As I am writing this blog entry, there is a tense standoff between protesters and policemen in Kiev, both groups waiting for the ultimatums they have given each other to run out. Sham roundtable talks are in preparation, featuring two failed and one failing president. More than two weeks after the decision of Ukraine to refuse signing the free trade and association agreement with the Union, according to different estimates, still between 500 thousand and 1 million protesters remain at “Euromaidan”. Street scenes are reminiscent of the winter of 2004, and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Just like nine years ago, the Russian government and personally Vladimir Putin has a lot to lose. And while Russia seems to have been the stronger player in the past couple of weeks, in fact Putin has a lot more to fear than in 2004. Here’s why.
The reason why Ukrainians have been protesting is not exactly the failed free trade and association deal with the EU. It has more to do with the way the decision was taken and how strikingly different this is from what they expect the European Union to be. By now it has become obvious that Yanukovich’s game was about forcing Russia to accept Ukraine’s conditions with regards to economic integration, including gas prices. It might as well have worked, hadn’t it been for the Ukrainian public. Even if the 2004 Orange Revolution did not lead to the same successes as the Rose Revolution in Georgia, it planted a seed of conscience into Ukrainians, as well as a loathing against decisions taken about them in a secretive manner, behind their backs, over their heads. This is exactly what Yanukovich had done.
For Ukrainians, getting closer to the EU does not only mean money and perspectives. It also means putting an end to such thuggish practices. In this sense, Euromaidan is not a repetition, but a necessary continuation of the Orange Revolution. Oleksiy Arestovich, a Ukrainian psychologist gave a great overview on the psychological anatomy of the protests and called for a “warm ocean strategy” in Ukrainskaya Pravda, which is more or less the same what I have outlined above: using the social capital built up by and after the Orange Revolution. I will not repeat the article: Sean Guillory has a translation of the article on his blog.
Vladimir Putin’s whole political image is sustained by two grand pillars. They are the essentially the same, but with different meanings to the Russian elite and Russian voters. First of these is economic growth: to the population, it meant steadily growing life standards; for the elite, steadily growing rent. The second is the restoration of Russia’s national pride: for voters it meant peace in the Caucasus as well as a sense of patriotic pride and – to some – the pride of living in a superpower; for the elite, it meant protection from the colour revolutions, that is, the security of collecting rent.
The first pillar has already crumbled. Not only international organisations and Alexei Kudrin, but now even the Russian government has been publishing dim forecasts on the Russian economy. Only during the past week both the ministry of economic development and the ministry of finance published papers reflecting grim outlooks and, as the Wall Street Journal observed, the lowest GDP growth since Putin came to power. As I have blogged several times, the system seems to be running out of redistributable goodies, and this must have repercussions both within the elite and the population. This is why Putin has switched from “carrots” to “sticks” in disciplining the elite and has been trying to accommodate opposition forces where opposition activity may be primarily driven by livelihood concerns: at the countryside.
Putin has to balance out a weakening first pillar by putting a larger emphasis on the second pillar. This is exactly what we have seen in the past two years, measures ranging from grandiose military procurement program, through a clearly emphasised Russian diplomatic activity, making use of the diplomatic mishaps of the US government and the yet incoherent foreign policy of China, all the way to the restoration of the Russian economic space through the Eurasian Economic Union. This is what shall maintain Putin’s stamina, keep him going and, as he hopes, will eventually secure a place for him in history books. This primarily is what is under attack in Kiev.
It’s not about the masses
Could Euromaidan be an inspiration for the Russian opposition? Hardly. Even though both Ukrainians and Russians have been protesting against basically the same thing – a corrupt, secretive and humiliating post-Soviet government – in Ukraine protesters are more or less galvanised by a common idea – the EU – and a common experience – the Orange Revolution. This adds the necessary leaven to the protests in Kiev that the Russian opposition lacks.
Also, social problems in Ukraine and in Russian have fundamentally different faces. Ukrainian-Russian coexistence is far too complicated even to give an overview about within the framework of a blog entry. It is, however, fair to say that in Western Ukraine there is a feeling of oppression triggered by Russian hegemony over what people believe to be an essentially European country. According to a recent survey, more and more people feel so – if not oppressed, then at least more European than “Eurasian” – in the Eastern part of the country too. In 2004, a joke, reflecting this stereotype circulated on the streets of Kiev: “What is the difference between a Ukrainian and a Russian?” “A Ukrainian will give you his weapons of mass destruction in exchange for a nice salary and an attractive wife. A Russian will send you to hell with this proposal.”
Bitter enough as this “joke” may sound, numbers do not necessarily support it. According to Levada Center, only about 20-30% of Russians think that their country’s being a superpower is more important than its being a liveable place. A significant, yet inferior proportion. On the other hand, has never felt oppressed and never felt European. According to the same Levada poll, 69% of Russians back patriotic education while only 31% of them would support a “Western-style” government. The Russian opposition is more fragmented and considerably less driven by “Europeanism” than the Ukrainian opposition.
What is dangerous for Vladimir Putin, and why he is considerably more interested in containing protests in Ukraine is not some “contagion” that is only a distant, if existing, possibility. What Putin fears is the Russian elite. An elite that vitally needs the economic gains of the Russian dominance over its sphere of interest, and that even 22 years after the dissolution of the USSR is still closely interconnected with elites in former soviet states. A prime example of these close connections is how the recent conflict around Uralkali was solved to benefit both Russian and Belarusian ruling elites. Or, in the case of Ukraine, listen to what Mark Galeotti said about business connections in a recent Power Vertical podcast, and bear in mind that it is only the tip of the iceberg.
As a Russian political bonmot would have it, the Orange Revolution was to the Russian elite what 9-11 was to America: it brutally crushed a sense of security that had been thought to be eternal. But in 2004, Putin had to face the situation on the wings of a rapidly growing oil industry that served as a puffer. There is no puffer now, but Putin recaptured Ukraine from the West. Or so it seemed. Should he lose it again, it would send his prestige and his sense of security crushing down. Should he keep it this time, it may be enough to live on for a term.