What Kiev’s Democratic Turn Means for Moscow
Published: February 26, 2014 (Issue # 1799)
Last week, the Ukrainian opposition suddenly gained a parliamentary majority through democratic and legal means as lawmakers defected in droves from President Viktor Yanukovych after his killing of 82 people in Kiev in three days. On Feb. 22, the president was impeached with the required two-thirds majority. It is still early to say how this transition to democracy will work, but it looks promising. What will this mean to Russia?
The Ukrainian protests present a challenge to all Russians. Putin must realize the Eurasian Union is stillborn and Russia needs the EU.
For the last three decades, I have been deeply involved in both Russia and Ukraine. To a foreigner, common Russian attitudes toward Ukraine are clearly contradictory. Russians will tell you that Ukrainians are their brother nation, but at the same time they claim that Ukraine is not a real nation, Ukrainian not an actual language, and Ukrainians are intellectually backward. Russians can barely hide their superiority complex toward Ukraine. Ukrainians take note and object in their quiet, polite fashion.
In late 2004, the Orange Revolution turned the tables on the Russians. Suddenly, Ukraine was ahead in terms of democracy, freedom and modernity, although not in economic policy or wealth. President Vladimir Putin swiftly adopted a series of laws to curtail civil society and safeguard his authoritarian rule. Since the Orange government turned out to be disorganized, Putin could relax.
In February 2010, Yanukovych won a free but not very fair presidential election with 49 percent of the vote in a runoff. At the time, the common view was that Yanukovych would turn into a Putin by installing a political vertical of power and greatly enriching his loyalists.
Yanukovych’s problem was that he had not learned Putin’s sophisticated art of sharing. Instead, he concentrated all wealth in a tiny family circle, alienating everybody else. His political base did not expand but narrowed. As his political legitimacy dwindled, he imposed more repression. Russians have accepted some repression because their standard of living has risen palpably, but Yanukovych’s predatory economic policies caused economic output to stagnate.
In the end, Ukrainians asked themselves, “Why should we accept a leader who robs and represses our country and only cares about himself?”
But dissatisfaction alone is rarely sufficient. It requires a catalyst to be unleashed. Foolishly, Yanukovych provided such a catalyst with the European Union agreement that he first endorsed and then rejected. Few were concerned about the free-trade agreement, but it represented a choice of civilization. Would Ukraine go for European values — freedom and justice, democracy and the rule of law — or for corruption and authoritarianism? To Ukrainians, the choice was clearcut, and they stood up in protest.
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