The LDPR goes for broke

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The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) held a congress on September 17 to finalize its candidate list for the Duma election. The second place on the list has been given to businessman Andrei Lugovoi – whom the British authorities, based on their investigations, suspect of involvement in the polonium-210 poisoning of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko.

According to LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Lugovoi himself expressed the wish to run for parliament with the LDPR. The Vremya Novostei newspaper quoted Zhirinovsky as saying: “The man wanted to do it. We have known him for a long time, and we are able to include him in the party list.” But Lugovoi’s comments made it sound like all this was the party’s idea. On September 16, he told the Interfax news agency: “I confirm what Vladimir Zhirinovsky said – I have accepted the offer to join the LDPR candidate list.”

At the congress, according to Vremya Novostei, Lugovoi denied that he is seeking the immunity from prosecution which Duma members enjoy. “No, I’m not doing it for that reason,” he told journalists, adding that “even raising the question is completely stupid and shows that people don’t understand what is going on.” Lugovoi shared his ideas about the law: “In our country, everyone is protected by the Constitution.” He also noted that he agrees with the LDPR’s ideology and is impressed by the party leader: “In terms of defending citizens, the most consistent and comprehensible position is that of Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky.”

Lugovoi, the new star of the LDPR’s election campaign, linked his decision to join the party with the Litvinenko case: “My life experiences have led me to make this decision. I have encountered vile acts of provocation and disgusting lies. The scandal has been thoroughly politicized, especially in Britain. Through my own experiences and those of my family, I have become aware of what can be done to a Russian citizen if he isn’t defended as strongly as possible.”

Lugovoi didn’t rule out the possibility of participating in the presidential campaign as well. “Like any other citizen of the Russian Federation, I would want to be president,” said Lugovoi. Andrei Kolesnikov, political observer for RIA Novosti, commented: “The poor guy was trying to paraphrase President Putin, who has pointed out that any citizen of the Russian Federation can become president. But Lugovoi, in his inexperience, mixed up the verbs ‘want’ and ‘can.'”

Gazeta.ru takes the view that adding Lugovoi to the LDPR candidate list is an unexpected and original move. The LDPR’s core voters are pro-imperialist men, who will see this as a manly thing to do. It gives the impression that Zhirinovsky is extending his personal protection, and the party’s protection, to someone who has been accused by Russia’s “enemy” (a Western country, the closest political ally of the United States) of killing a “traitor to Russia.” At the LDPR congress, Zhirinovsky said that Lugovoi “has found himself on Olympus, at the cutting edge of a conflict” which is part of “the historical confrontation between Russia and Britain.” Then he lashed out angrily at the stance taken by Britain, which suggested that Moscow should amend the Constitution so that Lugovoi could be handed over to British justice: “This is our response to that insolence. We don’t interfere in the affairs of other countries, and we won’t let anyone else interfere in Russia’s affairs.”

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes, this indicates that the LDPR is basing its campaign on anti-British propaganda. Lugovoi will be portrayed as a hero whom Russia is prepared to defend, at any cost, against “enemies of the nation.” At the same time, Zhirinovsky is targeting the numerous voters who firmly associate Lugovoi with the battle against Boris Berezovsky. They see Lugovoi as not only a hero, but “a victim of the oligarch’s intrigues.”

Thus, says Gazeta.ru, Zhirinovsky is aiming to mobilize the LDPR’s electorate by extending his patronage to a person at the center of an international scandal. At the same time, Lugovoi is a replacement for Alexei Mitrofanov – Zhirinovsky’s former second-in-command, the “defector” who quit the LDPR earlier this month to join Just Russia. The replacement has certainly received enough publicity: most Russian citizens know about the Litvinenko murder, and most regard Lugovoi as the victim of unfounded suspicions, not a murderer. Moreover, if the LDPR makes it into the Duma, Lugovoi would automatically gain the immunity from prosecution that accompanies a Duma member’s status.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out another advantageous aspect of this acquisition: Lugovoi will never aspire to Mitrofanov’s former place in the LDPR. Lugovoi will become a symbol, but he’ll never be one of the party’s talking heads. Thus, Zhirinovsky is safe from the unpleasant rivalry that used to plague his relationship with his former deputy.

Moreover, as Gazeta.ru notes, this move almost automatically silences any criticism from the LDPR’s political opponents. How can anyone from United Russia or Just Russia accuse Zhirinovsky of harboring a person with a shady reputation? Any such accusation would be tantamount to siding with those who regard Lugovoi as a murderer; it would mean displaying “blatant anti-patriotism” and taking an anti-state position.

