This is a guest post by Ola Cichowlas*
Imagine a post-Soviet world without Putin, Lukashenko and Yanukovich. That is what Ukrainians dreamt about this weekend. They came in their hundreds of thousands and rallied not only in Kiev, but in rebellious Lviv, industrial Donetsk and sunny Odessa. Why? Because Ukraine is in Europe, because power had been violently abused, and because they felt cheated.
In Moscow, state TV channels portrayed the demonstrations as “a couple of hundred people”, “sponsored by the EU” (and the CIA), and as mostly nationalists that caused havoc on Kiev’s peaceful streets. In an effort to explain to Russians what is happening in Ukraine, Kremlin-controlled Channel One even said the protests in Kiev were a “Swedish-Polish revenge for a Russian victory at the Battle of Poltava in 1709”.
Journalists who work for these channels and covered Kiev that night know that this was not true (if it was, it was a poor effort for a 300 year preparation). One of these journalists, working for state-owned Rossiya 1, was surrounded by a crowd of people shouting “tell the truth!” and “show Russia what is really happening!”, as he attempted to report with his film crew.
But there is a whole other world away from Kremlin censorship, one represented by the Russian-language internet, blogosphere, and independent liberal media. Here, writers rallied in support of “Evromaidan” and against a system of corruption that has engulfed both Ukraine and Russia. Kiev was where there was most hope – Belarus was “lost” to a brutal regime branded “Europe’s last dictatorship”, and Russia has steadily slipped further into authoritarianism since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2011.
As Russian state TV continued to show the protests as a European project with the aim of weakening Ukraine, and focused on Putin’s victory of an expanding Eurasian Union, the “other world” understood that this was not an anti-Russian demonstration at all. It was a demonstration by people tired of an unreformable system that is dragging both these countries down.
A group of Russian writers wrote a letter in solidarity to those protesting on Ukrainian streets, stating: “we, like you, feel that we are part of one European civilization – the political forces that aim to pull us away from [Europe], provoke the same anger in us, as in you. We are saddened that today you have to think of Russia as a brute and treacherous country […] and we hope in your success: that would be a sign that we too, in Russia, can win our rights and freedom”.
At the same time, amongst Russian liberal and oppositionist writers, journalists and bloggers who came out in support of their neighbours, there was also a sense of emotional envy. “Where’s the Russian tractor?” was a popular meme, referring to the hi-jacked tractor used in the protests that quickly went viral on Twitter. Others wrote “Why does it work in Kiev and not in Moscow?” and “Why could Russia not pull this off?”.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny complained: “They’re opening a criminal case against the Berkut [Ukrainian riot police] over there, and we have innocent people sitting in prison cells”. Oleg Kashin, one of Russia’s best known liberal bloggers lamented: “Ukraine is making a difficult choice right in front of our eyes, but at least it has one. But Russia won’t have one, and probably never will, and so all we can do is watch the live transmission from Kiev and talk to our TV screens”.
Endless comparisons between Evromaidan and the Russian Bolotnaya protests in 2011 and 2012 were circulating on the Russian-language internet. In articles, blogs, commentaries and Facebook posts, Russians analyzed why this was possible in Ukraine on such a scale and not in Russia.
There were social comparisons: what kind of people attended both mass protests? Evromaidan – ordinary people, Bolotnaya – mostly the creative class. Historical analogies were also common: Western Ukraine was incorporated into the USSR in 1945 and hence the older generations there were actually born in Europe, not to mention that Ukrainian nationalism in the early twentieth century was much more developed than its Russian counterpart. One blogger wrote that “if it wasn’t for the evil genius Boris Berezovsky, the first post-Soviet Orange Revolution should have taken place in Russia in 1999-2000.” Another wrote that the Russian protests were also led by a Ukrainian, Alexey Navalny.
Evromaidan was not about Russia - from which Ukrainians showed they were a world away - nor was it even about the EU. It was about human rights and dignity. But it was a gift to the Russian opposition: a sign that their country’s regime is not wanted for export, that it may be halted right on their doorstep. It inspired liberals not only in Russia but in neighbouring stranded Belarus, too, where activists created Facebook pages to support Ukrainian protests and where the cultural underground proclaimed: “Europe is not complete without Ukraine, or without Belarus”.
Ukraine will not become another Belarus. Russia will not always be authoritarian. Lukashenko will not live eternally. But the people in Kiev’s Independence Square have shown that there is no way to avoid politics and that there is little support for the present system. Many are increasingly asking themselves the daring question – what would these countries look like if the oppositions were in power?
This is a similar question to what the former Eastern Bloc countries were asking themselves at the end of the 1980s. But the power of the state machines is much larger today, while the oppositions are incredibly weak. In Russia, Putin has yet to publicly pronounce Alexei Navalny’s name. In Belarus, the opposition is either in jail, abroad or gone completely underground. Ukraine, despite the imprisonment of Yulia Timoshenko, has an official opposition. Many have accused them of poor leadership this weekend, and nationalists make up a worrying percentage of their ranks. But let’s just hope they have a plan.
*Ola Cichowlas (@olacicho) is a British-Polish journalist writing on Eastern Europe and Russia.