There is a trend among Russia watchers to ridicule the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and its eccentric leader, the dinosaur of Russian politics Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Famous for his larger-than-life personality, skillful showmanship and occasional fistfights with fellow Duma deputies, Zhirinovsky is often caricatured as a “clown” (which, incidentally, doesn’t prevent him from coming out of public polls as one of the most popular Russian politicians). Yet those who have taken the time to study Zhirinovsky’s positions on issues would be surprised to see that some important decisions of Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidencies may have had their origin in the LDPR program documents.
Recently, it was Putin himself who acknowledged Zhirinovsky’s “sensible ideas.” During a public appearance, Putin recalled that following the 2000 decision to divide Russia into seven federal districts headed by plenipotentiary representatives, Zhirinovsky came to him to claim being the author of the arrangement. Indeed, one of the LDPR’s stated strategic goals has always been to transform Russia from an “amorphous” federation into a strong unitary state. LDPR asserted that the current national-territorial principle of state formation – with ethnic-based “national” republics and districts – threatens Russia’s integrity because of the danger of separatism. To counter this threat, LDPR has long advocated coming back to the structure of pre-revolutionary Russia — with its division into 25-30 completely equal in their status territories (“guberniya”). Composed of about 5 million residents each, these territories should be formed based strictly on geographic and economic considerations and have elected legislative assemblies, but no constitutions of their own. The head of guberniya, governor, should be appointed by president. It’s easy to see that by encompassing “traditional” regions – regardless of their status – and creating a supra-regional level of authority, Putin’s federal districts clearly followed the territorial principle of state formation. Furthermore, in 2004, Putin scrapped popular elections of regional governors.
Putin called the similarities between his scheme and the LDPR’s proposals “coincidental.” If so, it raises an interesting point: having become president, Putin apparently didn’t bother to take a look at the program documents of political parties represented in the Duma.
As a matter of fact, the list of “coincidences” is a bit longer. In order to make the structure of federal authorities fit the territorial principle of state formation, LDPR called for a single-chamber Duma elected strictly by political party lists. The upper chamber of the parliament, the Federation Council, was to be dissolved and replaced with the State Council. In 2004, Putin eliminated single-mandate electoral districts and introduced the strictly proportional, party list, system of Duma elections. Moreover, the creation, in 2000, of the “advisory” State Council — composed of president and regional governors — have certainly undermined the authority of the still existing Federation Council.
There is nothing “coincidental” in the way Putin and Zhirinovsky view Russia’s political structure. Both are devout statists and consider strong federal authority as the major prerequisite for preserving the territorial integrity of the country. At the same time, the similarity of their positions with regards to Russia’s state formation could serve as a response to those who routinely criticize Zhirinovsky for being too supportive of Putin. Why would Zhirinovsky oppose him if Putin has implemented the most important positions of the LDPR party program?
Zhirinovsky is an experienced presidential candidate: he ran in 1991, 1996, 2000, and 2008. This presidential election is his fifth and likely the last. On Feb.1, the Izvestia daily published Zhirinovsky’s program article, “Where Russia should go.” With all due respect to other candidates’ published manifestos, this piece is the only one you can read without risking to fall asleep.
Zhirinovsky begins with his pet idea to replace the “non-Russian” word “president” with something native: глава or правитель. He then proceeds to another pet idea of his: to transform Russia into parliamentary republic with 5-7 political parties represented in the Duma. The Duma should form government and choose the head of state, president, for a single 5-year term.
It’s almost a common place to call Zhirinovsky “ultra-nationalists;” yet his article reveals not much “nationalist” and definitely nothing “ultra.” Zhirinovsky repeats his mantra of the “oppressed Russian people” and – referring to the fact that ethnic Russians constitute about 80% of the Russian population – calls for pronouncing Russians the “state-forming nation.” He also reiterates his well-known opposition to illegal immigration. This is hardly more “nationalistic” than Putin’s proposal to regulate internal migration from the North Caucasus region. (In the United States, Mitt Romney, the leading Republican presidential candidate, calls for the “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants and is still considered a “moderate Republican.”)
The rest of the piece is a classic pre-election populism: drug and alcohol abuse, declining standards of education, pitiful state of the armed forces, and – Zhirinovsky’s signature topic – hard life conditions for Russian women, “the best and most beautiful in the world.”
In contrast to his perennial rival, the head of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky is cautiously supportive of the anti-Putin protests on Bolotnay Square and Sakharov Prospect, saying that the Russian society is tired of “being constantly lied” to by the authorities.
Zhirinovsky is almost 66 and he looks old and exhausted. It seems that the only thing that has driven him in the past few years was his desire to “transfer” LDPR to his son, Igor Lebedev, the head of the LDPR faction in the Duma. Lebedev, who’s 40, is a competent and experienced parliamentarian; yet he completely lacks his father’s charisma and showmanship. With Zhirinovsky having been the face, soul and the mouth of LDPR for so long, it’ll be extremely difficult, if possible at all, for Lebedev to keep the party together. Rather, with Zhirinovsky gone, his party’s ideas will be rapidly appropriated by other political forces. And so will be the LDPR electorate.