Staunton, VA, May 16, 2016 – For obvious reasons, polls of Russian attitudes are anything but a good indicator of where Russians are heading; but there is a more reliable bellwether: the way that the Kremlin uses its pocket opposition figures such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as elections approach.
In a Regnum commentary May 15, Mikhail Neyzhmakov points out that the LDPR has gained in the polls in recent times and threatens to displace the Communists (KPRF) among the parties trailing United Russia at least in part because Zhirinovsky and his colleagues are now focusing on social problems rather than foreign policy.
The LDPR and its leader have never ignored social problems, of course, but their “stress” on them in recent times has become “especially notable.” During last month’s Duma debate on the government’s report, LDPR and KPRF leaders “practically changed places” in that regard, with Zhirinovsky focusing on domestic problems and Gennady Zyuganov on foreign policy.
While the KPRF leader was talking about the need to come up with “’a defense against Russophobia,’” Zhirinovsky was discussing “[Anatoly] Chubais, Zurabov, the costs of joining the WTO, ‘the enrichment of a clutch of people,’ the need for nationalizing heavy and extractive industries,” and so on.
That debate is far from the only indication that the LDPR is now speaking to the social and economic problems of Russians more than ever before. Its new program begins not with talk about Russian boots in the Indian Ocean but calls for raising the minimum wage, controlling inflation, raising taxes on the wealthy, and introducing a five-year moratorium on collections from the population of money for renovation of housing. LDPR reps in the regions echo this.
That helps to explain the growth in the party’s popularity in the polls, but there is still one problem, Neyzhmakov says. The LDPR has found it difficult until very recently to get its message out to the voters. Now, that may be changing, and its socio-economic message may be winning it support even as the other parties only maintain their positions or even lose them.
More than the leaders of the other parliamentary “opposition” parties, Zhirinovsky has been “more active” on television and as usual as expressed himself more “brightly,” to use the Regnum commentator’s term. And the LDPR has put up more signs in many regions than have the other parties.
Of course, parties of the right have never ignored socio-economic problems as witness the slogans of the extreme right French National Front, the commentator says; and of course, Zhirinovsky has always had a well-developed sense of the direction in which the winds of public opinion are blowing.
That is all true, but Nezhmakov does not mention one aspect of this situation that may be even more important. The LDPR and Zhirinovsky were created by the Soviet intelligence services and have been maintained by their Russian successors, and thus his views and those of his party likely reflect what the Kremlin thinks matters.
At the end of Soviet times, the LDPR and Zhirinovsky were used as a valve for venting the steam of the opposition and thus reducing pressures on the elite. It seems likely that the party’s new “turn to the left” is intended to serve the same purpose. (For background see “If Zhirinovsky Didn’t Exist, He’d Have to Have Been Created“).