Russia's bold left stands up to Kremlin

Eduard Limonov's leftist National Bolshevik Party leads protests and spurs controversy.

Eduard Limonov has been called a fascist, a communist, and an ultranationalist. The Kremlin has repeatedly banned the leftist National Bolshevik Party (NBP) that he leads as an "extremist" organization and arrested over a hundred of its activists.

Yet for the past year, Mr. Limonov and his mainly youthful followers have been a mainstay of the Other Russia movement, a pro-democracy coalition led by chess champion Garry Kasparov. Other Russia has staged a series of high-profile street rallies aimed at forcing the Kremlin to ensure that upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will be open and free.

"The Kremlin fears us because they think our party can become the avant-garde of a Russian [version of Ukraine's pro-democracy] 'Orange Revolution,' " says Limonov, a bespectacled and goateed novelist who lived in the US before returning home to take up radical politics in the early 1990s. "And that fear is not unfounded," he says. "Our existence is seen as a menace by a state that represents a handful of rich amid a sea of poor people."

As the Other Russia heads into its first anniversary conference this weekend, the coalition seems to be splintering and its hopes of fielding a single opposition candidate to oppose Vladimir Putin's yet-to-be-anointed successor appear in tatters. This week, one of the movement's main backers, the liberal former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, pulled out saying that "the Other Russia has fulfilled its mission," and will not be needed in the "next, decisive stage of the political struggle." Mr. Kasyanov, who has announced his own intention to run for president, said he would be seeking fresh opposition forces with whom to ally.

Opposition splintering ahead of elections

One reason for the coalition's crisis may be its political diversity, which was hailed just a year ago as its greatest source of strength. Mr. Kasparov brought together liberals, moderate nationalists, and neocommunists who all had a stake in fighting for free elections. "[The Other Russia] has shown our citizens that completely different political forces ... can unite in defense of constitutional principles," Kasyanov said as he was leaving the movement this week.

Limonov's prison-hardened NBP activists have been the largest, and most fearless, contingent at the Other Russia's pro-democracy rallies over recent months. The group's name and symbol – a black hammer and sickle on a red field – seem to evoke some kind of fusion between Nazism and Communism. Its penchant for guerrilla street actions, such as occupying government offices and hanging anti-Putin banners from buildings, has won it more police attention than any other political group in Russia.

"Over 150 of our members have been through the school of prison and labor camps by now," says Limonov, who recently spent two years in jail for what he calls trumped-up charges of illegal weapons possession. "Through that experience, they have become unafraid. That's why the authorities consider us the most dangerous, because we are more courageous and we do what the others won't."

Limonov's forceful left

Limonov admits to having flirted briefly with right-wing ideas in the early '90s and he attracted notoriety by supporting Serbian nationalists during the civil war in Bosnia.

The NBP today is a "purely leftist" party that calls for taxing the rich to help the poor, fighting racism, and promoting democracy, Limonov says. Although he insists that the party meets all the requirements for registration under Russia's tough political laws, it has been rejected five times by the authorities. "We are the champions in getting banned," says Limonov.

"Nowadays it's illegal to even speak the name of the National Bolshevik Party," under Russia's harsh anti-extremism laws, says Lev Ponomaryov, a leading Russian human rights campaigner. "There is nothing particularly radical about the NBP and they do nothing that's actually extremist, but all opposition forces like this are gradually being weeded out of the political field," by the authorities, he says.

However, some opposition groups, including the liberal Yabloko party, say they've avoided joining the Other Russia in part due to the controversial presence of Limonov's NBP. "The National Bolsheviks stick to their name and fascist flag, and hide their real aims," says Yabloko's deputy chairman, Sergei Mitrokhin. "We don't want to struggle for democracy under nationalist banners. It discredits democracy," he says.

The powerful Communist Party (CP), on the other hand, has refused to join the Other Russia due to what its leader Gennady Zyuganov called the English-speaking and pro-American Kasparov's connections with "foreign moneybags."

Yabloko announced last month that its chairman, Grigory Yavlinsky, will run in the presidential polls, slated for next March. Several other opposition leaders have also declared, including Communist chief Mr. Zyuganov, former Central Bank chief Viktor Gerashchenko, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The dream of a single opposition to stand against Putin's heir has been shattered "because the CP and Yabloko have made their own collaborationist pacts with the Kremlin," says Limonov. "We wish they would be more courageous."

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