After Ukraine's Maidan, a bigger crackdown in Moscow?

Ukraine's Maidan movement has caught the attention of Russians and there are signs the Kremlin is moving to further constrict the country's political space.

Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters
A protester holds a placard that reads 'Maidan' outside a courthouse in Moscow February 24, 2014.

Moscow police carted away about 70 people outside a Moscow district court Monday, charging most of them with holding an unauthorized gathering.

It was a fairly regular occurrence in Moscow, where police have zero tolerance for public meetings that haven't been granted explicit permission from the authorities to take place. But as they were being dragged away, some of the protesters shouted something new and potentially incendiary: "Watch out, the Maidan will come here." 

The protesters were there to oppose harsh prison sentences being handed out to the so-called Bolotnaya defendants, who were accused of fighting with police  during another mostly peaceful rally almost two years ago, on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration to a third term as president of Russia. This week's protesters were referring to the tumultuous events last weekend in Kiev's central square, known as the Maidan, that led to the abrupt unseating of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and a radical shift in the political order.

Though Russians have been somewhat distracted by the Sochi Olympics, they are now riveted by Ukraine. The still-unfolding drama there is certain to have a profound impact on Russia's own economic and political choices in future, even if the protesters' taunting proves to be largely bravado. The Kremlin has made clear that it views the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych as an illegal seizure of power by a militant Ukrainian minority backed by the West, and may also suspect it is a dress rehearsal for a similar attempt to depose Mr. Putin one day. 

However, some in Russia's liberal community see in the Maidan a hope that the Kremlin, no matter how solid it looks, could one day crack under similar popular pressure.

"What we are seeing in Ukraine is the realization of the Ukrainian people's aspiration for democracy, of the right to revolt," says Sergei Davidis, a board member of Solidarnost, a liberal opposition coalition. "It doesn't mean we're ready to follow that example. Russian conditions are different. But in the long run, as the contradictions pile up, we may well come to the same pass and find ourselves with no alternatives but the Ukrainian one."

Pro-Kremlin analysts say that most Russians are likely to look at the chaos and bloodshed in Ukraine and turn away from the path of protest.

"For the liberals, it's going to be much harder in future to cite Ukraine as an example of a country that's developing well under conditions of democracy," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the official Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. 

"What we are witnessing in Ukraine is an economic collapse, now compounded by a political one. The little group of professional revolutionaries in Russia who want the Maidan to happen here will likely be rejected by most of our people. Indeed, measures taken by our authorities to limit democracy may well meet with understanding from the population, given the West's support for the anti-democratic actions of the Ukrainian opposition," he says.

According to a poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency, released Monday, 73 percent of Russians believe that Moscow must not intervene in Ukraine's turmoil, while 75 percent think it "impossible" for such mass protests to occur in Russia.

Close to home

The deeply emotional Russian fascination with events in their Slavic neighbor is based on mutual, long-standing ties. Russians see Kiev as the cradle of Russian civilization, and the birthplace of the Russian Orthodox Church, which still counts about 7 million people in Ukraine among its flock. According to the 2010 Russian census, about 2 million Ukrainians are permanent citizens of Russia, and another 3.5 million live in Russia as temporary workers.

Russia is Ukraine's biggest single trading partner and, until recent events, the very long frontier between the two has been relatively open and visa-free. Any sharp changes in that relaxed regime would be traumatic for many, and cause deep economic dislocation on both sides of the border.

"The mentality of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples are close, our languages are similar, we have lots of mixed marriages and common relatives," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime Kremlin critic. "Relations between us tend to be fine, at least until our political classes start meddling."       

Ever since the Orange Revolution 10 years ago, which brought the pro-Western government of Viktor Yushchenko to power amid month-long peaceful protests on Kiev's Maidan, the Kremlin has been preparing to crush any attempt to bring a similar revolt to Moscow. Mr. Putin launched a wide crackdown, especially on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, whom he blamed for plotting Ukrainian-style revolution at the behest of Western sponsors. He also created a wide network of pro-Kremlin groups, such as the youth movement Nashi, that could be brought into the streets to support authorities in the event of unrest. 

When protesters erupted onto the streets of Moscow in December 2011 to oppose allegedly fraudulent parliamentary elections, Putin immediately blamed it on then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Though that protest movement has since died down, Russia's State Duma has continued to pass increasingly draconian legislation aimed at curbing street rallies, further cracking down on NGOs and rewriting the definition of "treason" to include almost any interaction with foreigners.

"The view in the Kremlin, in light of recent events, is probably that the measures taken in the wake of the Orange Revolution were not enough," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. He says Putin sincerely believes that protests against his authority are organized by "somebody" other than the protesters, and that contacts between Russians and foreigners need to be scrutinized and tightly restricted to prevent revolutionary contagion.

Little unity

Since the current unrest began in Kiev, Russian authorities have moved to radically restructure the RIA-Novosti state news agency and drive the liberal TV station Dozhd from the airwaves in part, Mr. Petrov says, because of their relatively unbiased reporting of events in Ukraine.

"Now we will likely see a further closing down of the system," he adds.

But any Maidan-like upsurge looks unlikely in Russia, says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.

"Russia does not have the factor of nationalism, which brought Ukrainians together on the Maidan, led them to struggle and sacrifice. The bonds that hold the nation together in Russia are radically weaker," she says. 

Instead, she suggests, Russia has a super-strong state, with an imperial heritage that tends to inhibit social mobilization.

"It should also be said that, in Vladimir Putin, Russia has a much more far-sighted and sophisticated leader than Yanukovych was in Ukraine. I do believe that Putin is genuinely concerned about Russia's status on the world stage, and people give him credit for that. Of course, Putin's other big concern is control. Here too, he's accomplished a lot, and it comes at a very high cost in terms of freedoms and democracy for Russians," she adds. 

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