Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russians Asking Themselves Why They Can’t Act Like Ukrainians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – Even as Russian commentators blame Vladimir Putin for creating “a revolutionary situation” in Ukraine (ej.ru/?a=note&id=23865), many more Russians are asking themselves why they and their nation have been unable to organize protests the ways that Ukrainians can.

            To ask that question is to pose two even more important ones – how and why are Russians and Ukrainians such different nations -- a reality few Russians have been willing to acknowledge -- and is there any way for Russians to act like Ukrainians in this regard -- a role reversal for many and one that touches on the possibilities and limits of Russia’s future?

            Of the numerous articles with titles like “why is what is happening in Kyiv impossible in Russia,” four posted online over the last several days give some idea about the nature and depth of the despair members of Russia’s weak political opposition feel when they consider what the Ukrainian opposition has already achieved.

            First, in an article on Kasparov.ru, Vladimir Golyshev suggests that the reason for the differences between Russians and Ukrainians reflects the fact that Russia is, except for the North Caucasus, a homogenous country “from Kaliningad to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk” while Ukraine is extremely diverse (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=529C6F28D559D).

            Because of the actions of the Kremlin, Russia despite its superficial diversity “is one person,” whose will is imposed on and largely accepted by all the residents of the country, again except for the North Caucasus.  To anyone who would insist otherwise, he says, “Putin would laugh in [their] faces.”

            Whatever the Kremlin leader says or does is accepted and implemented, and even when they are really opposed to it, Russians see the display of power as a positive thing. Moreover, those who set themselves up as Putin’s opponents do not imagine a change in the system but rather themselves as being in Putin’s position, an “erotic fantasy” but nothing more.

            One way to think about this characteristic of Russians, Golyshev suggests, is to compare the Italy of Berlusconi with the Russia of Putin.  Italy, “although it is a small country, is complicated and diverse. But Russia despite its dimensions is everywhere the same.” Thus, it is impossible to impact Italy “in the form of a single neurotic with a weak character, but it is easy to do so with Russia.” As a result, Berlusoni has problems that Putin doesn’t.

            Ukraine is “much more complicated and multidimensional” than is Italy. And that diversity, sometimes seen as a weakness is ultimately a source of strength.  “Each group has its own myths, prejudices, misconceptions, phobias, fears and complexes,” but they are numerous and they can come together for a goal like joining Europe, which is based on diversity.

            Second, in an article on the Osobaya Bukva portal, Aglaya Bolshakova argues that “the main lesson” that the Ukrainian events teach is the need for real party structures, for a multiplicity of groups organized vertically, rather than as many Russian opposition figures imagine only horizontal ones (specletter.com/politika/2013-12-02/partbilet-na-maidan.html).

            Ukraine benefits not only from having political parties, she continues, but from not having anything like Russia’s “systemic opposition.” It has an opposition which actually opposes rather than simply plays along with the country’s top leader as is the case in the Russian Federation.

            Bolshakova points out that under Yanukovich, Ukrainians have used the incomparably greater freedom in Ukraine to build real opposition parties. In contrast, “Russian opposition politics was and is to this day the policy of personal projects and personal PR,” the building of resumes and Internet listings.
            Third, the Tolkovatel blog notes that a major reason for the differences in Russian and Ukrainian political behavior is that “there is no ‘orange’ counter-elite in Russia,” no regional rulers or dissatisfied officials who can and do speak out against the country’s president – and there won’t be as long as Putin is alive (ttolk.ru/?p=19233).
            Another reason for the difference between the two countries and the two nations is that in Ukraine there are multiple centers of power just as there were in Russia in 1917 and in the USSR in 1989-91. The Ukrainian opposition controls a third of the Rada and many of the councils of the Western oblasts of the country.
            Moreover, he says, the Ukrainian opposition draws from all social groups and not just the creative intelligentsia and from all regions. (Russians, he says, assume that since all power is in Moscow, all opposition should be as well.) The Ukrainian peasantry is historically different than the Russian, and Ukrainians have a national ideology while the Russians do not.
            And fourth, in a comment to Rosbalt.ru, Daniil Grachev provides a list of distinctions between Ukrainians and Russians. First of all, he says, “Ukrainians have a much more precise geopolitical self-identification” and more clearly defined goal: getting in to the EU.  They don’t aspire to be a superpower, and “they don’t have centuries-old imperial complexes” (rosbalt.ru/generation/2013/12/02/1206449.html).
            Moreover, Ukrainians involved in the protests want a specific result rather than some nebulous “change.”  And the elites in their country allow themselves to behave in ways, “thanks to the immeasurably greater political freedom and lesser presidential vertical thanin Russia,” that would be unthinkable in the Russian Federation.
            Consequently, “even if Yanukovich is able by force to put down the many-thousands-strong protest having risked in essence starting a civil war, no one will forget those hours in which the president of Ukraine cowardly hid himself from his own people.” In Russia, everything would be different: Putin wouldn’t hide, and memories would be short.

            This means, Grachev says, that “today Ukraine has a chance for changes,” but Russia in contrast is going to have to “wait” for them for some time.
            Ukrainians are watching this discussion but asking a different question: why aren’t the Russians coming out in support of them?  As blogger Oleg Lusenko notes, “today the Crimean Tatars, the Belarusians, the Poles, the Georgians, the Lithuanians and the Chechens are supporting the Ukrainians” but not he Russians (oleg-leusenko.livejournal.com/1065768.html and oleg-leusenko.livejournal.com/1062335.html).
            And that leads him to conclude that they aren’t because of the limitations of the Russian mentality, something that is going to cost the Russians dearly.  “Sooner of later,” he says, Ukrainians are going to throw off their Soviet-style rulers, but Russians may never be able to do that.  And others will see that as well because “friends are recognized in misfortune.”

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