At the congress, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, Zhirinovsky set a tough objective for his party: getting at least 15% of the vote, or even as much as 20%, on December 2. He promised that any party branches that fail to meet the minimal target figure will be punished.

Gazeta.ru notes that adding Lugovoi to the top three has boosted the LDPR’s support rating by 4% already. According to a poll done by the Levada Center, support for United Russia has dropped by the same amount (from 59% to 55%), as compared to last month’s poll.

The LDPR has managed to regain third place in the opinion polls over the past month, pulling ahead of Just Russia, which had held that position since July. Zhirinovsky’s party now seems certain to make it into the Duma. The latest opinion polls give it a support rating of 11% – implying that the LDPR will cross the 7% threshold by a decent margin, claiming 54 Duma seats. In August polls, the LDPR was supported by only 7% of respondents who intend to vote.

The Vedomosti newspaper discusses Lugovoi’s prospects in the event that the LDPR makes it into parliament. One LDPR lawmaker predicts that Lugovoi might join the foreign relations committee, enabling him to make statements on foreign policy – including Russian-British relations. But Natalia Narochnitskaya, deputy chairwoman of the foreign relations committee, notes that making Lugovoi a member of the committee wouldn’t be a very sensible move; Lugovoi has been linked to Boris Berezovsky, and since the committee considers some matters involving state secrets, its members have to be above reproach. Another member of the LDPR faction agrees: “The party fears that if it accepts Kovtun and Lugovoi as allies, LDPR leaders would join the list of Russian citizens who are unwelcome in other countries – and the party would risk being classified as an organization that supports terrorism.”

Alexei Mitrofanov commented that the Lugovoi decision already means that the LDPR “ranks alongside Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Karadic, and so on.”

Mitrofanov told Vremya Novostei: “Needless to say, LDPR leaders won’t be allowed to visit the West. Even Yushchenko’s Ukraine might deny them entry now. Lugovoi isn’t just another wanted man, after all. He’s suspected of committing the world’s first publicly-established act of nuclear terrorism. Lugovoi’s presence in the Russian parliament would cast doubt on the parliament’s legitimacy. In other words, what Zhirinovsky has done in giving Lugovoi second place on the LDPR’s list amounts to a slap in the face for the entire international community. It’s as if Zhirinovsky took a dose of Viagra yesterday so that he could last all night, forgetting that he might have a heart attack afterwards.”

Vremya Novostei reports that politicians and political analysts have criticized the idea of including Lugovoi in the top three on the LDPR candidate list. Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, maintains that this move will be good for the LDPR, but bad for the state. On the one hand, “Zhirinovsky is demonstrating that he is a defender of state interests – standing up for the ‘heroic spy.'” On the other hand, “as soon as the LDPR releases its candidate list, Lugovoi will be covered by the immunity from prosecution that applies to Duma members and candidates. A trial will become impossible – so we’re moving outside the framework of the law. Public opinion in the West may conclude that justice is being profaned in Russia. The Duma will be discredited if it is turned into a haven for people on the wanted list. Confrontation with the West will increase again.”

But British political analyst Jonathan Steele maintains that Lugovoi’s transformation into a politician is unlikely to affect relations between London and Moscow. Vedomosti quotes him as saying: “The LDPR can’t be taken seriously.” Steele views the addition of Lugovoi to the LDPR candidate list as manipulation on the Kremlin’s part. In any event, the Crown Prosecution Service will continue to insist on Lugovoi’s extradition; however, as Steele admits, everyone understands that the chances of success are declining.

Irina Khakamada, deputy chairwoman of the Russian People’s Democratic Union, told Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal that adding Lugovoi to the party list must have been Zhirinovsky’s own idea. Khakamada said: “The LDPR is in dire straits. After all, the Kremlin is still deciding which party will be allowed to make it into the Duma: the LDPR or the Union of Right Forces. Just Russia has grabbed patriotism as a campaign issue, and Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov regards Zhirinovsky as an obstacle. So Zhirinovsky has added Lugovoi to his candidate list – in order to suck up to the Kremlin as much as possible. In effect, Zhirinovsky is saying: I’m going to take this FSB man who accuses Berezovsky of spying for British intelligence, and turn him into a statesman – how about that, guys? Go on, let me into the parliament!” In Khakamada’s view, Zhirinovsky “is going for broke, since it’s now a matter of survival for him – but the Kremlin is likely to support what he’s done with Lugovoi, since this works to the Kremlin’s advantage.”

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