Vladimir Zhirinovsky & the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia: Two Steps Backward for Democracy?
by Sascha Schilbach
Even from the auditorium’s back row the leader and founder of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR)—Vladimir Volfovitch Zhirinovsky—looked menacing. Sweating through his pink shirt half an hour late, Zhirinovsky took the stage in a flurry of bodyguards and uneven applause. Notebook ready and pen poised, I settled into my seat in the back corner of Vladivostok’s main theatre.
My summer in Vladivostok was punctuated by an unusual event: Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky’s visit. Hot on the campaign trail for the Russian presidency, Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) placards and billboards had blanketed the town for the bulk of the summer. I learned of Zhirinovsky’s visit to Vladivostok from LDPR’s political advertisements, giant billboards depicting a pensive Zhirinovsky in a blue pinstripe suit seated against a background of blue drapes while clenching his fist below the emblazoned “ЛДПР.”
I decided to attend the LDPR event in order to bolster my understanding of Russian politics and to gauge the level of local Russians’ discontent with the direction of their country. At the time, opposition parties to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party were jockeying for recognition and support from the Russian people in the run up to the Russian presidential election in March 2012. According to LDPR’s website and political pamphlets, Zhirinovsky sounded more like a saint than a politician, more a panacea for Russia’s social and economic ills than its malaise. Was this the election cycle in which Russia’s political elite would answer to the demands of ordinary Russians?
The ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky, a longtime figure in Russian politics, opened the event with a nod toward democratic principles: “Questions,” he barked, “should be given to LDPR volunteers who will hand them to me. Please send your questions and concerns for me forward.” Almost immediately a flutter of papers, the clicks of pens and murmurs from the audience answered Zhirinovsky’s call for questions. As the woman to my left retrieved a notebook from her purse to begin scribbling down her questions, the man to my right passed a stack of handwritten notes and photocopies of newspaper clippings to a young LDPR volunteer standing in the aisle. The questions and comments for all politicians are rarely succinct. While the audience scribbled, Zhirinovsky’s volunteers, mostly youth sporting plain white t-shirts with “LDPR” in block letters, roamed through the hall collecting more questions from the audience.
Leaning into the microphone, Zhirinovsky highlighted the “mountain of problems” that faced the Primorski Krai region. He began by describing the geopolitical situation in stark terms. Suggesting that Vladivostok was going the way of the Soviet Union and the region was “disappearing to China,” Zhirinovsky promised that Vladivostok—under the LDPR—would return to its past glory. He spoke of a “boom in Vladivostok that would attract young people and provide for the pensioners,” after decrying the region’s dwindling population and the emigration of younger educated Russians to European Russia and abroad. With Asia’s move to the center of the international system, Vladivostok would soon become a cosmopolitan center of politics, business and Russian power in East Asia. Echoing a headline in the party’s newspaper handed out earlier that day, he urged the “equal protection for Russians everywhere” and launched a tirade on those who seek work in Russia without first speaking Russian.
Next Zhirinovsky struck down Russia’s geopolitical competitors. He railed against America, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) by stating that “the EU was far worse than the Soviet Union” and that “NATO was only a puppet of American interests.” Bringing his disjointed speech back to Russia’s domestic problems, Zhirinovsky mentioned pertinent issues: the economy and decentralizing political power in Russia. While Zhirinovsky’s made clear his disgust at the widening wealth gap between the Russian elite and other Russians, he did not elucidate his plans to alleviate the country’s economic problems. He also forgot to explain how exactly he, as President, would strengthen the political power of Russia’s regional governments, an important matter to Russia’s eastern regions. An hour of Zhirinovsky’s brow wiping and political ballyhoo convinced me that the outward appearance of a Russian democratic political system—a system linking its citizens’ demands to an action on behalf of the government—mattered far more than that system’s efficacy.
