Two Protests, One Sign of Hope

And now, alert readers, it is time for a test: Here are two demonstrations, representing two political movements, that took place recently in two neighboring countries. For which country should fans of “democratization” cheer loudest?

Example No. 1: This demonstration took place in Moscow on Saturday. More precisely, it took place in Pushkin Square, legendary site of Soviet-era dissident protests. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people came to show their opposition to the Kremlin — and they were greeted by some 9,000 club-wielding riot police officers. About 200 people were arrested, including Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who was described in the Russian newspaper Pravda as “a political pawn who has sold his soul to the traitors who plot Russia’s demise.” Later, Kasparov was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Example No. 2: This demonstration began in Kiev some days ago and continues. More precisely, it is taking place in the Maidan, also called Independence Square, the legendary site of the Orange Revolution protests of 2004. The organizers are the anti-Orange, pro-Russian “Party of the Provinces.” Their goal is to prevent Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko from calling new elections. At their zenith last week, the protests attracted between 35,000 and 70,000 people, depending on whose estimate you prefer. They were not attacked by riot police. No one has been arrested.

Now, there are some inherent difficulties in judging the merits of these demonstrations, particularly if you are looking, as we Americans love to do, for good guys and bad guys. For it is true that the Russian demonstrators are, in their own words, fighting for freedom of speech, the press and association; that they oppose President Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism; and that they deplore his virtual elimination of political opposition. It is true that there are worldly, well-connected, well-known English-speakers in their ranks. It is also true that they enjoy very little popular support, in part because the Russian media portray them, as the newspaper Izvestia did, as a tiny group of malcontents, probably paid from abroad, who deliberately provoked a fight with the peaceful authorities.

The Kiev demonstrators, by contrast, oppose the Westernization of their country, dislike the idea of Ukraine growing closer to NATO and the European Union, and generally wish for a return to the days when their country was a client state of Russia. Most of their supporters are provincial, not so well connected and probably don’t speak English. There are no world chess champions among them. Nevertheless, they do enjoy an important measure of popular support: Although it does seem that their demonstration isn’t nearly as much fun as the Orange Revolution was — one observer described the demonstrators as “silent, poorly-dressed throngs of mostly younger men shuffling along Hrushevsky Street under blue flags” — their leader, Viktor Yanukovych, is in fact the elected prime minister of his country, and they did vote for him in democratic elections.

It’s a tough choice, I know: Intuitively, one wants to see brighter prospects for democracy in Russia. The Russian opposition is brave, its cause is admirable, and its members and methods are familiar. Unfortunately, the opposition’s protest is not evidence of democratization in Russia but rather of its absence. The truth is that the Russian authorities have, through censorship, intimidation and even murder, largely eliminated genuine political debate in their country. As the police reaction to Saturday’s demonstration in Moscow well illustrates, even the tiny number of people who want to maintain some kind of public presence outside the mainstream must now be prepared to encounter violence.

By contrast, Ukraine, though frequently condemned as a disorganized political basket case, does slowly seem to be transforming itself into a country where people can at least choose from two clear political options, after a more-or-less open debate. President Yushchenko’s decision to call for new elections is indeed controversial. However, it is being examined by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court, and all sides have agreed to abide by the court’s conclusions. Prime Minister Yanukovych’s call for demonstrations in Independence Square was a stunt. However, the stunt was legal, nonviolent and one that he has every right to try.

To put it crudely, overly simply and in language everyone can understand: Ukraine, for all of its multiple faults, is a free country in which anti-democratic forces can demonstrate. Russia remains an authoritarian country in which democratic forces are beaten up and arrested.

Myself, I wish the Russians luck — but at the moment, I’m cheering loudest for Ukraine.

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