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Russia

News Analysis: The Paradox Of Russia’s Left

Analysts say that the Left Front, led by Sergei Udaltsov, is too radical to get elected
Analysts say that the Left Front, led by Sergei Udaltsov, is too radical to get elected

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By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW -- Marching in protest under a sea of red flags swirling in the frosty air at a recent demonstration, 31-year-old Yevgeny can't help but feel that a new generation of Russian socialists is on the rise. And he could be right -- if it weren’t for all the stumbling blocks.
 
In the 1990s, Yevgeny supported the Communist Party but eventually became disillusioned with its colorless and charisma-challenged leader, Gennady Zyuganov, a fixture in Russian politics for decades. Zyuganov is making his fourth run for the presidency in March. 
 
Today, Yevgeny says his affinities lie more with the “Left Front,” a loose coalition of leftist groups that are not permitted to field candidates in Russia's tightly managed political system. But even if they were, he confesses he would be reluctant to vote for the Left Front's macho leader Sergei Udaltsov whose firebrand style of street protesting may have wounded his political credibility. 
 
"I just don’t know, I cannot say for sure. He just doesn't seem to be the kind of leader that I could go and vote for,” said Yevgeny, who did not want to give his last name.
 
Yevgeny’s predicament encapsulates the quandaries of Russia's left-leaning electorate, which sociologists say comprise the lion's share of the country's voters. Analysts say there is a glaring disconnect between the country's socialist-leaning electorate, which favors heavy state intervention in the economy and a strong social safety net, and the dearth of attractive options for them to support at the ballot box. 
 
Political Dinosaurs
 
Zyuganov, the Russian left's most visible personality, is largely viewed as a political dinosaur more concerned with maintaining his comfortable position as a permanent opposition figure acceptable to the authorities, than actually winning power. 
 
Sergei Mironov's center-left A Just Russia is tainted by the party's reputation as a "pocket opposition" party established to do the Kremlin's bidding. 
 
And Udaltsov's Left Front is unregistered and seen as too unwieldy and radical to be viable electorally.
 
Mindful of the electorate's leftist mood, Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin has increasingly campaigned on populist themes, promising increases in social spending and higher salaries for state employees.
 
Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist, author, and leading socialist thinker, says entrenched interests among the established left parties are preventing the development of newer, and more palatable, options.
 
"At some point some kind of left party is going to emerge, but only when it is able to get rid of the current left. Because at this point one of the biggest obstacles to the left is the groups and formations of the left itself. They are completely blocking development on this side of the spectrum," Kagarlitsky said.
 
As support for the United Russia party dwindled last year, the Communist Party won a hefty swathe of the protest vote in the December parliamentary elections, coming in second place with just under 20 percent.
 
The Communist surge was not surprising, says Aleksei Levinson of the independent polling organization, the Levada Center.
 
“If we take the left to mean socialist ideas in the strict sense, and in the Soviet notion of socialist ideas, then these represent the most widespread views in the bulk of the population, and among the elite," Levinson said. "I believe that the dominant views here are without a doubt the left."
 
But despite this, the Communists have been unable to expand their electorate.
 
Russians protested in their thousands against the Putin government on February 4
Russians protested in their thousands against the Putin government on February 4
Transforming itself into a more modern social democratic party might do the trick, but Zyuganov has shown scant appetite for this, preferring instead to peddle nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
 
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, says this essentially relegates Zyuganov’s party to political irrelevance despite its status as the largest opposition force. 
 
"If there's going to be any kind of rekindling of the left and a reinvention of the communists, it's going to take two things," Galeotti said.
 
"One is the Communist leadership itself deciding that actually they want to be in power rather than maintain opposition, and more to the point you're going to need other forces to reach out to the Communists."
 
In January, Udaltsov did in fact reach out to Zyuganov, pledging his Left Front would back the 67-year old Communist leader in the March 4 presidential election. 
 
Support, But Few Votes
 
But given that the Left Front is such a loose coalition, analysts say it will be impossible for him to translate that support into actual votes.
 
Mironov's A Just Russia has recently shown some potential of becoming a force on the center-left. The party was founded in 2006 as a pro-Kremlin alternative to the Communists and won 7.74 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections.
 
But the party steadily began distancing itself from the Kremlin, a process that culminated in Mironov being removed from his post as speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, last May.
 
Running on an opposition platform in December 2011, the party nearly doubled its vote, winning 13.24 percent.
 
But Mironov, who is running in the March presidential election, is still not trusted by anti-Kremlin voters due to his decades-long ties to Putin.
 
