20 years under Putin: a timeline

Mass protests in Ukraine, provoked by President Viktor Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU association agreement deal, are about to enter their third week. As some policy experts speculate on potential developments in the standoff situation, writer and publicist Alexander Podrabinek discusses what the Ukraine protests mean for Russia.



Ukraine and Russia are so close to each other geographically, historically, and mentally, that when a significant event occurs in one country, the other attempts the same. Given the ongoing protests in Ukraine, Russians wonder how similar protest could end in their country.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 left the Russian government in a state of hysteria. While Russian Democrats rejoiced for Ukraine, the Kremlin feverishly created an action plan to prevent similar events in Russia. The year before had yielded the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which, although it evoked Russia’s critical catcalls, did not inspire the same level of fear in the Kremlin. The reason for the disparity in Russia’s reaction lies in the fact that the difference between Georgia and Russia is far greater than the difference between Russia and Ukraine. Since 2004, an “orange” fear has settled on the Kremlin and begun to dictate its policy of repression and restrictions of civil liberties.

The current developments in Ukraine came as shock number two for the Kremlin. Brought up in the Marxist spirit, and anxious above all about their personal wealth, Putin and his entourage were confident that the loyalty of a single politician, or the whole country, could always be bought. For example, first raise gas prices and intimidate the population, then lower gas prices—and buy the people’s favor. They believed that in politics, everything is only a matter of price.

The first time they stumbled on Georgia, they found they were unable to intimidate then-president Michael Saakashvili—neither with economic sanctions and military expansion, nor through attempts to buy him and his closest supporters. The failure was so obvious that the Georgian president became a personal enemy of the Russian political elite. With Ukraine, the situation was safer, but only as long as the people did not get embroiled in policy. It is one thing to manipulate one single politician—cunning Donetsk’s muzhik (a countryman)—and is quite another to face a disgruntled Ukrainian society that can be neither intimidated nor dazzled with promises.

It’s likely that Putin and his entourage are unable to fully understand the reasons behind the current revolution in Ukraine. They seem to believe that the West is organizing everything, and that hundreds of thousands of people across the country are coming out to hold protest rallies because they’ve either been very well paid or deceived. They cannot conceive that such a huge number of people might be concerned not so much with their own personal well-being, but with their country's future. They think it's ridiculous and impossible because they are unable to put themselves in these people’s place. From their point of view, this is ineffable stupidity and a useless waste of energy.

And the Kremlin reacts accordingly. Controlled by the authorities, Russian TV chokes on a flow of lies. The State Duma, which always wants to look holier than the Pope, is hysterical about the lack of resistance on the part of the Russian government to this outrageous display of Ukrainian independence. Putin issued a decree announcing the concentration of a number of state-owned media outlets, putting them in the hands of a single propaganda media holding. The Kremlin is struggling against the call for freedom through old, familiar methods—lies and violence. The lies are already evident; violence may follow.

Ukraine’s exit from Russian influence nullifies Putin’s plans for collecting the former Soviet lands under the aegis of Moscow. Ukraine had received a prominent place in the proposed Customs Union, a coalition of four countries, including Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Before it was even created, this union cracked at the seams, and now its prospects are close to zero. If Ukraine can go peacefully and without serious consequences for itself, it will be a signal to the rest that independence is possible, and that Russia is not as frightful as the Kremlin’s propagandists paint it to be.

The Kremlin is also afraid of the Ukrainian revolution’s potential “bad influence” on Russian society. Its fears about this seem exaggerated. Russia’s society and opposition are very different from Ukraine’s. Suffice to say that on the best days, only one percent of Moscow’s population came to protest on Bolotnaya Square, while today a third of Ukrainians took to Maidan, Independence Square, in Kiev. Ukrainians do not ask for the authorities’ approval for protests, do not go through silly and useless metal detectors, and do not follow protest marches through the streets under guard of OMON (special forces). They came to protest not because of a low standard of living, unemployment, and social problems, but because the ruling power has neglected the future of their country. Here, too, lies the dissimilitude of Ukrainian protests and Russian ones. On the Maidan, there are no red flags, communist rhetoric, or cheap social demagogy. They left such things in the past, along with a deposed Lenin monument, knocked from its pedestal, together with schizophrenic Russian protests, in which the democratic opposition walked alongside Communists and portraits of Stalin. Ukraine is not shy about its European choice and is not afraid to break with its Soviet past.

Ukraine’s exit from Russian influence nullifies Putin’s plans for collecting the former Soviet lands under the aegis of Moscow. Before it was even created, the proposed Customs Union cracked at the seams, and now its prospects are close to zero.

Comparing the political events in Russia to those in the former Soviet republics, we often wonder why they succeed while we do not. Why is it that Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have either already embarked on the path of democratic development or are attempting to, while we stand still, bogged down in the hopeless “stability” of Putin? There are likely a number of reasons, but one seems to be fundamental. In these other countries, the road to freedom is associated with escape from the empire. Their progression toward democracy has the flavor of a national liberation movement. They were exempted from an imperial oppression, of which Moscow was the center.

Russia does not have to run from anyone. We have no external enemies, regardless of the horror stories that the authorities spin to scare the Russian citizenry. Perhaps in its political subconscious, the regime recognizes that the presence of external enemies is a strong motivator for development and movement. Therefore, they create them artificially in the form of America, Western lifestyle, a culture alien to us, etc. But artificial images do not hold up in real life. The enemy of freedom in Russia is us—ourselves. And battling such an enemy is much more complex than dealing with a real, external enemy. Getting rid of one’s own shortcomings is harder than getting away from foreign influence.

Russia is doomed to pay for its imperial history even now, when the empire has collapsed and a return to it is almost impossible. The phantom ache will not let Russia be free. Most of our politicians strive to restore a primitive imperial grandeur, deceiving themselves and others that it is possible, that this is the road to Russia’s recovery. In fact, it is absolutely hopeless in the twenty-first century. The empire collapsed safely, and its individual pieces can live well or not, but they will do it independently and in isolation from Russia. There is nothing wrong with this—neither for us, nor, especially, for them. It’s time for this to be realized, accepted, and settled. Then the phantom ache for the lost empire will disappear, and Russia will be able to embark down the normal European path. The same one Ukraine is now trying to take.