The death of Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky was announced last week. It was the third or fourth time he had been pronounced dead since he fell ill, so it wasn’t unexpected. His death was headline news, and he got a huge showing at his funeral, probably the largest for a politician since Boris Yeltsin. This is not surprising given that Zhirinovsky has been a fixture of the nightly news since the early nineties. When Zhirinovsky first emerged, Margaret Thatcher was the leader of the United Kingdom and George Bush was the President of the United States. Only Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader has been around as long.
I don’t think Zyuganov will get anything like the same response when he dies. First, Zhirinovsky was funny, and people actually remembered what he said. They probably can’t remember any policy platform that he advocated, but they can remember his one-liners. Second, Zyuganov largely inherited his electorate from the old Soviet Communist party, whereas Zhirinovsky actually had to win his electorate in open competition. He did this by offering an alternative to the people who hated what the Communists had done to them, but at the same time didn’t like what the liberal reforms had done either.
Zhirinovsky was part of the systemic opposition. His Liberal Democratic Party of Russia was not aligned with the ruling party or the government and did not try to impose policies on the government or to get his own people appointed as ministers. But he was loyal to the government and would vote with them on key issues, such as the impeachment of Boris Yeltsin in 1999. I can’t remember any really important issue where the LDPR voted against the Kremlin line, even when it was largely academic, as it was after 2011. As a result, the LDPR was tolerated by the Kremlin and had no problems in getting registered to participate in elections, unlike the non-systemic parties.
The LDPR was even able to get a couple of governorships, thanks to a combination of local organisations and elite alignment. This was less popular with the Kremlin’s political managers as regional independence was anathema ever since direct elections for governor were abolished in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy in 2004. The handful of LDPR and Communist governors are tolerated as long as they accept deputies appointed from the centre and they are carefully monitored. I would hazard a guess that now that Zhirinovsky is gone, no one will have the institutional clout to lobby for an LDPR governor in future.
This brings up the main point of this essay. Zhirinovsky didn’t leave a successor or real party behind him. The same is true of the Communists; once Zyuganov retires, there is no one else with the same name recognition who can take over. This is the result of the static, unpluralistic nature of Russian politics. Parties are not dynamic organisms in Russian politics, but rather there as players of pre-scripted parts.
In a healthy democracy, there would be people making careers inside the parties, competing with each other, by, for instance, building active grass roots organisation, campaigning on local issues, that sort of thing. This kind of activity is frowned upon in Russia because it makes the incumbents look bad, so there is no arena where talented newcomers can prove themselves. Talented young people migrate towards the establishment and United Russia, or the government or business, or all three. Also there is no precedent where leaders who lose an election, as Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky and Mironov (head of A Just Russia) did for four consecutive elections, should resign and let someone else have a try.
This is one of the many consequences of Russia’s autocratic system. There’s no place for losers. Most leaders of the countries in the democratic West have lost an election at one point or other. Their parties certainly have. Probably the only one who hasn’t is President Macron of France. Even so, he knows that he might lose the next election, and that affects how he rules. The other key point is that term limits mean that all heads of state know that they are not there for ever.
This certainty of non-longevity is a key check and balance in the democratic system. It means leaders can’t persecute their opposition, because they know that eventually they will be in the same place. You don’t get this in Russia, even though it was baked in to the Russian constitution, and the failure to adhere to the spirit of the Constitution is one of the reasons that Russia is in this mess right now.
This isn’t something that can be blamed on Putin, by the way. The West was complicit in the 1996 election which was clearly stolen by President Yeltsin from Gennady Zyuganov. This was generally thought to be a good idea at the time, because it was assumed that Zyuganov would be a disaster. There was also general approval of the fact that in 1999 and 2000 the Kremlin worked to ensure that no serious politician stood against Putin (Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov were allowed). Again, all the world’s leaders queued up to accept that Putin was legitimate, because he talked (and probably believed) a good game.
This is Zhirinovsky’s symbolic legacy. There was a point in the 90s when he had a chance at power, because he was able to attract that part of the electorate that hated both Communism and capitalism. He might have had a chance at government in a more pluralistic system, but was excluded from it and no one had a problem with that at the time, because he would have been disastrous in power. But the thing is, those disasters and recovering from them, are the key building blocks of a democracy – the lessons learned give rise to the institutions and practices that make the disasters less likely in the future. Vladimir Wolfovich deserves to be remembered as a marker for what went wrong on Russia’s slide into autocracy, when expediency was given priority over principles.
It’s also worth saying that Putin only really started to become autocratic after 2008, when Russia survived the great financial crisis quite well, thanks to policies that Putin had championed. This emboldened him to move against the democratic opposition in 2011, and convinced him that he needed to return to the Presidency, even though this required a loose reading of the constitution. It’s success that spoils democracies, not failures.