In February, a meteor exploded over Russia’s Ural region causing local disruption and provoking global wonder at our cosmic close call. Some chose to see it not as a provocation of scientific interest, but as a provocation against Russia itself. At the forefront stood Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky who, in an interview with the Russian International News Agency, stated that, “it’s not meteors falling, it’s the test of a new weapon by the Americans.”
Such rhetoric is typical of Zhirinovsky whose political career underwent a meteoric rise in the early 1990s, in part due to explosive statements against the West and expansionist threats towards neighboring states. Zhirinovsky has been active in Russian politics since the fall of the Soviet Union. He founded the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and has run for president in every election since June 1991, regularly placing third. His rhetoric, while insane at first glance, contains a method. The sentiments that drive his bombast have come to play a formative role in Russian foreign policy since Vladimir Putin was elected President in 2000.
“Zhirik,” as his supporters affectionately call him, has bloviated heavily and hotly against the West throughout his political tenure, going so far as to advocate an invasion of Alaska to reclaim it from the Americans. To be fair to his warmongering tendencies, he puts his money where his mouth is. He is infamous for throwing juice at an opponent during a televised debate in the 1990s, and has brawled with many members of the Russian parliament. In spite of this behavior, the LDPR received a plurality of votes in the 1993 parliamentary election and has managed to stay relevant in both local and national elections, despite steady declines in influence.
Much of his popularity is said to rely on emotional appeals following Russia’s loss of prestige after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His rhetoric often focuses on reincorporating parts of the USSR. For example, he calls for Kazakhstan to be turned back into “Russia’s backyard,” supports the continued integration of Belarus into Russia, and routinely threatens to invade the Baltic States.
His bombast forms many of the planks of the LDPR’s political platform. His foreign policy stances are clear: restoration of Soviet power, confrontation with the West, and Russian hegemony. With regards to domestic politics, things get somewhat hollow. The LDPR’s policies differ little from those of the Communist Party today. Neither advocates a return to the Soviet system, but both support radical expansion of the welfare state, as well as bitter broadsides against the “shock” policies of the 1990s. In spite of this, Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general, stated that Zhirinovsky holds a better grasp of the post-Soviet Russian mentality than any other politician in the aftermath of Communism (Ref; “Vladimir Zhirinovsky,” National Defense University, James Morrison).
Such comprehension of the Russian mentality, exceptional in the 1990s, has not been lost on the ideologists and foreign policy makers of Putin’s regime. The same resentment over lost prestige that bubbled from Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric in the 1990s has coalesced into actual policy under Putin. Russian diplomats have pushed for the consolidation of former Soviet states back into Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan continue to blur borders with Russia. Immediately after taking power, Putin proposed reattaching Belarus to Russia, while Kazakhstan has joined Belarus and Russia in a tight-knit economic union that mimics the bourgeois European Union.
In keeping with another Zhirinovskian trope, Russian generals have been flexing military muscles long atrophied since the dissolution of the Union. Former President Dmitry Medvedev consolidated the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Russia during the 2008 war there, giving Russian passports to all of the regions’ residents. The government nearly plunged Eastern Europe into crisis when it cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine following a payment dispute. Recent Russian foreign policy bears the aggressive hallmarks of Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric. Zhirinovsky’s hot air no longer enters a void—rather, it envelops policy in practice.
A deeply dark side does persist in Zhirik’s public persona, one that has yet to figure into mainstream Russian policy. In spite of his Jewish father and birth name, Zhirinovsky is not plagued by but rather enjoys allegations of anti-Semitism. Pat Buchanan, who once labeled the U.S. Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory,” received the following response from Zhirinovsky: “[the U.S. and Russia] could set aside territories to deport this small but bothersome tribe.” Buchanan quickly disavowed any connection with Zhirinovsky, prompting the latter to proclaim: “You’re crap, Pat. Who are you afraid of, Zionists?” according to a JWeekly article.
Last year, Zhirinovsky garnered special praise for his support of last year’s protests in Moscow. Zhirinovsky spoke at many of the events, even handing out ice cream to the “Occupy Moscow” encampment on a muggy summer day. Many see this as odd, given his xenophobic rhetoric. However, his appearances at the protests also played to the large rightist contingent of the Russian population, many of whom are permanently dissatisfied with the current Putin government. In the same vein, some Kremlin observers attribute Zhirinovsky’s perpetual popularity to Kremlin funding, with him potentially being a tool to sap the nationalist electorate of votes.
Zhirinovsky continues both to confuse and bemuse. He recently incurred Tajikistan’s wrath after declaring that if Russia closed her borders to Tajik workers, the Taliban “would trample their country and hang their president.” He is no stranger to controversy. Whether Russian foreign policy and the Russian people will drink further with Zhirinovsky, or wean off of his explosive rhetoric, remains to be seen.
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