By any reckoning, the news from Russia that the prominent leftist opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov has been put under house arrest does not look good. This is, most certainly, one more nail on the coffin of Russia’s reputation as a (mal)functioning democracy — one that Vladimir Putin could afford to avoid.
It is politicians like Udaltsov who give vibrancy to a democracy. They are nowhere near capturing political power but an energetic and charismatic figure like Udaltsov would give credibility to Russian democracy.
India also had its fair crop of such exciting figures in its years of adolescence as a democracy — Ram Manohar Lohia, George Fernandez, Karpoori Thakur and so on. It is an essential stage in the evolution of a thriving democracy.
In fact, if Russia didn’t have an Udlatsov, it needed to discover one. The allegation that he poses threat to the Russian state or that he has a secret agenda to subvert public order is simply too absurd to merit discussion. It seems to be more a case of Udaltsov being a thorn in the flesh of the regime, and the establishment unable to figure out what to do with him.
The paradox actually lies somewhere else. The real ‘threat’ posed by Udaltsov is that he might well be a genuine Russian socialist. (Indeed, at the young age of 36 it is hard to tell.) Like moths to the flame, the followers of the Communist Party flock to him.
Simply put, he could turn out to be dangerously capable of tapping into the disconnect between the socialist-leaning Russian electorate and the neo-liberal economic model pursued by the government (while espousing populist themes such as increases in social spending.) The last parliamentary election in Russia brought this disconnect into glaring relief.
Now, Udaltsov describes himself as a social democrat advocating the nationalization of strategic industries and a tax overhaul that aims at redistributing income to the poor. These are dangerous ideas in today’s Russia since they have massive resonance among the electorate.
Of course, Udaltsov’s house arrest underscores the quandries of the Left in Russia. His style of street protest finds attraction with the left-leaning Russian electorate. Conceivably, what petrifies the regime is that if Udaltsov has his way with forming a genuine Russian left movement, its own phoney ‘centre-left’ image might get exposed.
Whereas, the established Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov constitutes a “pocket opposition” for the establishment and forms part of the political elite by settling for a comfortable position as permanent ‘opposition’ rather than actually bid for political power on the basis of socialist ideology. Put differently, Udaltsov could make Zyuganov look a genial pensioner.
The irony is that the crackdown on Udaltsov comes when the fizz appears to be going out of the protest movement in Russia. Udaltsov is prone to excessive behavior and he could have been allowed to wound his political credibility through his firebrand style of street protesting
, which ultimately would worry Russians who genuinely abhor revolutions after having witnessed them at close quarters more than once in their modern history.