Russia's Far-Right Candidate Finds A Following in Alienated Far East
Vladimir Zhirinovsky chose his party's flag well for this Far Eastern port, which is home to Russia's Pacific Fleet: Its blue St. Andrew's cross matches the Navy's standard.
And many voters here have shown they have more in common with him than a symbol: In parliamentary elections last December, his noisy brand of nationalist demagogy won his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) top place in the region around Vladivostok, with 21 percent of the vote.
That was twice as well as the party did nationally. And as Mr. Zhirinovsky goes into the final stretch of his campaign for the June 16 presidential elections, the reasons he performs so well in this part of Russia are good pointers to how he will do in the rest of the country, analysts here say.
"The sorts of people who voted for Zhirinovsky all over Russia are more common here," says Andrei Ostrovsky, a local journalist.
Zhirinovsky's fiery, often xenophobic, patriotic rhetoric goes over especially well in the Far East, on Russia's long border with China, where fears of a presumed "yellow peril" are easily exploited.
"Vladimir Volfovich [Zhirinovsky] has taken a firm national position, that the borders of Primorsky krai should not be violated," says local LDP leader Yevgeny Bolshakov of a frontier dispute with China that threatens 30,000 Russians with eviction. "This resonates in local peoples' souls and hearts.
"There is a subliminal feeling in many people here about very strong pressure from China," adds Mr. Ostrovsky. "There are only 5 million people in the whole Russian Far East, and there are over 100 million Chinese just in Manchuria."
On a national level, Zhirinovsky has recently turned his ire westward. Where once his speeches were peppered with racist insults against people from southern republics of the former Soviet Union, now he warns more often of the threat that he believes the West poses.
"When Clinton arrives here and smiles, remember he is our main enemy," Zhirinovsky said in his first TV address of the presidential campaign.
Zhirinovsky's insistence on the need for a strong Russian Army and a vibrant defense industry also falls on very receptive ground in the Vladivostok region.
The headquarters of the Pacific Fleet and the presence of massive Army units guarding the border with China make this region a densely military-populated area. The Army has always voted strongly for Zhirinovsky, whose solution to the crisis in Chechnya would be to napalm the whole republic. And military voters warm to the LDP's call for a well-funded Army ready to repel a NATO attack.
And in a region where the biggest industrial plants are defense-oriented - manufacturing Sukhoi jet fighters and Black Shark helicopters, or repairing nuclear submarines - there are a lot of votes in calls for more weaponry.
"The defense plants are getting far fewer state orders" since the Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war ended, says one Western observer here, "and they are not getting paid for the orders they do fill."
"Zhirinovsky speaks of the need to support our defense industry, which the 'democrats' have destroyed," says Mr. Bolshakov, who represents the LDP in the Duma (lower house of parliament). "People here respect him."
Adding weight to such sentiments is dissatisfaction with President Boris Yeltsin's government, which is especially intense here, local observers say.
Often without paychecks for months at a time, cut off from European Russia by prohibitively expensive railroad fares, and without electricity for 10 hours a day in the depths of last winter, protest voters swept the Our Home is Russia party of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin aside in the Dec. 17 parliamentary poll.
"People were very angry," says Victor Larin, a local academic. "Obviously nobody's going to vote for the authorities," and the LDP took the lion's share of the protest vote - well ahead of the Communists, who reaped most of it nationwide.
This may have been because of the stress that Zhirinovsky has put on the need for law and order - a commodity in notoriously short supply in this capital of the "Wild East" where crime and corruption are rampant. Here, contract killings are a matter of course among organized crime groups scrabbling for influence.
"This is a fractious town," says American lawyer Jeff Riddell, who works in Vladivostok. "Competing groups are fighting for power, and people feel it."
Zhirinovsky's trademark is his call for strong leadership and an authoritarian iron hand, which is what many Russian voters, both young and old, seem to believe is needed to put the country back on its feet and to control the criminals who've taken over so much of Russian life.
Local analysts say Zhirinovsky's popularity has fallen here over the past six months. "People think more carefully about who they elect as president than they do about parliamentary elections," says Ostrovsky. And nationwide polls put the LDP leader's support at less than 10 percent, well behind front-runners President Yeltsin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
Zhirinovsky is a strong campaigner with a history of last-minute campaign surges, and his activists are working hard: At 7:45 on a recent Saturday morning, LDP workers had already opened their office, while much of Vladivostok still slept.
The Communists have been stealing many of Zhirinovsky's themes, such as his nationalism and law-and-order image, and taking away his voters too. But they are still so branded by their Soviet past that many voters, however angry they are at Yeltsin, cannot bring themselves to vote for Mr. Zyuganov.
It is those voters, says the Western observer, "afraid to go back, but unwilling to keep going down," who will choose Zhirinovsky on June 16. His backing has always been underestimated, and there may well be more of his supporters than the opinion polls show.