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Putin’s Black Eye and Yanukovych’s Beauty Sleep

Regardless of how the current post-election protests in Russia turn out, the many thousands of ordinary Russians who took to the streets to demand their rights deserve three big cheers. Their courageous behavior has dispelled a few myths about Russia and sent a powerful signal to all post-Soviet dictators.

Big Cheer No. 1: The mostly young and middle-class demonstrators have effectively squashed the regnant view of Russians as having a culturally coded predisposition to quiescence and a strong hand. Obviously, many Russians are authoritarian. Just as obviously, many are not. Some are conservative; some are liberal. Some are religious; some are secular. Here’s the shocking news: Russians are like everybody else. Naturally, they want peace and quiet. Who wouldn’t, given Russia’s turbulent history? Naturally, they want to live well. Who are we to tell them they shouldn’t? But, just as naturally, they want to be treated as human beings, and not as chattel. Why should that surprise anyone? If colored revolutions were possible in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, then why not in Russia?

Big Cheer No. 2: The demonstrators have also delivered a mega black eye to Russia’s “man in black”—Vladimir Putin. (The nickname comes from my colleague at Columbia University, Catharine Nepomnyashchy.) The percentage of Russians expressing confidence in him had already dropped from the low 70s in 2010 to the high 50s today, but the spectacle of thousands of Russians chanting “Russia without Putin” across the country clearly suggests that this may be, as Vladimir Kara-Murza puts it, the “beginning of the end” for the black-belt dictator in the Kremlin. And even if it’s not, even if Putin bounces back and manages to hold on to power for a few more years, the Putin mystique has been shattered, once and for all. There’s just no denying that a dictator with a black eye looks ridiculous.

Big Cheer No. 3: These two accomplishments would be enough for the history books, but the Russian demonstrators have also struck a big blow for democracy in the non-Russian states. Putin’s Russia was always the model for would-be dictators in the “near abroad.” The place looked stable and strong, and the dictator seemed to be firmly in control. Well, now that those impressions have been rendered delusional, Putin Russia looks like a regime that’s set to join what the Soviet used to call the “garbage heap of history.” Some model, that.

So what’s a non-Russian dictator to do? The Central Asians are likely to scramble and insist that their authoritarianism is rooted in the “ancient” traditions of their nations. That may work for a while, but Central Asians—being human beings with a desire for dignity, after all—are unlikely to buy that line for long. Belarus’s embattled Aleksandr Lukashenko has no such traditions to point to and will be especially vulnerable to his growing numbers of critics at home and abroad. A hockey player, he can be expected to start swinging wildly with his stick, eventually losing his balance and falling on his backside.

And what about Viktor Yanukovych? No more beauty sleep for Ukraine’s first, and last, sultan. Putin’s current travails are a nightmare for Viktor and the Regionnaires. After all, Putin’s Russia wasn’t just their theoretical model. It was the regime that provided the rationale for their anti-Ukrainian policies internally and their pro-Russian policies externally. Yanukovych could not have appointed a Russian supremacist as minister of education were it not for Putin’s hostility to Ukrainian identity. Yanukovych could not have thumbed his nose at NATO, ceded Sevastopol to Moscow, and imprisoned Ukraine’s female version of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were it not for his belief that Putin’s Russia was Ukraine’s “elder brother.”

Putin’s Russia also provided Yanukovych and the Regionnaires with hope. If the “thieves and crooks” to the east could get away with murder, then why shouldn’t their counterparts in Ukraine? If a corrupt dictatorship could hold on to power in Putin’s Russia, then why not in Little Russia? By the same token, if even Putin’s big-time mobsters are under assault, then Yanukovych’s small-time Regionnaire thugs, who can now say good-bye to winning next year’s parliamentary elections without massive fraud, had better start packing their bags.

The excellent Luhansk-based analyst Konstantin Skorkin puts it well: “We are witnessing the smashing of the Putin model; its life span, like that of any regime based on repressing civil society, is proving to be limited. Let’s hope that our power holders are smart enough to turn away from this destructive path … and that all of us have enough strength and perseverance to defend our freedom.”

So, a very big spasibo to Russia’s anti-Putin demonstrators, who have banged another—very big—nail into Yanukovych and the Regionnaires’ political coffin. If the Ukrainian president follows Skorkin’s advice, he’ll try to hang on to dear life in the only way possible: by embracing democracy and rejecting supremacism.

Or, to put it in terms Yanukovych is more likely to understand: Mister President, let Tymoshenko be an ex-con like yourself and just sock Tabachnik in the nose.

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