It was an institution I’d never heard of – the Foundation for Peace and Co-operation – but the invitation to speak there came from someone at the American embassy, the name sounded anodyne enough, and I thought the audience, teachers from provincial Russia, in Moscow for a five-day course on “civic education”, might prove interesting.
On the appointed day, I made my speech. Then I asked for questions. One of the first concerned Ukraine: Why is the West collaborating with the Ukrainians to reverse the results of a legitimate election? I said the election wasn’t legitimate: several of my friends were election observers and had witnessed massive fraud. The audience grew restless.
One of the next questions concerned Chechnya: Why is the West funding Chechen terrorism? I said the West wasn’t funding Chechen terrorism. The crowd grew more restless still. On the podium beside me, one of the bigwigs from the Foundation for Peace and Co-operation, sneered. “You should do a bit more homework, and then you’ll find out who is really funding Chechen terrorism.” Presumably, he meant the Bush administration. The whole room, full of provincial teachers studying “civic education”, burst into cheers.
I was taken aback. True, the hall where I gave my speech had felt like the Soviet Union, with bad lighting, a dull programme, and uncomfortable chairs. Also true – as I found out later – the Foundation for Peace and Co-operation did indeed date back to communist times when it was called simply the Foundation for Peace, and functioned as one of dozens of party front organisations.
Still, I had not expected the audience to remind me of the USSR. But in fact, their anti-Western sentiments were more paranoid than anything I remember from the old days. Back then, most people felt far more sceptical about things they heard on the evening news.
If that speech was a surreal experience, it was made more so by the fact that a day earlier, I had attended a congress organised by what remains of Russia’s democratic political movement. Scattered around the hall were young men with orange armbands and young women with orange T-shirts, all in solidarity with the demonstrators in Ukraine. As the congress drew to a close, I ran into a Russian friend who wanted to know whom she should call in Washington to get advice on launching an “orange revolution” in Russia. If there really was a Western conspiracy to spread democracy, she wanted to be part of it.
The depth of the contrast helps to illustrate what is at stake for Russia in today’s repeat presidential ballot in Ukraine. For unexpectedly, events in Ukraine – a country once known as “little Russia”, and still considered a “little brother” by most Russians – have led many Russians to think harder about recent changes in their own country. For the past several years, the increasing authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin’s government, the restrictions on the media, the pressure on independent political organisations, the active anti-Western propaganda on state-controlled television, have all somehow slipped under the radar. No one abroad much noticed, and most Russians considered them unimportant compared to the recent prosperity, made possible by the high price of oil.
Until now, the same kinds of changes attracted no more attention in Ukraine. In recent years, the thuggish administration of President Leonid Kuchma had murdered journalists, cracked down on independent media and interfered with political opponents – even, apparently, going so far as to poison the opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, with dioxin. All of this took place with the approval and apparent assistance of the Russian government, whose leaders assumed that another manipulated Ukrainian election, and the creation of another thuggish Ukrainian government, would attract little comment, in Ukraine or anywhere else.
But they assumed incorrectly. The massive demonstrations on the streets of Kiev, the international attention given to Ukraine’s blatantly rigged election, the visits from Javier Solana and Lech Walesa, all came as a complete shock to the Russian government, and to ordinary Russians as well. Officially and unofficially, Russians are blaming the West, largely because they cannot grasp that there might be any other explanation.
Although the “civic educators” I met were perhaps unusual in their virulence, the belief in the existence of a Western conspiracy to undermine Russia is now widespread, and not by accident: Russian media hint darkly at the “Western money” that is funding Chechen terrorism and Ukrainian demonstrators, and most Russians, still more than willing to think ill of the West, and still unable to understand how they are perceived in the countries on their borders, don’t disagree.
Although many pundits have also characterised the struggle in Kiev as one between East and West, or Russia and Europe, that is not how it appeared to the protesters in Kiev. Most seem to have believed that they were fighting not for some geopolitical idea of the “West”, but for the independence of their own country. Vladimir Putin’s ham-fisted support for “his” candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, offended many. The blackened skin of Yushchenko, evidence of the dioxin poisoning, frightened others.
Ukrainian businessmen looked hard at what has happened to Russian entrepreneurs who grow too independent from the Kremlin – harassment and prison – and decided that they wanted a different system. When Ukrainian media actually began conducting independent broadcasts, when the Ukrainian foreign ministry announced it was backing Yushchenko, when a part of the Ukrainian secret services leaked a tape of Yanukovich advisers discussing how to rig the election, ordinary Ukrainians decided to join in too.
But there are Russians who understand what happened in Kiev, Russians who no longer believe their government’s propaganda, Russians who understand that this really was a popular movement, and not a Western conspiracy. It is precisely those Russians whom the Putin administration now fears the most. If Yushchenko really does emerge victorious, his election will have set an example that others will inevitably try to follow. Ukraine, in the minds of Russians, is not a tiny country with an odd language like Latvia or Lithuania. Nor is it a decidedly “foreign” country like Poland.
Ukraine is big, it is close, and it is ethnically, historically and linguistically close to Russia: If it happened there, it could happen here too. Whatever the result, expect this Ukrainian election to be followed by renewed surveillance of Russia’s tiny democratic movement, increased control of the media, and even louder anti-Western rhetoric. And – in spite of all that – expect at least a handful of Russians to feel inspired.