Analysis: Russia Needs Its Own 'Kiev Moment'

It didn't take long. It was all so predictable. It was if it had been scripted. 

No sooner had the statues of Lenin been toppled and the gates of Viktor Yanukovych's vanity palace opened to the public, the denunciations of the Ukrainian opposition had begun.

President Putin has described the Euro Maidan protests as the work of "terrorists" and "Nazis". Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, formerly a senior figure in the Soviet Union's nomenklatura, said "illegal extremist groups are refusing to disarm and in fact are taking Kiev under their control with the connivance of opposition leaders". Another Putin ally, the Chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee described the protests as "pitiful".

As recent history in Syria would prove, Vladimir Putin isn't a supporter of democracy or dissent – but rather of whichever autocratic ruler had tipped him the nod and lent credence to his vision of himself as Russia's great, post-Soviet saviour.

Indeed, the last time a former Soviet Union state broke so decisively with Putin's way of doing things was the 2004 Rose Revolution in Georgia which swept away corrupt President Eduard Shevardnadze and installed a pro-Western government. Putin was quick to outline his wishes to hang the democratically-elected President Saakashvili "by the balls" and, in 2008, launched an armed incursion into Georgian territory that stopped just sort of the country's capital city Tbilisi. Twenty percent of the country remains under Russian occupation to this day.

It is Putin's behaviour at home that truly justifies the description of him as a "extremist", however.

Let's take LGBT rights for one.  Rather than follow the general trend towards tolerance towards adopted by every other European country on the issue, Putin has instead signed into law a bill outlawing "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" that bans gay pride marches and punishes the defence of gay rights with fines of up to 50,000 roubles (£850).

Another example might be his treatment of political opponents. Picking just a few examples is difficult. One might start with Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in the stairwell of her apartment building after publishing several books critical of the brutal pursuit of the war in Chechnya. 

Another might be the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was incarcerated for years on trumped up charges after he came out in opposition to the Putin government. Or we could discuss the case of accountant and anti-corruption campaigner Sergei Magnitsky who was thrown in the gulag, beaten daily and denied medical treatment that would have saved his life.

Putin and Lavrov have been keen to highlight examples of the small number of far-right activists that injected themselves into the midst of the EuroMaidan protests in Kiev. They have been rather less keen to discuss the rise of the far-right at home. In recent years, violence against "foreigners" has spiralled to a point that the British Foreign Office has been forced to issue formal travel advice warning travellers of "Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent to take extra care... [and that] attacks tend to increase around 20 April, the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday".

The concept of a free press is an alien one in Putin's Russia. According to the respected human rights watchdog Freedom House, "at least 19 journalists have been killed since Putin came to power, including three in 2009, and in no cases have the organizers of the murders been prosecuted". All national television stations are controlled by government-owned firms, with unflattering reports about Putin or other senior government figures kept off the air. 

Aside for his dogged support for Yanukovych in Ukraine, Putin's outright opposition to the growth of Western influence on Russia's margins has seen him intimidate Armenia out of signing up the the Eastern Partnership by threatening to increase arms sales to their enemy Azerbaijan, introduce trade embargoes designed to bring about economic hardship in Moldova and seed ethnic unrest in Gaugazia with the aim of undermining the viability of the Moldovan state. 

Further afield, Putin's position on Syria – which has effectively been to buttress in President Assad despite the death toll having now topped 140,000 – has heralded one of the most shameful episodes in recent foreign policy history. Seemingly unwilling to challenge Putin, many world leaders have sat on the sidelines as Putin has mired the United Nations' decision-making processes with threats of vetoes and promises to arm Assad's troops.

The last hundred years of Russia's history have been tragic ones. First battered and debased by a communist dictatorship, then cast into lawless post-Soviet chaos and now held ransom by the vain demagogue Putin. 

Before so indignantly holding forth about "extremism", "intolerance" and "aggression", Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov ought to look a little closer to home. 

What has happened over the last three months at EuroMaidan in Ukraine is precisely the kind of pro-democracy uprising Putin and his allies fear - a true people-led movement uniting disparate parts of society in pursuit of a better kind of politics free from corruption and cronyism.  

The people of Russia – an educated, civilised state whose contributions to literature, science and the arts are legion – deserve better than Vladimir Putin and his crooked cabal. Indeed, they deserve a EuroMaidan of their own.

Daniel Hamilton is a freelance writer and expert in the politics of Eastern Europe and Russia. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielRHamilton


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