By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -Russian far-right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known for provocative stunts and anti-Western tirades that kept him in the public eye for more than three decades, has died after a long illness, the speaker of parliament said on Wednesday.
Zhirinovsky, 75, was admitted to hospital earlier this year after contracting COVID-19, according to Russian media, and was too ill to speak out publicly on the war in Ukraine.
But the grievances he had been voicing since the 1990s found an echo in President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly bitter rhetoric in the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, when the Kremlin leader repeatedly accused the West of cheating and deceiving Russia.
“Always, in any audience, in the most heated discussions, he defended the patriotic position, the interests of Russia,” Putin said in a tribute.
Zhirinovsky was known for outrageous and headline-grabbing statements, including threats to launch nuclear weapons against various countries, seize Alaska from the United States, and expand Russia’s frontiers to the point where its soldiers could “wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean”.
His death was announced in parliament, where lawmakers stood in silence to honour his memory.
Leonid Slutsky, acting leader of Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, had asked to officiate at his funeral.
The LDPR, whose name belied its xenophobic views, became part of the so-called “systemic opposition” to Putin. Ostensibly it provided political competition; in practice it backed him when it mattered, for instance over the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Zhirinovsky also proved useful to the Kremlin in floating radical opinions to test public reaction.
At one time he liked comparing himself to Donald Trump, declaring in 2016 that Americans should vote for Trump as president or risk being dragged by his rival Hillary Clinton into a new world war with “Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere”.
His career took off in 1991 when he claimed a surprise third place in a presidential election won by Boris Yeltsin. Two years later, the LDPR took second place in a parliamentary election.
At the time of his death, he was one of 23 LDPR members in the 450-seat Duma, the lower house of the legislature.
“The scale of his personality is such that without him it is difficult to imagine the history of the development of the political system of modern Russia,” parliament speaker Volodin said.
Russia refers to its invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” designed to demilitarise and “denazify” the country.
(Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Nick Macfie)