With democratic challenger Viktor Yushchenko all but set to win a repeat presidential runoff in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing his greatest foreign policy crisis. At stake is the Kremlin leader’s dream of Russia’s greatness, which he perceives primarily as Moscow’s ability to dominate the post-Soviet lands. The Orange Revolution’s display of people power in Ukraine not only thwarted Russia’s plans to push its favorite into the presidential suite in Kyiv, but it will likely make it harder for the Kremlin to influence political processes across the “near abroad,” including the strategic regions of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russian political analysts contend.
Most Russian experts agree that Ukraine’s election crisis is a watershed for Russia’s policies in post-Soviet Eurasia. The pundits are divided, however, in their understanding of the nature of the Orange Revolution and in suggestions as to how Moscow should respond to the momentous events in Ukraine.
For Russian derzhavniki (champions of Russia’s great-power status), a victory by Ukrainian democratic forces signifies a clear strategic win for the West. In a number of articles and policy papers the statist ideologues assert that since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the presidential race in Ukraine represents “the biggest [geo-] political war between the United States and European Union on the one hand, and Russia on the other.” Although some of them concede that the Ukrainian crisis does have a “democratic dimension,” the general view is that the massive rallies in Kyiv are basically the result of skillful manipulation from abroad. As one noted political analyst argues, the Ukrainian “revolution, as the previous one in Georgia, has very substantial propagandist, diplomatic, ideological, and informational support of the Western countries.” In essence, he continues, “it’s a great geopolitical game” aimed at tearing Ukraine away from Russia. The alleged strategic objective of the West is to build some sort of a cordon sanitaire around Russia (Ekspert, December 6).
But this is just one reason why “Russia cannot allow itself to lose in Ukraine.” The Orange Revolution, the statists say, will likely cause a dangerous chain reaction. If Moscow fails to reassert its position in Ukraine, argues the veteran political analyst Vitaly Tretyakov, “within the next two years velvet revolutions will take place — according to the Kyiv scenario — in Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and, possibly, in Armenia.” As a result, Tretyakov warns, the Kremlin might be completely deprived of “room for maneuver in the post-Soviet space” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 2).
Other like-minded experts share Tretyakov’s strategic worries. Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika Foundation think tank, suggests that the repetition of Ukrainian events could occur in all the post-Soviet countries, “whose regimes the West doesn’t like.” Remarkably, “all the CIS countries, except Georgia, appear to fall into this category,” Nikonov notes (Kreml.org, December 1).
It is no wonder, then, that some Kremlin political gurus urge the need to elaborate an ideology of “preventive counter-revolution.” In a wide-ranging interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta, leading spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky argues that the “Kyiv [events] are a very serious signal for Russia,” adding that the political system in Russia and other post-Soviet states is vulnerable to the “new revolutionary technologies of the globalization era.” The government authorities in Russia and allied countries should be prepared to protect themselves from all sorts of revolutionary manipulations seeking a regime change, Pavlovsky says. In his opinion, one of the antidotes against a Western-sponsored velvet revolution is a set of measures aimed at “developing ‘counter-revolutionary properties’ of our power structures and our society” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 7).
Naturally, liberal political thinkers hold an opposite view of the Ukrainian crisis, while agreeing with the “conservative counter-revolutionaries” that it is of utmost importance for Russia and its foreign policy ambitions. According to one prominent liberal commentator, in Ukraine we are dealing with a “revolution of a new type.” While the political conflicts in East Central Europe in the end of the 1980s were revolutions against totalitarianism, the events in Ukraine are a “revolution against phony democracy,” argues Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center. It is a revolt of the disgruntled society against a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime and corrupt crony capitalism. Last year’s upheaval in Georgia demonstrated the instability of such a regime, but back then Georgian events were interpreted as a purely national phenomenon. However, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution appears to prove that we are witnessing a certain political trend, Shevtsova contends (Novaya gazeta, December 6).
Symptomatically, Georgia’s leadership was quick to state that events in Kyiv are tremendously important for Tbilisi. In a recent interview with Le Monde, Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zourabichvili noted that until now her country was feeling quite solitary in the post-Soviet space but with the beginning of mass protests in Kyiv, “there emerged yet another democratic country with a population of 50 million.” According to Tbilisi’s top diplomat, the unfolding political process in Ukraine will likely change the entire situation in the post-Soviet space. Two positive developments stand out, Zourabichvili noted, “The Black Sea area will become a region of democracy,” and “Russia will not be able to dominate the post-Soviet space” (Politcom.ru, December 9).
Confirmation of the Kremlin’s seriously dented prestige in the “near abroad” came also from Uzbekistan. President Islam Karimov permitted himself to chastise his Russian counterpart for what he called a “shortsighted policy” of open support for one candidate in the Ukrainian election. The Kremlin’s miscalculation was “one of the reasons that led to the events in Ukraine,” Karimov contended. In the opinion of the regional analyst Arkady Dubnov, criticism from the wily Uzbek strongman is yet another bad sign for Moscow’s long-term ambitions in post-Soviet Eurasia (Vremya novostei, December 8).