OBITUARY Vladimir Zhirinovsky, dark showman of the Russian far right

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  • Ultra-nationalist played on feelings of wounded Russian pride
  • Zhirinovsky's clown image belied sharp political instincts
  • Six presidential bids in three decades kept him in spotlight

LONDON, April 6 (Reuters) - When a little known far-right politician called Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed third place behind Boris Yeltsin in Russia's 1991 presidential election, it looked like a flash in the pan.

In fact it marked the start of a career spanning more than three decades in which he specialised at picking the scabs of Russian resentment and insecurity resulting from the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Zhirinovsky, whose death was announced on Wednesday, was often dismissed as a clown for his buffoonish antics. But he was skilled at tapping into the frustrations of his countrymen at the chaos of the post-Soviet years and a widely felt sense that their former superpower had been humiliated by the West.

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With outlandish threats to unleash nuclear weapons, flood Germany with nuclear waste or seize Alaska from the United States, he sent a defiant message to the West that Russia was still to be respected and feared.

With time, his bizarre statements were increasingly ignored, but his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) - in reality neither liberal nor democratic - became an enduring feature of the political landscape. With his scowling demeanour and rasping voice, he was an instantly recognisable figure.

The grievances that Zhirinovsky had been voicing since the 1990s found an echo in President Vladimir Putin's increasingly bitter rhetoric in the run-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, when the Kremlin leader repeatedly accused the West of cheating Moscow over the eastward enlargement of U.S.-led NATO.

But the veteran nationalist's voice was absent from discussion of the Ukraine war, as he contracted COVID-19 weeks before the Feb. 24 invasion.

'NO WARMTH'

Born in Kazakhstan to a Jewish father and a Russian mother, a year after the end of World War Two, Zhirinovsky trained as a linguist and a lawyer. In his autobiography he portrayed a troubled and lonely youth.

"“I grew up in a world where there was no warmth - not from my parents, not from my friends or teachers. I felt somehow superfluous, forever in the way, an object of criticism," he wrote.

"“I graduated with top grades...I went back to my hostel and there was no one to share the joy, to drink champagne with me. I was quite alone."

His brooding character, black humour and taste for the theatrical struck a chord with Russian voters in the turbulent period leading up to the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, and in the ensuing chaotic transition to free-market capitalism.

Two years after his first presidential run, Zhirinovsky stunned the country again by leading his party to second place in the 1993 parliamentary election behind the pro-Yeltsin Russia's Choice bloc, pushing the Communists into a distant third.

With the world's press hanging on every word, he staged an extraordinary news conference wearing evening dress and a bow tie, holding forth on subjects from Chinese astrology to his willingness to build a new government coalition.

Western governments were alarmed at the growing influence of a man who had talked of restoring Russian dominion over all the lands of the by-then defunct USSR, of using nuclear arms against Germany and wiping Poland from the map.

'LET US SLAVS RULE THE WORLD'

Styling himself as a champion of oppressed Slav people and Orthodox Christians, Zhirinovsky embarked the next month on a tour of the former Yugoslavia, where war was raging between Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

He appeared alongside Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was later convicted of war crimes by an international tribunal in The Hague, and told cheering crowds of Serbs that any NATO air strikes against them would amount to a declaration of war on Russia.

"My name Vladimir means 'rule the world'. Let us Slavs rule the world in the 20th century," Zhirinovsky declared.

In a bizarre stunt, he said he was giving orders to test a new top-secret weapon, the "Ellipton", that would kill Bosniak soldiers with a blast of sound, leaving no mark on their bodies.

After Putin became president in 2000, Zhirinovsky and the LDPR found a comfortable niche as part of the "systemic opposition" - nominally opposed to the president but willing in practice to back him at every key moment, including over the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Zhirinovsky became part of the political establishment, serving as deputy speaker of the Duma, the lower house of parliament. The arrangement kept him in the public eye and supplied him with the platform for a total of six presidential bids, with third-place finishes again in 2008 and 2018.

For Putin, it provided a useful lightning rod, drawing fire away from Kremlin policy while providing an outlet for nationalist grievances.

Zhirinovsky liked to cast himself as a Russian version of Donald Trump and threw a champagne party in parliament to celebrate the American's 2016 presidential election victory - though by the end of Trump's term he complained that the Republican president had "done nothing good for us".

In 2019, on the 30th birthday of the LDPR, Putin congratulated the party on becoming "a real force in Russia's political life", and Zhirinovsky on what he called his unwavering patriotism.

"We may argue about how to achieve certain results and objectives, but I know that you sincerely want the country to have a better life, to be stronger, and to feel more confident, and you wish for people to live a more comfortable life," Putin said.

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Writing by Mark Trevelyan Editing by Mark Heinrich

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