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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zhirinovsky Running for Regional Governor

Some may consider him a jester, but Vladimir Zhirinovsky is no fool. As his position in the State Duma grows weaker, Russia's most flamboyant politician announced Friday that he will run for governor of one of the country's most important regions f and analysts say he has a good chance of winning.

The ultranationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia will join the race for governor of the Leningrad region, Interfax reported, citing the press service of his LDPR faction in the Duma.

Galina Starovoitova, a prominent liberal Duma deputy from St. Petersburg, announced Friday that she, too, will run, in order to try to prevent her longtime opponent from getting the post.

The governor's post became vacant last week when Vadim Gustov was appointed to the Cabinet as first deputy prime minister. The Leningrad regional parliament is expected to set a date for the election Tuesday.

The vacancy was a godsend for Zhirinovsky, whose influence in the Duma, parliament's lower house, has been waning. His party is now the third largest faction, but it will be unlikely to clear the 5 percent hurdle in the 1999 parliamentary elections, analysts say.

"LDPR has no chance to win more than 5 percent and form a strong faction in the parliament," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow. "So, is it better to be there as a governor or an ordinary deputy?"

As governor, Zhirinovsky would automatically hold a seat in parliament's upper house, the Federation Council. He also would have control over a region the size of Ireland, with its own budget and media, at a time when regions across Russia have been growing increasingly independent.

The Leningrad region surrounds St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, is a major hub of industry, and serves as a corridor for Western imports.

Becoming governor also could put Zhirinovsky in place to become the head of an even larger, more economically-important region, if a plan to merge the administrations of St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region goes through.

The plan, under discussion for years, was reported Friday to have been approved by President Boris Yeltsin.

"Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] said: 'I am making you personally responsible for the measure. Go ahead and merge them. If somebody stands in the way, the president will interfere and dismiss him,'" Gustov was quoted as saying by Interfax.

The merger has the support of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. He was quoted by the Kommersant Daily newspaper Friday as saying that the separation of the city and the region "has always seemed artificial" to him. Yakovlev made it clear, though, that he would like to head the new, enlarged region.

A referendum on the merger will be held in St. Petersburg in December, and later in the region, Gustov said. "In 1999, when elections for the Russian State Duma are due, a single governor should be elected," he was quoted as saying.

Other candidates expected to seek the governor's post include former St. Petersburg police chief Anatoly Ponidelko and former regional governor Alexander Belyakov.

But Zhirinovsky has the advantage over the regional leaders, Markov said, pointing to the regional electoral victories of other well-known national politicians, such as Alexander Rutskoi in Kursk and Alexander Lebed in Krasnoyarsk.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, also said Leningrad region voters are likely to prefer the boisterous Duma deputy. A little-known LDPR member, Yevgeny Mikhailov, won the gubernatorial election in the Pskov region, bordering the Leningrad region, in part because people associated him with Zhirinovsky, Petrov said.

Zhirinovsky would gather the "protest vote," people who are against both the party of power and the Communist opposition, Petrov said.

"People are looking for somebody who is able to lobby their interests strongly," Markov said. "[Zhirinovsky's] connections and political history make him the most active and effective negotiator."

Starovoitova would have little support and her candidacy would even bolster Zhirinovsky's position, Markov said.

"It puts him in a perfect situation to destroy the destroyers of the Soviet Union," the analyst said. "The popularity of radical democrats like her is not just zero, it's negative."

Gustov, who was endorsed by the Communist Party, won a landslide election in 1996, upsetting the Kremlin-endorsed candidate.

The election of Zhirinovsky as governor of the region, which borders Finland, would be unlikely to please that country. Zhirinovsky at one time threatened to annex Finland, along with Poland and Alaska, if he came to power.

? Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, fired along with former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, said Friday that he would start his own political movement, Interfax reported.

Nemtsov, who said Thursday he plans to run for the State Duma in 1999, said he aims to gather "ambitious and intelligent liberals capable of understanding the need to unite" on his team.