MATCHES FIRE ZHIRINOVSKY'S RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL BID

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MOSCOW-Russian presidential elections are more than a year away, and most potential candidates claim they won't run. But politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky is lighting a fire under his campaign with an estimated 10 million cardboard matchboxes bearing his name and a slogan: "We need a great Russia."

Depending on who you talk to, the matches, along with cognac, beer, pens and notepads bearing the face of the ultranationalist from the paradoxically named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, are either his newest campaign tool or the first in a great wave of Zhirinovsky-inspired consumer products.

He denies the matchboxes are a campaign gimmick: A party spokesman said a match factory in Bryansk lit on the idea as a testament to its political leanings, and a marketing strategy.

"They did it on their own initiative, out of love for the leader," the spokesman said.

Asked if the matchboxes, also bearing the party's Moscow address and telephone number, would boost the politician's chances in the election, the spokesman insisted that was not the idea. "I think it will help [the match factory] sell matches."

Never mind that matches are still so rare in Russia they wouldsell like hotcakes even with a picture of a less popular figure like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Josef Stalin or Mikhail Gorbachev.

And never mind that spokesmen at two other large central Russian match factories said party representatives came to them with an offer they could, and did, refuse.

"Yes, it's true. There are people who don't believe Mr. Zhirinovsky will be president," the politician's spokesman said. "But [he] will become president, and then they will atone."

If each product endorsement were worth a vote, current President Boris Yeltsin would hand over the Kremlin keys to Mr. Zhirinovsky next year because matches are not the only items on the market carrying the ultranationalist's name.

Mr. Zhirinovsky introduced his self-named vodka at his birthday bash last year, and a south Russian brewery began churning out Zhirinovsky brand beer this month in bottles bearing the lawmaker's image.

Another spokesman for Mr. Zhirinovsky said the legislator signed a contract with a factory in Armenia that will add the special statement "Zhirinovsky loves this cognac" to one of its labels.

But Mr. Zhirinovsky's image is not limited to adult products like liquor and smoking accessories. He is also attaching his face and fame to pens and notepads. If the presidential hopeful who advocates bringing Alaska back under Russian control wins, students could use them to write reports on his books, like his treatise on international relations due this spring from Moscow publisher Molodaya Gvardiya. Its title: "I Spit on the West."

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