And that leaves the 34-year-old Udaltsov, who with his pale face, shaved head, and upturned collar, looks more like a Maoist ascetic or a hero from the Matrix movies than an opposition leader.
 
A rough-and-tumble firebrand, Udatsov says he has lost count of the number of times police have detained him for public protests and says he spent around three months behind bars last year. His prominence spiked late last year when he was hospitalized after going on a hunger strike while in jail for participating in unsanctioned antigovernment protests.
 
Udaltsov calls himself a social democrat and calls for the nationalization of strategic industries and a tax overhaul that would redistribute income to the poor. He says the economic hardship gripping the Western world and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States show that the neo-liberal economic model has outlived its usefulness.
 
For a new generation of leftists like Yevgeny and his girlfriend Darya, these are the right words -- but they are nevertheless still searching for a new champion who could be more viable at the ballot box.
 
"In general this system can produce more worthy leaders," Yevgeny said.
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Marko from: USA
February 19, 2012 13:55
Unlike some of the more propagandistic stuff one sees here at times, this is a good article-- objective and analytical. I would maybe balk at the notion of a clear "left majority" in Russia, but wouldn't dispute a "red-brown intersection" (left-nationalist majority). In fact, I would be interested in reading a similarly structured article on Russian nationalist politics (something that I am not as up on currently). Interesting too that for all the, so far failed, indirect and direct attempts by governments and other establishment forces in the West to oust Putin, a successor government in Russia would almost certainly be more hostile to Western interests than Putin has been (so must chaos and disintegration for Russia be the real goal?). That aside though, really good article.
In Response

by: rick
February 19, 2012 16:08
Yes , I agree

also is strange to read RFL

being sponsor for socialists ! :-))))



anyway

many Russians , as I know them

would be happy to vote for something of different

if will be there something of decent to vote .


But unfortunately there isn't
In Response

by: Frank
February 20, 2012 00:36
It's not strange at all for RFE/RL to desire something that's counter to Putin, with the potential to favor a less pro-Russian identity line.

Concerning former Yugoslavia, RFE/RL has posted soft pro-Tito articles and anti-Serb/pro-Ttio propaganda against WW II era Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic. Tito has been referred to as a Red Habsburg. Like Hitler, he served as a corporal on the sde of the Central Powers during WW I. Tito showed a bias against Serbs, somewhat akin to Lenin's exhibited bias against Russian identity.

Post-Communist era Russia and Serbia have elements who acknowledge these thoughts.

Much different from what someone like Balmforth has written - be it in RFE/RL or Russia Profile.

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 19, 2012 14:56
One of the major reasons for which the left parties have not done as well as they could have just simpy consists in the fact that the Russian economy is growing - a 4,5 per cent growth rate predicted for the current year by the EBRD, for example.
One may also want to compare this trend to some EU member states, such as Greece (the economic "growth" of MINUS 7 per cent in 2011 - let's see how well left-wing parties are going to do the next time there is an election in this country :-) or even Germany (the economic "growth" of MINUS 0,2 per cent in the last quarter of the year 2011).
In Response

by: Frank
February 20, 2012 00:48
As of the submission of this set of comments, the RFE/RL home page promotes the a bove article with the following:

"Much of the Russian electorate leans left, according to sociologists. So why haven't the country's leftist parties fared better at the polls?"

*****

Much of post-Soviet Russia have come to understand that not all was so horrid about the pre-1917 period in their country, while acknowledging Soviet domestic and foreign policy shortcomings.

At the same time, many contemporary Russians feel that government should very much be involved with improving the socioeconomic situation. A good number of these individuals have reasonably patriotic views as well.

Especially by Russian standards, Putin can be seen as a cautious liberal reformer. As has been noted elsewhere, many Russians seek an evolution as opposed to a more risky revolution. This mindset makes sense, given the course of Soviet history and what happened in the 1990s.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
February 19, 2012 18:14
I don’t know anything about this Udalstov character, but my guess is that he is touching upon the deep sense of economic injustice that exists in Russia today, where there are relatively few wealthy and lots just scraping by. Nor do I understand how he could make this assertion:

“He says the economic hardship gripping the Western world and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States show that the neo-liberal economic model has outlived its usefulness.”

This sentence only makes sense, if he means by ‘neo-liberal’ a model whereby the very rich purchase key leaders/branches in government to make laws that protect their wealth. Marxist-Leninist thought may be dead and buried, but greater economic justice is an eternal aspiration. I can’t speak for Russia, but in the US, the free-hand of unbridled capitalism (without any sort of state control) is strangling a large percentage of workers.

