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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taming the Wolf for Boris

The political landscape has been altering so fast of late that it is time to ask a tricky question -- who now is the opposition?


The very public abandonment of President Boris Yeltsin by Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kovalyov has now put them into the ranks of the "againsts" alongside the uncrowned king of the "democratic opposition," Grigory Yavlinsky. The Communists, for all their approval of the latest cabinet changes, are essentially still an opposition party, with personal scores to settle with Yeltsin if nothing else.


But what about Vladimir Zhirinovsky? Russia's most famous opposition politician is now much more a "for" than an "against."


Some definite proof of what many people had been suspecting for some time came with some priceless film broadcast by "Itogi" on NTV last Sunday night. It showed the leader of the Our Home Is Russia faction in the Duma, Sergei Belyayev, chatting in the VIP lounge of Sheremyetevo-2 airport with a tall bespectacled man, who turned out to be Mikhail Monastyrsky, one of the leading "falcons" of Zhirinovsky. Both, it seemed, were off to Geneva for a New Year's break.


Then Belyayev, questioned by NTV, clumsily refused to deny that he had been holding talks with the LDPR in Switzerland. All was made clear when Zhirinovsky and Our Home joined together to vote for Ivan Rybkin as speaker of the Duma in defiance of the Communists and Yabloko.


On the evening of the first round of voting, the nation's main news program "Vremya" even cut to a live interview with Zhirinovsky in which he harangued Yabloko for selling out Rybkin. The one-time pariah of the airwaves was suddenly being given a prime-time spot.


My own suspicions were raised on the first day of the Duma's new session when I saw Andrei Loginov, the president's adviser for relations with parliament, weaving his way through the crowd looking for someone. That someone turned out to be Zhirinovsky. They exchanged a firm handshake and then had a confidential conversation that looked as though it was being resumed, not started from the beginning. Curious to say the least, I thought.


In fact the evidence has been piling up for some time now that Zhirinovsky is quite a Yeltsin loyalist. He supported the president in October 1993 when his tanks attacked the White House and again in December 1994, when he attacked Chechnya. Just last week, there he was again supporting the assault on Pervomaiskoye. In the Duma his faction has consistently voted for the budget (while Yabloko, for example, although the budget committee chairman is one of its own, has consistently voted against).


Zhirinovsky's hostility has always been against certain of Yeltsin's ministers rather than the president himself. He used to have a list of ministers he wanted to see sacked. It went -- Andrei Kozyrev, Sergei Shakhrai, Anatoly Chubais, Viktor Yerin, Sergei Stepashin, Pavel Grachev. Look at the list now. Only Grachev is left, and he was never Zhirinovsky's prime target anyway.


For Zhirinovsky, the benefits of partnership, not opposition, are obvious. His faction can be kept sweet with all sorts of financial and bureaucratic inducements and he can be assured of the minimum of interference with his election campaign. Plus he has the satisfaction of seeing the political agenda moving rapidly in his direction.


For the Kremlin team the strategy is more risky, but potentially even more fruitful. More than 7 million electors voted for Zhirinovsky last month, but most pollsters believe that is his electoral ceiling. For Yeltsin and his entourage those are voters who otherwise might have voted for some other "opposition" candidate. Ideally they would have liked a second round of a presidential election in which Yeltsin faced Zhirinovsky and most of the population was so frightened it voted for Yeltsin.


That looks implausible, but they can now hope to rely on Zhirinovsky to split the nationalist-communist vote to such an extent that Yeltsin is assured of getting into the second round. At that point Zhirinovsky will have to cash in his debts and appeal to his voters to back Yeltsin against the Communist candidate.


The strategists have chosen to ignore the ideological consequences of the game they are playing, but they are quite sinister. Yeltsin is encouraged to play even more at "great power" imperialist politics as he goes chasing after the Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov voters. And a man who deserves to be nothing more than an international pariah is allowed to help set the rules of the Russian political game and air his views on live television.