On 8 August Sergei Udaltsov, a prominent Russian left-wing opposition member, has been released from prison. Although he is one of the most important opposition figures, and heavily opposes Putin, he does not support opposition activist and blogger Alexei Navalny. He considers Navalny to be too pro-Western, and rather wants to open a leftist block with room for more protests.
Reasons behind the sentence
Udaltsov has served a four-and-a-half year jail sentence for organizing a ‘mass disorder’ during the May 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow. These protests turned violent when riot police attempted to break them off. All of this took place one day before Vladimir Putin returned to the Presidency for a third term, switching with Dmitry Medvedev who took his previous post of Prime Minister.
Sergei Udaltsov is the leader of Left Front, a Russian opposition movement. He became a key figure in the anti-government protests during 2011-2012, which were the largest in number since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Because of widespread fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections, and Putin’s questionable return to power, frustration grew amongst urban middle-class Russians.
In total over 400 people were detained as a result of the Bolotnaya protests, and more than 30 people were prosecuted in what came to be known as the Bolotnaya Case. Two-thirds were sentenced to prison or served time in pretrial custody. According to government opponents, these prosecutions are part of a campaign set up by the Kremlin in order to suppress dissent and restrain protests during Putin's current term.
In the first half of 2017, Russia has seen anti-government protests arguably surpassing the ones from 2011-2012. Whereas the latter were confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg, recent protests have taken place all over Russia. These 2017 protests have been organized by fellow opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Udaltsov was in the same prison as Navalny, and Amnesty International designated both as prisoners of conscience.
In March, Navalny and his Anti-corruption Foundation released “He is not Dimon to You”, a documentary-style video accusing Dmitry Medvedev of corruption. The video alleges that Medvedev has accumulated a collection of luxury mansions, yachts and vineyards, and has been watched on YouTube more than 24 million times. It consequently sparked a series of anti-corruption rallies in 95 different cities across Russia. In some cities, the rallies were sanctioned by the authorities, and in others, including Saint Petersburg, they were strictly prohibited.
At the time of the 2011-2012 protests, Udaltsov was part of a broad alliance of opposition groups, from nationalist to liberal, which coalesced around Navalny. But by 2014 the coalition splintered as some, including Udaltsov, came out in support of the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine.
A unique approach
Now that Udalstov has been released, he has vowed to revive his Left Front movement and promised to call for new rallies. On 10 August, at a press conference in Moscow, he added that other opponents of the government are too pro-Western – including Navalny, who he will not support in his presidential bid next year.
Udaltsov has made it clear that he does not want to “fully follow some Western demands; to return Crimea, for instance.” However, Udaltsov has stressed that leftist politicians should unite and propose a single candidate for the Russian presidential elections. “Right now we need to find new people and hold primaries.” He urged to address Zyuganov and Mironov to work on this, as well as other leftist groups. Gennady Zyuganov and Sergey Mironov are the leaders of the two left-wing parties in Parliament – respectively the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and A Just Russia.
“I don’t want to choose between Putin’s monarchy and some pro-Western populists,” Udaltsov said, adding that he would work to consolidate the political left in Russia. “I am convinced there is demand for a third force. We must not add to a monopoly of the current regime a monopoly in the opposition.” His remarks echo the concerns of opposition members, as they have expressed discomfort with Navalny’s status as the only opposition leader who can challenge Putin in March 2018.
Rebuilding the Left Front
Udaltsov aims to recruit more people for the Left Front, in order to get the group back to its old strength and organize new protests this autumn. “November 7 is an important date for leftist forces all over the country. I would like to call on them to abandon all internal strife and hold a major rally on this day.” He emphasized that the left does not “support violence or confrontation, we are among the most peaceful groups.”