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
February 20, 2012 02:09
In Russia, the Left has always been associated with Bolshevism..
-steal the loot, land to the peasants and so on...
Today we can say with confidence that in Russia there is no leftist and all who are called leftist is a group of thugs who do not know what they want..
By the way billionaire Prokhorov from the same series:"I want to be President of Russia... but I have no political program.Let's just be friends-not swear, do not be nervous, but to work and in the evening to drink vodka..

Here we must ask Mr Whitmore how to call all these people...

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York NY
February 20, 2012 02:28
Re: ""At some point some kind of left party is going to emerge, but only when it is able to get rid of the current left. Because at this point one of the biggest obstacles to the left is the groups and formations of the left itself. They are completely blocking development on this side of the spectrum," Kagarlitsky said"

This has been Russia's problem for decades -- and now it's our own left's problem in America. And no, I don't mean the inability of established and entrenched leftist organizations to "get out of the way".

I mean the left's inability to conceive of pluralism, and its inability to manifest tolerance to a spectrum of political beliefs. It's always about "getting rid of someone who is in the way".

In Response

by: Marko from: USA
February 20, 2012 12:05
I agree with a number of the comments here. One more important piece of the puzzle has been the often successful and highly complex balancing act between neo-liberalism and more traditional statist paternalism that Putin (a smart tough [albeit flawed] politician) continues to perform to this day. I'm not sure what Catherine means about the US context-- in Russia (though there is an unhealthy degree of meld) the state still controls the wealthy to some degree. In the US, the state is owned by the wealthy; the "left" is feeble, irrelevant, and almost non-existent. Contemplate the bailouts, etc and the fact that not a single Wall Street financial "wizard" was arrested for the biggest financial scandal/crime in human history. It was classic "heads I win and tails the taxpayers pay me" For all of President Obama's occasional criticism (accompanied by only token action) of Wall Street, they remain the biggest funders of his campaign. This is the flip side of Putin's soft authoritarianism/populist managaed democracy model; it isn't that pretty a picture either.
In Response

by: Frank
February 20, 2012 12:06
Reminded of the race for the American Repubican presidential candidacy.

by: rick from: Milan
February 20, 2012 19:07
many people don't want to understand
that russian people stay not so bad

The economic situation is improving day by day
and the Russians have their satisfaction like "Western"

They have nice cars (the largest market in Europe)

or they are traveling a lot
(in my country, Italy, this summer 300,000 Russians came here for turism , they are the new German tourist)

So ...
for what I know about the Russians they are changing

i can say that model so stereotypical
that we have of them
is no longer valid

They no more live
with mania of nationalism and chauvinist
of a russia powerful and hegemonic
idea more or less in line with the ideals of a Putinian politic.

The Russians are changing,
they like to meet different cultures and mentalities
they like to be part of this Europe
that they have certainly helped to bild

Russian love expend
they love luxury fashions

Russians are no longer willing to sacrifice
in the name of great Holy Mother Russia

they are no longer willing to challenges
in the name of a powerful Russia

Now they prefer politics or diplomacy
now they prefer the power of oil and gas
to army

For me what scares many Russians

is that they are afraid of a Putin return
e con lui
they are afraid of a return to the rhetoric Russian of which are a little tired.

by: Jacob Richter from: The West
February 21, 2012 06:20
Some points:

1) The article is somewhat deceptive in its "opposition" vs. "winning power" stuff. The official Communists are cozier with the government ("acceptable to the authorities"), and "winning power" suggests coalition politics, which haven't really worked out well for workers over a century and a half.

The Russian left needs a program that is both radical and populist to the authorities, yet populist and pragmatic to its huge social base. It should have a program of paradigm shifts and such.

This program should be one of winning power yet also providing anti-coalition opposition. Catherine's comments about "inability to conceive of pluralism" are textbook liberalism, which the actual left for good reasons is against.

2) I agree with the Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky.

3) Mark Galeotti can't seem to conceive of the notion of *popularizing anti-capitalist* sentiment and politics. "Modern social-democratic parties" are out the window in Europe, giving way to right-populist parties stealing left economic planks here and there.

4) It's a shame that Sergei calls himself a "social democrat" instead of being for something like the more radical but populist "socialism of the 21st century." Russia needs something like Die Linke with vibrant Marxist and other anti-capitalist currents.

by: Ben
February 25, 2012 18:21
Balmforth calls Zyuganov colourless in vain.He is red-brown as Eltsin called them all. All Russian "lefts" dream just of the empire revival, like the "nationalists".Putin knows this wery well and use them all as the scarecrows.He has the other tactics for the weak democrats whom he blames as the accomplices of the West.

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