrine-influenced isolationism of the 1930s).
More importantly, Zhirinovsky really has not posed a threat to the same degree as Hitler or Mussolini, or Stalin for that matter. Zhirinovsky likes to complain and publicly denounce democratic reforms and institution, but he offers the people no viable alternative solutions, merely an attitude of "I'll deal with it later." He enjoys the bawdy, aggressive style of politics, but he hasn't been able to firmly establish his odious cult of personality.
Yet Zhirinovsky's task of uniting the former Soviet republics seems Herculean compared with Hitler's task of subjugating Germany and its people; the Soviet Union failed to keep all the languages, cultures and peoples of Central and East Asia together at gun point. How can Zhirinovsky possibly expect to do so with street brawling, rhetoric, and mass appeal?
Zhirinovsky is a bully. He is a poor player, and unfortunately the world will have to tolerate his strutting and fretting for the time being. Perhaps the Russian electorate will do us all a favor and hasten Mr. Zhirinovsky's departure from the political stage.