Monday, Dec. 1, 2003.

Zhirinovsky Offers Pens, Bags and Cash

By Greg Walters

Special to The Moscow Times

For more than an hour they streamed into Vladimir Zhirinovsky's office, handing written complaints and legal documents to the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and asking for assistance.

To each, Zhirinovsky, like many a politician, promised solemnly, "We'll try to help you."

But, unlike most politicians, he often meant it more personally.

Zhirinovsky offered short-term loans to help with utility bills. He said he would get gas supplies to apartments turned back on. He volunteered the services of LDPR lawyers.

Visitors, in turn, thanked him and about half promised him their votes.

"This is an everyday activity," an LDPR spokeswoman said of Sunday's gathering.

Zhirinovsky has been flying around the country and meeting with voters in a similar fashion, she said.

"Of course it's part of the campaign," she said. "But this is standard. It's not just part of the campaign."

Zhirinovsky's election campaign has entailed much more than handing out individual favors. His oratory has ranged from the populist -- he has called for oligarchs and liberal reformers to be "removed from the country" -- to the bizarre, such as a proposal to legalize polygamy as a way to deal with the declining population.

The key to understanding Zhirinovsky as a political phenomenon is the realization that while he excels at getting attention, almost nobody takes his ideas seriously, said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "He's often described as an ultranationalist in the West," she said. "That's part right. He's a buffoon with ultranationalist rhetoric. He always caters to the tastes of the discontented audience."

The discontented audience was certainly in attendance Sunday.

"My dear Vladimir Volfovich, It's awful, awful," said one retiree who was on the verge of tears. "Please help me. I can't live without gas. They privatized my apartment, and now they tell me my pension's not enough to pay my bills. There's no light, no heat. And my cat and dog have died."

Zhirinovsky glanced over her gas bill. "And your deputies, what are they doing about it?" he said. "Don't they still have deputies in the Duma? That's our democracy for you. And they dare call me a fascist. Just yesterday, Yavlinsky did it again."

After making their cases, visitors to Zhirinovsky's office on Sunday were handed gift bags with LDPR lighters, pens, campaign literature and a CD featuring samples of Zhirinovsky's public statements laid down over electronic dance tracks.

One song, titled, "Bush Is a Shitty Cowboy," appears to use remarks Zhirinovsky himself denied having made. "Baghdad's not Berlin, Baghdad's not Kabul," the song goes. "Give me a ticket and a machine gun, I'm going to fight in Baghdad."

Sunday, though, saw a more even-tempered politician listening to his electorate.

One young woman, a student, complained of living in a 12-square-meter room with three other people. A limping soldier said he wasn't receiving his stipend. Most, it seemed, had some sort of financial or housing troubles.

Zhirinovsky promised to help them all.

In between cases, he blamed reformers, oligarchs and the government in general for selling out the average Russian, pounding his desk as he made his points.

"There's democratic freedom for you," he said.

--- Greg Walters The Moscow Times Tel. (7095) 937-33-99 ext. 141 Fax (7095) 937-33-93/94