The Russian opposition is asking itself: What makes the opposition in Ukraine different from that in Russia?

5 December 2013

By Jens Siegert

Source: Boell Foundation Russia Blog

The opposition in Ukraine is protesting. Meanwhile in Russia the opposition is wondering what makes Ukraine different (as, for example, Nikolai Klimenyuk here). How come a relatively small issue (from the Russian perspective, that is) brings hundreds of thousands onto the streets? How come the Prime Minister is quick to issue an apology and the President, sounding almost scared, declares that he is not to blame after the riot police has used force to disperse a rally, arresting a few dozen demonstrators? How come Ukrainians, unlike Russians, seem to treasure their freedom more than their daily bread? In short, how come Ukraine and the situation in Ukraine differs from Russia and the situation there? Let me try and get to the bottom of this.

Reason no. 1: the protesters in Ukraine have a specific goal: a new presidential election. As opposed to the protests against the rigged elections in Russia in the winter of 2011/2012 their protest is linked to the – probably justified – hope that the current president Viktor Yanukovych will lose a fresh election and that the likely winner will immediately ratify the EU association treaty that Yanukovych has just scuppered. It is this hope that keeps the Kiev protests going and stops Yanukovych from responding to the events by means of excessive force, since he fears that he might lose his position and will be called to account later. By contrast, after Putin’s re-election in Russia in March of last year, most of those involved agreed that it was a lost cause and this deflated the protest.

Reason no. 2: In Ukraine the opposition is represented in several parliaments at all levels. Moreover, the country doesn’t really have a “party of power” (similar to Putin’s United Russia). In fact, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions doesn’t have a majority in many regions, particularly in the western part of the country of course. However, what is probably even more important is the country’s division into a mostly Ukrainian-speaking West and a mostly Russian-speaking East. That means there are two political blocs of approximately equal strength, neither of which can dominate without risking the country’s disintegration. Vladimir Putin has enjoyed a monopoly over politics on all levels in Russia since the mid-2000s. So the difference is that whereas the opposition in Ukraine is an equal sparring partner, in Russia it faces an uphill struggle.

Reason no. 3 follows directly from reason no. 2: the lack of a political and economic establishment that has overwhelmingly chosen to close (or has been coerced into closing) ranks. Well-known representatives of Ukrainian business, churches as well as the state administration, universities and the media have expressed their solidarity with the protesters. In Russia this is virtually unthinkable. Over the past few years Putin has turned the judiciary, the police and the secret services into a tool he can use at will against any political, media or economic opposition, and as a result everyone has lived under the sword of Damocles: fearful of losing their job, their business, access to nationwide television, in short, losing influence, money, even freedom, if they dare to openly defy the Kremlin. Few people can afford to take this stance: a handful of musicians and writers as well as a couple of people who haven’t made their money by being close to government but rather by, as the saying goes, “the work of their own hands and heads”. That’s all there is to it.

And that brings me to reason no. 4 (also linked to nos. 2 and 3): Ukraine has nationwide TV channels that do not obey (or willingly anticipate) every hint of the President’s administration. The Russian protests in the winter of 2011/2012 were able to attract big crowds only because over 50 per cent of Russian households now have access to the Internet. However, that is far from enough to counterbalance the influence of television, which the Kremlin has under its control and has converted into a ruthless propaganda machine.

Reason no. 5: the protests in Ukraine have a much broader social and regional basis than their Russian counterparts, partly because of the East-West dichotomy. In Russia the protests are still largely a phenomenon limited to the capital and a cause championed by a middle class that is “Europeanised” in its outlook, prosperity and lifestyle. This is what allows Putin to claim without blushing (not something he is especially prone to in any case) that his policies represent an “overwhelming majority” of people in Russia. Any Ukrainian president who would say that would become a laughing stock.

Let me now take a slightly different line of argument. It seems to me that the Ukrainian opposition, indeed the majority of the population is (still) receptive to a dual narrative. On the one hand: If we, Ukrainians, become “more European” we shall be better off, if not immediately, then at least in the longer term. On the other hand: We are an independent country.