A young LDPR supporter decked out in the party’s garb now paraded the audience’s questions, gathered earlier by LDPR volunteers, to Zhirinovsky. Looking like he was about to carve the Thanksgiving turkey for the hungry masses seated below him, the leader of LDPR began to read the questions aloud. (Note: I tallied every question answered by Zhirinovsky under the issue area that the question fit best. The table is below.) The questions covered a range of domestic issues, from healthcare, education and immigration to the armed forces, the low living standard and corruption. Possibly to allay his audience’s suspicions that the questions he held were not just talking points his aides brainstormed, Zhirinovsky chuckled at a few questions and joked that poor penmanship prevented him from answering a few more; I remained dubious.
While the rambling speech preceding the question session was awkward, the question session itself showcased classic Zhirinovsky: a charismatic, engaging, and dynamic politician. He told his audience of older citizens not to despair of the turbulence of the 1990s by noting that Russia’s first step into a free market economy was not a fair start. He noted that the West’s idolization of capitalism had also caused severe problems that would take years to remedy. Zhirinovsky took advantage of the American government’s announcement to cut its space programs—Russia stepped up its funding for space programs—as proof of Russia’s power on the world stage.
In outlining the competition between Putin’s United Russia and LDPR for the Russian Presidency, Zhirinovsky’s rhetoric turned hostile. He described Putin’s All-Russia Popular Front—a recent effort by Putin to combine political parties under one umbrella party—as “a lying political monopoly,” and told the audience that “[the All-Russia Popular Front] cannot lie to [Russians] anymore.” Russians “can’t fall into the ditch of the Front: if you want to dream honestly then vote for the LDPR. If you’re satisfied,” Zhirinovsky said solemnly, “vote for the Front.” The event ended with Zhirinovsky reminding the audience that LDPR was giving away small amounts of money for those families desperately in need. I walked out of the theatre with a bag of LDPR pamphlets but declined any money.
After Putin announced his candidacy for the Russian Presidency, my pages of notes on the LDPR meeting seemed worthless. But even if the LDPR remain a minority party, it would be a mistake to discount Zhirinovsky’s role in Russia’s political machine. However, the LDPR does not act to balance the United Russia party; Zhirinovsky playing the role of Russia’s crazy nationalist uncle only benefits the status quo. By advocating for an ambiguous redrafting of the country’s political and economic framework, Zhirinovsky alienates many citizens who believe ‘change’ and ‘stability’ to be mutually exclusive. After all, the idea that Putin’s regime ended Russia’s oligarchs’ drive to take control of the Kremlin a decade ago, a move that enhanced the perception of stability but in reality did little to end oligarchies, is still widely held. The perceived risk associated with political pluralism reinforces United Russia’s grip on politics by pitting Putin’s marginally more stable Kremlin against a Kremlin helmed by an opposition candidate, a Zhirinovsky-type who campaigns on the elusive policies of ‘change.’ In Russia, it is clear that the illusion of democracy—as portrayed with campaign billboards, in crowds of youthful supporters and by politicians’ grand designs—erodes any concrete steps toward a society committed to liberalism.
LDPR’s Questions: August 7th, 2011:
- Healthcare/doctor availability: 2
- Invalids/Pensioners: 1
- Immigration: 1
- Enforcement/Armed forces
- Military: 1
- Police: 1
- Living conditions
- Apartments: 3
- Gas: 1
- Transportation/roads: 2
- Water: 1
- Politics, national level: 3
- Court system: 2
- Political pluralism: 1
- Primorski Krai, regional issues
- Taxes: 2
- Students’ rights: 1
- Corruption: 1
- Land ownership rights: 1
- Education: 2
Sascha Schilbach (MAIS 2012) received his BA in Russian Language and International Studies at Willamette University in 2010. After a stint in Estonia, on Sakhalin Island and in the Crimea, he was thrilled to return to Russia this summer. A recipient of the Summer FLAS Scholarship, Sascha spent the summer studying Russian language at Vladivostok State University of Service and Economics. His academic interests include Russia's foreign policy, Russia's Arctic developments and Russian domestic politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.