Ukraine protesters look anxiously toward Moscow

Many fear Putin may try to influence events, hope for protests in Red Square

The World

December 10, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIEV, Ukraine - The demonstrators who packed Independence Square here night after night rooted for more than just the capitulation of Ukraine's government.

More quietly, many said they hoped that similar mass protests would one day fill Moscow's Red Square.

"Sooner or later the Russian people will understand that they also have the right to be independent," said dentist Yuri Lvov, 54, as he stood with his daughter and thousands of others outside parliament. "And what is happening in Ukraine might happen in Russia."

During the first days of the crisis here, opposition leaders feared that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin would send military units or special forces to support his ally, Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma.

The disputed election Nov. 21 pitted opposition leader Viktor A. Yushchenko against Kuchma's choice as successor, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovych.

"Putin, Don't Become a Terrorist," pleaded a poster on a blockaded government building. Others were more defiant. "Ukraine is not Chechnya," declared a hand-lettered sign.

Russian troops never arrived, and a date has been set for a runoff. But many here still fear that Moscow might try to influence events through more subtle means, including encouraging a separatist movement in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

"Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency in Russia to follow neo-imperialism," said Hennaidy Udovenko, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's human rights committee.

By rejecting the fraudulent results in the November election, millions of Ukrainians sought to rid themselves of a regime they regard as a relic of the Soviet system. Analysts say the autocrats in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Kazakhstan might be the next targets of street protests.

But the question on many people's minds is whether this craving for political change could spread to Moscow.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of the Russian parliament and one of the democratic opposition's most prominent spokesmen, said the Kremlin is likely to face large-scale resistance to its efforts to end direct election of Russia's 89 governors and regional presidents.

"I would very much like to see a similar tent camp on Okhotny Ryad," a park by the Kremlin, said Sergei Dorenko, a Moscow radio talk show host, addressing cheering protesters in Kiev's Independence Square. "And I would like to see Putin being driven in a cage along Moscow streets. When it happens, will you lend us your Kuchma, so that he could join Putin?"

But many analysts say Putin's foes are weak, divided and demoralized. It is the Russian president who has put his foes in a box, they say.

"We can be proud of our Ukrainian neighbors," said Irina Yasina, a member of Committee 2008: Free Choice, a Russian liberal opposition group co-founded by chess master Garry Kasparov. "And we are very jealous of this situation." But she said she could not envision mass protests in the Russian capital.

"Could it happen in Russia someday? Yes," said Michael A. McFaul, a political scientist with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "Is it something that will happen sometime soon? I would say no.

"The Ukrainian political regime under Kuchma is more pluralistic and democratic than what you have in Russia today," McFaul said. "There were more checks on corruption and abuse of power in Ukraine."

But Putin's position is far stronger than Kuchma's, he added. During his nearly five years as president, Putin has moved to consolidate power by strengthening Russia's security services, while weakening parliament and regional governments.

Voices of dissent have all but disappeared from national television news shows, which most nights resemble Putin infomercials. Newspaper editors who have questioned Putin's policies have been dismissed. Politicians who opposed him have been tossed off of ballots.

Most important, perhaps, Putin is a genuinely popular leader. Many Russians - undoubtedly influenced by glowing media coverage - credit their president with restoring order after the political, economic and social chaos of the 1990s.

Kuchma, on the other hand, has seen power slip from his hands. He's lost the loyalty of some police and army units, and faces boisterous opposition in parliament. Before the election, he was unable to yank an opposition television network off the air. And he could not prevent members of Ukraine's business elite from bankrolling the opposition.

Kuchma also faces a host of think tanks, youth organizations, small-business associations, independent trade unions and human rights groups. Most have been financed by Western sources, including George Soros' Open Society Foundation, the Washington-based Freedom House and the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy.

In Russia, McFaul said, civic and rights groups tend to be small, politically inactive and dominated by an older generation of dissidents.

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