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Applebaum Compares Moscow & Kiev Demonstrations

Columnist Anne Applebaum asks which country democracy supporters should cheer for: Russia or Ukraine?

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.