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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zhirinovsky Stumps in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG -- Vladimir Zhirinovsky is off and running again, just two months after stunning Russia and the world with his victory in the country's parliamentary elections.


With March 20 elections to the new St. Petersburg City Assembly five weeks away, Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats are so far the only party campaigning.


Vyacheslav Ulibin, 25, an ex-Army lieutenant managing the Liberal Democrat Party's campaign, said last week: "This is a very banal thing to say, but none of the other parties understand it. Campaigning is work. You can't just heave a bale of fliers into every apartment building; you have to cut the string on the bales, take the fliers out, put one in each mailbox. That's how you win."


At LDP headquarters, workers scrambled to answer constantly ringing phones and gather signatures for inclusion on the ballot. Posters of Zhirinovsky and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decorate the newly papered walls.


Reformers, perhaps still reeling from the beating they took in December, are invisible. Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, their rallying point, was in Norway last week.


"It's become clear just how cowardly your city leader, Mr. Sobchak, is," said Zhirinovsky last week. "Once again he's fled the city upon (my) arrival."


The St. Petersburg City Assembly will replace the Soviet, which disbanded in October along with the parliament.


The Soviet boasted almost 400 members and was a marvel of bloated incompetence, yet all the same often managed to thwart Sobchak, a Western-oriented reformer elected in 1991.


The leaner City Assembly is expected to play an even larger role in St. Petersburg life. If the LDP could take control of it, Sobchak would be isolated to the point of irrelevance, and a privatization program that rivals Nizhny Novgorod's as Russia's best would be derailed. In December, St. Petersburg voters were skeptical of the LDP. Countrywide the LDP led all other blocs, winning 23 percent of the vote, while Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Choice ranked a distant second with 15 percent.


In St. Petersburg, Russia's Choice led with 25 percent of the vote, followed by 19.4 for the similar Yabloko Party and 18 percent for the LDP.


But, according to Ulibin, "If we hadn't campaigned so hard (in St. Petersburg), we would have come not in third place but in 23rd."


Now they are back on the trail.


Zhirinovsky, wearing a black turtleneck, a navy suitcoat and a scowl, kicked off the LDP campaign last week with a press conference in the Oktyabrskaya Hotel. His 90-minute harangue was filled with his trademark wild claims and threats: death for 900,000 Estonians should harm come to the LDP Tallinn representative; contempt for Japan, which Zhirinovsky said offered him $1 billion for the Kuril Islands.


But there was also much of more local interest. Calling Petersburg "the political and cultural capital of Russia," Zhirinovsky pledged to relocate parliament here, while leaving the administrators and bureaucrats in Moscow.


The hall was packed with supporters, among whom were sprinkled hotel chambermaids. When one arose on behalf of "the hotel working collective" to ask for help solving a privatization-related squabble between the mayor and the hotel, Zhirinovsky pledged support. "But, in general, that's a local matter," he said. "If we had deputies in the City Assembly, we could do much more."


That sort of horse-trading is an art reformers rarely practice. President Boris Yeltsin made a rare visit to St. Petersburg two weeks ago. He drank vodka with survivors of the Nazi siege and announced perks for them, including cash gifts of 15,000 rubles (about $10). But he never mentioned the City Assembly.