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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Zhirinovsky, No LDP

Why hide it? I was waiting in hopeful, ghoulish anticipation for the 62 men who follow Vladimir Zhirinovsky's erratic leadership in parliament to rebel. When the first fissures appeared in the ranks of the Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday with the departure of two leading figures, it was a moment to savor.

Imagine then my disappointment on Thursday morning. The rebels, mollified, stood meekly next to Mad Vlad, the undisputed king of ultranationalists, as he announced the crisis over. Regrettably, whatever differences arise between Zhirinovsky and his followers, that is always likely to be the way.

It is hard to picture the Liberal Democrats without Zhirinovsky. Knowing that they have little or no political future without their charismatic leader, it is unlikely that enough faction members will ever rebel to undermine his strength. They know better. In cutting loose from Zhirinovsky they would tear off the coat tails that are dragging them to power.

Equally depressing on Thursday morning was the niggling certainty that the men who so briefly left the fold, Viktor Kobelev and Alexander Pronin, were not such desirable characters either. They objected to the embarrassment Zhirinovsky's more lunatic ravings have caused, but not to the truly dangerous planks in their party's platform, such as its belligerent determination to reunite the former Soviet Union.

The patent absurdity of nuking Germany, retaking Alaska or zapping Bosnian Moslems with sonic weapons aside, the 'Z' factor is here to stay in its most real and disturbing aspects.

But Wednesday's delicious scandal in the State Duma, where Zhirinovsky screamed and Kobelev threatened to reveal the dirty secrets of party financing, did make one thing clear. Among the Liberal Democrats too, a lively debate is going on over whether Mad Vlad's attention-grabbing stunts will in the long term promote the party or turn voters off.

This must be the crucial question to answer about the Zhirinovsky phenomenon: Will his antics help or hinder his efforts to get elected president in 1996?

Granted how crazed and incoherent Zhirinovsky's ravings have been, the answer should be that he is limiting his appeal to the uneducated and the desperate. But that is to ignore what might be called the "Kojak effect."

For around 20 years now, the hackneyed theme of police heroes facing down and punishing waves of criminals has remained a sure box-office hit and the root of this lasting success lies in the insecurity people feel about rising crime. In Kojak and its endless mutations, good overcomes bad, while we couch potatoes vicariously beat the bad guys and go to bed feeling that little bit more virtuous and safe.

Zhirinovsky follows the cop show plan for success. He appeals to all the insecurities that many Russians -- freshly disrobed of their confidence, their empire and their status as citizens of a superpower -- now feel. Like the plots and distribution of virtue in Kojak, the Zhirinovsky road show bears little relation to reality -- but reality is not the point. To remain popular, all the star cop must do is find an enemy and stand up to him.

If the Kojak analysis of Zhirinovsky holds up, then it does not really matter that his threat to leave no stone standing in any country whose pilots take part in air strikes around Sarajevo is absurd. The attraction to Zhirinovsky lies in the spectacle of a Russian muzhik standing up to the foreigners and telling them where to get off. So what if he has no power to implement his threats? Even smart people watch cop shows -- they feel good.

During his slickly televised election campaign last year, Zhirinovsky concentrated his fire closer to home. He identified the deep concern and resentment many Russians feel about the explosive rise of crime and mafia gangs in their cities. He gave voters a simple, Dirty Harry style solution: Shoot the freaks.

That particular election technique -- exploiting the voter's fear of crime, has been used in equally ugly and successful ways all over the world. But when they think about splitting from Zhirinovsky, the supporting cast Liberal Democrats have to be thinking that they can only lose -- without Kojak or a similarly charismatic hero, there is no show.

When he sounds off today on crime or Bosnia or the Russians abroad, one should think of him as still campaigning. The particular threats to nuke, napalm or sonic-shoot us all to death are shocking, but none too serious. It is the possibility of their Kojak-style attraction back home that is so disturbing.