Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RUSSIA: ‘Repression May Lead to Revolt’

Claudia Ciobanu interviews Russian opposition leader SERGEY UDALTSOV

PRAGUE, Jan 21 2012 (IPS) - The Russian opposition movement which has risen to prominence since the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections has not said its last word, says 35-year-old Sergey Udaltsov, one of its most visible figures.

Sergey Udalstov addressing a public gathering. Credit: Courtesy of Sergey Udalstov

Sergey Udalstov addressing a public gathering. Credit: Courtesy of Sergey Udalstov

Leader of the leftist political alliance Left Front and of the small socialist group Vanguard of Red Youth, Sergey Udaltsov gained prominence within the Russian opposition last year, when he was arbitrarily arrested dozens of times. He spent about a third of the year in detention.

Accusing authorities of rigging the Dec. 4 parliamentary election to keep the governing United Russia in control of the legislative, Russians from big cities, particularly from capital Moscow, took to the streets in the tens of thousands during December 2011.

After the largest march bringing an estimated 80,000 people to the streets of Moscow on Dec. 24, such big actions have halted. Smaller protests took place after that, attended by hundreds in Moscow. Many at these have expressed outrage over the manner in which Udaltsov was being harassed by authorities.

“I have no doubts that none of my arrests had any legal grounds,” Udaltsov told IPS on phone from Moscow after his latest release from jail. “The cases against me were fabricated: I was accused of ridiculous things such as trying to cross the street in the wrong place even though I was in a different location in the city at the time. I was also falsely accused of opposing arrest.”

Videos circulating over the Internet show Udaltsov getting arrested while posing no obstacles to the police.

“The authorities saw a danger in me because they understood I can mobilise people,” he added. “The aim of my arrests has been to isolate me as a political figure, especially during the election period.”

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: What does the Left Front stand for? A: The Left Front is an ideological movement that stands for social justice and the fair distribution of resources among the entire population. Today Russia is run by a clan around the President (Dmitry Medvedev) and the Prime Minister (Vladimir Putin), and we have a situation in which elites representing 10 percent of the population control 90 percent of the resources, while the vast majority lives in poverty. This is the critical problem of contemporary Russia.

What we want to see is broader public participation in the management of natural resources, transport, industry and all other strategic fields. We want a direct democracy, where the people would have their say through fair and transparent referendums, where they could interact with authorities using the Internet, where they could have a say in social reforms.

We are not nostalgic about the Soviet Union, we do not argue for a return to a centrally planned economy where social iniative was stifled, but we do want to preserve what was good in the Soviet system while adopting new paths to development; we want to see the social-democratic development of Russia.

Q: What you say sounds like a pretty moderate vision; why then is the Left Front described as “extreme” or “radical” left in the media? A: Propaganda is one of the main means of mass communication in Russia today. Many TV channels, radio stations and online news sites are controlled by the authorities. Through these means, our image (of the Left Front) is tarnished so as to discredit the entire opposition. Citizens with low political education are not able to distinguish the truth, so they end up believing that we want a civil war or the rebirth of a Stalinist regime.

But you can read the materials on our website to see our true position: we have always called for peaceful protest and we just want to empower people and enable them to solve their own problems. We are hugely misrepresented in the media but I think this will change soon because Internet brings more transparency and makes it so that fewer and fewer people are susceptible to propaganda.

Q: In your statements, you have been using the 99 percent vs. 1 percent rhetoric of the Occupy movement. Are there many similarities between them and the Russian opposition movement? A: There are parallels. The struggle for social equality, not only within one country but also globally, is in the air. Imperialist globalisation is being criticised worldwide, in the first world as well as in the third world, which is making us here also think more about how we want to develop further.

But Russia is a closed country and hence it is difficult to cooperate with movements from abroad. The specifics of the Russian movement are demands for actual political competition, fair elections, for a dialogue between power and the people.

Q: How do you see the Russian opposition movement evolving in the next months? A: Russian people are demanding reforms and unless politicians can make them happen, they must abandon their positions of power. If repression continues, a revolt may break out eventually.

I think a lot will depend on whether the regime will begin a dialogue with the opposition and with civil society. The opposition has become difficult to ignore, protests of this amplitude are the largest we have seen in the last years. The December parliamentary elections must be declared void and new elections organised by the end of this year; we need free elections; the new parliament should better reflect the power relations between the political parties, there should be a stronger representation of the opposition parties in the parliament.

But if the regime will insist on making Putin president, refuses dialogue, rejects our claims, if there will be more falsified elections, then protests will intensify, and they may turn into a revolution. A velvet one.

Q: Can a compromise between the regime and the opposition allow for Putin to continue in power after March (the date of presidential elections)? A: If the regime insists that Putin becomes president, that would be a trap, not a compromise.

Q: Do you think your arrests are a sign that Russian authorities are afraid of you? Is such fear of the opposition a sign of weakening of the regime? A: Repression has always been used in Russia, especially against radical activists, that is, against activists criticising the regime – radical in this sense. This kind of pressure was always applied; the regime in power hasn’t changed much in the last 10-15 years in this respect. But now this repression is more visible, it is harder to hide it from the public view because people pay more attention to politics nowadays. So at the moment it has become riskier for the regime to make visible mistakes.

Q: How do you imagine a post-Putin Russia, how will it relate to the other post-Soviet states? A: As a country with free elections, ruled by the left, which is a realistic expectation assuming elections are free. A global leftist turn could alleviate social tensions, the ecological crisis, hunger. As regards the post- USSR space, we would like to see closer economic and cultural relations, perhaps a federation modelled after the EU, but only if formed through peaceful means and with the consent of all parties.

This could be a new, gradual integration, involving eventually common currency, common defence, free travel. There are still close ties between these countries, all is not lost, it is much better to cooperate, this would even solve the problem of illegal immigration in the ex-USSR space.

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