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Moscow Times
November 29, 2004
A Major Setback for Putin
By Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Whatever the outcome of Ukraine's current political crisis, it already amounts to a significant victory for the Ukrainian people and an equally significant defeat for the Kremlin and for President Vladimir Putin personally.

The muted reaction in Moscow and across Russia to what is happening in the capital of a large, fraternal country is quite striking. Have we grown unaccustomed to democratic demonstrations? Are we too caught up in our own affairs? Are there simply no political leaders capable of rallying the people? Apart from the statements made by the human rights organization Memorial, Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky and former Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, there has been very little reaction. At the same time, preparations for an opposition Civil Congress in Moscow are proceeding apace. Knowledgeable people predicted that they'd be draping the Ukrainian Embassy in orange ribbons, but when I went by on Friday evening everything was quiet, and not a single ribbon could be seen.

The significance of the outcome of Ukraine's political crisis for the fate of democracy in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, however, is very great indeed. In Ukraine, citizens are defending their right to be called citizens and their right to choose their leaders. In Ukraine, the people are determining the extent to which democracy can be managed and breaking up the games played by the ruling elite. The current crisis will determine to what extent a so-called managed democracy can survive the transfer of power. And Russia will learn whether its neighbor will be governed by a regime more or less democratic than Russia itself.

Perhaps no one in Russia has done as much to ensure victory for Viktor Yushchenko as Putin. By its open intervention in the Ukrainian presidential election, the Kremlin intended to assert its right to determine the internal development of the largest and most important country in the so-called near abroad.

But the Kremlin's enormous investment in the Ukrainian election not only failed to strengthen but actually weakened Russia's standing on the world stage. This intervention disrupted the Kremlin's ongoing attempt to integrate post-Soviet space, which even before this election was widely viewed as neo-imperialistic. And the Kremlin's actions led to the rise of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine and around the world.

By playing such an active role, the Kremlin raised the stakes across the board. Thanks to its efforts, the choice now being made by the Ukrainian people has come to seem a historical one. The opposition's battle against a candidate foisted upon them by the regime now looks like a national liberation movement.

The Kremlin has painted itself into a corner, and a major foreign policy setback now seems inevitable. Unfortunately, this means a setback for Russia as a whole, because the relations between the two largest Slavic nations are far too dependent on the regime in Moscow. While the Kremlin has come out against a unipolar world in international relations, it has built a centrist system at home that is now producing negative consequences for the entire country.

Russia's national interests are far less directly tied to Viktor Yanukovych than the Kremlin's declarations and actions would suggest. The Kremlin would obviously prefer to deal with an updated version of the Leonid Kuchma regime, which in the last two to three years has increasingly shifted its orientation from West to East. Russia's market-oriented businesses, however, have very different interests in Ukraine. They would be better served by a Yushchenko government, which would make the Ukrainian economy more open and less dominated by the state. And as for Russian society, it would be far better off with a free and democratic Ukraine next door than the bureaucratic, clan-based regime of Kuchma and Yanukovych.

The events of recent days in Ukraine brilliantly illustrate citizens' power and potential. It was their active protest that disrupted Kuchma's well thought-out plan to hold on to power while formally transferring it to his successor.

The hostage crisis in Beslan put Putin's new system of governance to the test in a domestic crisis. Now the Ukrainian election has tested that system in an external crisis. In both cases, Putin's system broke down. Following Beslan, Putin announced the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections. Will direct presidential elections be the next to go?