In Russia the first part of this narrative worked only in the 1990s and its impact diminished with the approach of the millennium. It is now dead, having survived at most in expressions denoting quality services, such as evroremont (‘Euro-refurbishment’). While it may not be dead and buried, it is dead enough not to be viable in the foreseeable future as a slogan for a (successful) state. The reason why this part of the narrative has come to such a quick demise in Russia while it is still alive in Ukraine (although it is hard for me to judge how alive and kicking it is there, and whether there, too, it hasn’t begun to show the first signs of ailing) has a great deal – though not everything – to do with the other part of the narrative, the part explaining the origins of both present-day Russia and Ukraine.

Present-day Russia is what remains of an empire with all the (phantom limb-like) pains this entails. No prominent person has put this more poignantly – you might also say, brutally – than Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidency, when he referred to the (self)break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”. By sharp contrast, Ukraine’s founding narrative is mainly a story of liberation, put crudely but clearly, liberation from the centuries-long “Russian yoke.” Even though this narrative loses its power as you move from the Galician West to the East on the River Don, it does, nevertheless, hold sway across the entire country.

In this case the narrative works primarily because of the all too obvious pressure from Moscow. Yanukovych could probably have postponed or refused the ratification of the association agreement with the EU without much protest had he justified his decision on plausible “Ukrainian” grounds. However, he himself has closed the door to this solution – if such a door ever existed – by pursuing a seesaw policy between the EU and Russia. (Incidentally, this policy is not his own invention but rather has been, more or less, the dominant basis of Ukrainian politics since the country gained independence in 1991.) Nevertheless, the way Yanukovych played it this time made his decision not to ratify smack heavily of having his hand forced. And having it forced by a former “colonial power” to boot. This is what many people in Russia have found very hard to understand, or fail to understand at all. They keep moaning: “But we are brothers!” (sisters do not figure on either side of this kind of dialogue). To which the Ukrainians retort: “Precisely because we are brothers!”

In conclusion I would like to mention one more reason, the sixth one: basically it seems to me that the mass protests – I mean the hundreds of thousands who assembled on the Kiev Maidan on the last weekend of November rather than the five or ten thousand who gathered there immediately following Yanukovych’s “no” at the EU summit in Vilnius – are not so much about the EU as about the police response to the protests. It was only after ‘Berkut’ riot police beat up the protesters to break up the pro-EU rally on the previous Thursday that the discontent reached mass proportions. Unlike in Russia, the discontent is directed primarily at the fact that the state had the audacity to limit the right to free assembly. That is presumably the reason why the President and the Prime Minister were so quick to backtrack.

What is at stake, therefore, is the culture of political debate, i.e. the political culture that has evolved in independent Ukraine since the beginning of the 1990s. Within this culture it is not the done thing to use force against political opponents (a few, generally harmless, punch-ups in parliament notwithstanding). For some time now, Yanukovych has been pushing the limits of the acceptable by holding Yulia Tymoshenko as his private prisoner.

Ukraine doesn’t have the experience of tanks firing at its parliament, which happened in Russia in the autumn of 1993 and set the tone between the two political camps that have become deadly enemies in the literal sense of the world. Ukraine didn’t have a Chechen war. The so-called Orange Revolution, too, amounted to a peaceful change of government, a change by means of elections whose results were repeatedly tested by further elections. This basically peaceful tradition clashes with a deeply cynical understanding of politics in Russia (not that you won’t find any cynicism in Ukraine, only there’s less of it and it is slightly less pronounced) which regards this kind of evolution of political culture as fundamentally impossible or, at most, as an even more perfidious “technology” of political power struggle.

Luckily for Ukraine, this makes the power brokers in the Kremlin and their supporters keep committing crucial mistakes. Unluckily for Russia, this does little to help the country itself.

Translated by Julia Sherwood