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Analysis & Opinion
27.10.08 The Voice Of The Left
By Dmitry Babich

The coalition’s moves drew the most participants in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where several hundred people gathered on central squares. Their slogans included calls to "stop making an Auschwitz out of Moscow apartments" and to "send [Moscow Mayor] Yuri Luzhkov to early retirement for making Moscow a city unfit for living." Most observers link the Left Front and its protest to the National Assembly, a rag-tag opposition coalition centered on a former chess champion and Vladimir Putin's fiery critic Garry Kasparov.

But many experts doubt the motives behind the Left Front's cooperation with Garry Kasparov's United Civic Front, formally a liberal, pro-European movement. The Left Front unites a number of ultra-leftist organizations, whose views would be considered extremist in Western Europe and in the United States. "They have there some diehard radicals and some people who could rightly be called liberals. They have nothing in common except their hatred for Putin and their links to Kasparov," said Boris Kagarlitsky, the director of the Institute of Globalization Problems and a veteran leftist activist. "Rumor has it that Kasparov promised them a third of the seats in his National Assembly, so they are trying to earn their share."

Indeed, the new front is attempting to integrate members of a number of radical leftist parties, old and new, registered and unregistered. The front's main coordinator, Sergei Udaltsov, who is also the leader of the Vanguard of Red Youth group, claimed that last week's founding congress was attended by representatives of Gennady Zyuganov's Communist party of the Russian Federation and some more ultra-leftist communist groups nostalgic of the Soviet Union (primarily Viktor Anpilov's Working Russia and Viktor Tyulkin's Russian Communist Workers' Party). The front also includes anarchist groups and the so-called Islamic committee, headed by the controversial religious philosopher Geidar Jemal.

"The whole idea is to bridge the gap between social and political movements," Udaltsov said talking to journalists following Saturday's protests. "At Saturday's meetings we had both political activists and social activists. Before, it was very difficult to explain to people who were protesting construction of a new skyscraper in their yard that their problems were indeed political."

In fact, the idea of bringing together angry young opponents of capitalist exploitation who have not been infected with xenophobia was first floated a while ago by Boris Kagarlitsky. Two years ago, Kagarlitsky and several other enthusiasts managed to organize a meeting of several organizations. The formation of the Left Front was announced, but the organization was never registered, remaining what Mao Zedong would call a paper tiger - but without any papers. This allowed Udaltsov and his comrades to capitalize on Kagarlitsky's ideas.

"The whole idea was to bring together members of grassroots organizations, not their leaders. Anyone could participate, if that person was not a xenophobe and if he or she was opposed to the spirit of consumerist conformism that pervaded society," Kagarlitsky explained. "We hoped that everyone, including representatives of the so-called middle class, would participate. The soaring real estate prices and the growth of other unavoidable expenses, such as food and utility payments, are pushing the Russian middle class down into poverty."

In Kagarlitsky's words, the current Left Front in fact hijacked the idea of an umbrella leftist group, suiting it to Kasparov's personal political purposes.

The new Left Front is not making any attempts to get officially registered as a party or a movement, and it has good reason for doing so. The draconian set of registration requirements developed by Russia's Central Electoral Commission in the last years of President Vladimir Putin's rule left the front with little chance to get registered and thus to become eligible to participate in elections. The requirements include a minimum of 50 thousand members for a party, the existence of local branches with no less than 500 members in the majority of Russia's 85 regions, and others.

Sergei Udaltsov, whose Vanguard of Red Youth was often accused of "extremism" back in Boris Yeltsin's times and who was briefly put under house arrest by the authorities last year, defended the new movement's policy of ignoring state organs and procedures.

"We have seen many ‘one hit wonder’ parties created and registered by the authorities for their own purposes. This is not the case with us. We are not a coalition for a minute, we are a serious political project that goes beyond the leaders' ambitions," Udaltsov said. Answering pointed questions about the financial participation of the pro-Kremlin leftist party Just Russia in the Left Front's project, Udaltsov dismissed the allegations. “Ilya Ponomaryov [a member of the Just Russia's faction in the State Duma] is a comrade-in-arms, and not a sponsor," Udaltsov said. "The Left Front builds its structure upon the foundations of self-financing."

Carinne Klemann, the French-born director of the Moscow-based leftist Institute for Collective Action, thinks the time is right for the foundation of a new radical left movement. "In the whole world, social movements are based on leftist organizations and ideologies, and Russia does not have such organizations and ideologies right now," Klemann said. "In the West, social movements are centered on the ideas of abstract justice, equal opportunities for men and women, protection of sexual minorities. In Russia, to jumpstart a movement, you for your permission. There are many such cases now. And they create a good basis for the Left Front."
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