In his first public appearance before an American audience, Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky tried to recast himself as a moderate politician whose controversial statements against Jews and other minorities have been misconstrued.
As hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the downtown San Francisco hotel where he spoke Monday night, Zhirinovsky repeatedly denied that he or his Liberal Democratic Party stands for extremism of any kind.
“We have no radical views of anything,” he said. “We have only radical views of what should be done in this situation” to solve problems in Russia.
Zhirinovsky, whose party shocked the world last December when it captured 23 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, has been quoted as saying that he blames the Jews for the downfall of the Soviet state as well as for starting both world wars.
His much-maligned rhetoric also has included a pledge to “follow in Hitler’s footsteps,” as well as a desire to recapture former lands of the Soviet Union, creating a vast empire stretching from the Arctic Circle to the Indian Ocean.
Speaking in San Francisco on the eve of elections in this country, the ultranationalist leader made every attempt to disavow those statements.
Sounding like an American politician eager to soften his message, he rejected claims that he or his party promotes anti-Semitism. He blamed his bad reputation on inaccurate media reports.
“Anti-Semitism is not in the program of our party, but this is the real life in Russia,” he said through an interpreter. “We are strongly opposed to it and we are struggling against it.”
While toning down his remarks towards Jews and other groups, Zhirinovsky reserved his harshest criticism for Russia’s leaders, who he charged are leading the country into political and economic chaos.
“You in America are totally misled by supporting those in Russia who are on the verge of civil war,” he said.
Presenting himself as Russia’s last great hope, he promised to rid the country of corruption, reform its banking system and put its economy on track. However, he offered no specifics about how he would accomplish these goals.
While he was speaking, some 800 demonstrators – including members of Jewish groups, members of the clergy, politicians and Russian emigres – lines the block of New Montgomery Street outside the Sheraton palace hotel, waving signs and chanting slogans.
Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council and a protest organizer, said after Zhirinovsky’s speech that he wasn’t surprised by the Russian politician’s remarks.
“We were concerned from the outset that he would try to use his visit to the United States to try to project a reasonable, moderate image,” Kahn said.
“We know based on documented proof that nothing could be further from the truth. He is a fascist, an anti-Semite, a racist, and now he is a liar.’
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also attended the protest, charged that Zhirinovsky was trying to fool the American public. “We can’t let him have the last laugh and go back to Russia and say, `I fooled them,’” she said.
Richard Sideman, a member of the executive committee of the board of governors of the American Jewish Committee, said Zhirinovsky was not even directing his comments to his American audience.
“He was trying to create a dignified picture of an important statesman for Russia, and that is exactly what he did,” said Sideman.
But only Russia’s next elections will tell whether Zhirinovsky was successful, he added.
In any case, Zhirinovsky cannot run from his record, Seidman said.
“I think you would have to describe him a s a wolf in readily transparent clothing,” he said. “His underlying dimension is still apparent.”
The World Affairs Council invited him to speak in San Francisco as part of its scheduled program of speakers, but not without drawing fire from community leaders.
David Fischer, the organization’s president, said after Zhirinovsky’s talk that “this has been a difficult period for the council.” However, he added, “I believe we have defended the principles of free speech.’
Zhirinovsky’s visit to the United States was shrouded in controversy from the moment he applied for a visa more than a month ago. The U.S. State Department granted that request last week after considerable opposition from Jewish groups.
He was scheduled to address the United Nations Correspondents Association in New York on Wednesday.
During his 10 months in office, the controversial leader has been denied visas to Germany, expelled from Bulgaria and ordered out of Slovenia. Several other countries, including France and Austria, have requested that he not try to visit.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) slammed the State Department’s decision to grant a visa. “I’m appalled,” he said at the protest Monday. “They did not have to do this.”