The escalation of events in Ukraine has highlighted the potential for similar types of political demonstrations in Russia, as well as a radicalization of Russia’s middle class.
The Maidan events in Kiev took a violent turn on Jan. 22. Photo: AP
All eyes of revolution watchers these days are on Kiev, where a political crisis is spiraling into freefall as security forces and grassroots opposition are locked in a brutal struggle that claimed its first casualties this week. What has gone below the public radar that this is not the first political standoff of this kind in the post-Soviet space in recent years: Belarus was also shaken by a string of protests in 2010-2011, and Russia in 2011-2012. Although the three political crises had notable differences, they share similar causes and constitute a single trend, a sort of “Slavic Spring” not unlike the recent “Arab Spring” string of upheavals.
If the “Slavic Spring” is getting less of the spotlight, it is because the European turmoil is more drawn-out and less successful than the conflict in the Maghreb and the Middle East. But as events in Ukraine progress, it becomes clearer that the trend is the same, and its ramifications – the rise of radical sentiment and virulent nationalism – can be disastrous.
Protests in Belarus and Russia followed a nearly identical template. Reelection of a long-standing leader among fraud allegations triggered unexpected protests, bringing tens of thousands to the streets. While mostly peaceful, the protests were marked by spates of violence (the attack on the presidential administration in Minsk and Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square riots, both of which were blamed by opposition speakers on provocateurs), which led the authorities to ignore the demands of the protesters while mounting legal and police pressure on them, persecuting activists and passing numerous laws that could be used for restriction of public protest.
The protests in Ukraine were triggered not by elections, but by actions of the incumbent leadership (President Viktor Yanukovych choosing a geopolitical alliance with Russia, not EU). However, it has followed a similar scenario since November, with mass peaceful protests that failed to sway the government, which then passed draconian laws curbing the public’s right to protest. The scenario, however, underwent a radical rewrite when a powerful and battle-ready force of ultranationalists began clashing with Berkut riot police this week, leading to actual bloodshed with dozens of injured and reports of crippled policemen and slain activists.
In all three cases, the conflict is between a strongman, if not necessarily authoritarian, government and the educated, economically independent and relatively well-off urbanites that are the closest thing that the three post-Soviet countries have to a middle class (the protesters do not necessarily qualify for middle class by Western standards of income, but perceive of themselves as such). Causes of dissent include economic stagnation, lack of opportunities for social advancement, shrinking political freedoms, corruption and general fatigue in the incumbent leadership. In a nutshell, it is a conflict between a conservative nanny state and self-described “Westerners” who subscribe to somewhat romanticized liberal values.
This situation has distinct similarities to the “Arab Spring,” which was driven by passionate youth disgruntled by lack of opportunities in countries with entrenched authoritarian governments and limited social mobility. However, there are notable differences:
1) Demographics: The social base of the Arab uprising was much broader than that of the “Slavic Spring,” not in the least because the youth population of the Arab world is significantly higher than in the ageing post-Soviet Eastern European countries. Moreover, the “middle class,” which is the driving force of the European protests, is capped by most studies at 25-30 percent in Russia and is still less in Belarus, a paternalist state-dominated economy. The majority of the population endorses their leaders, if with a growing lack of enthusiasm. The situation is different in Ukraine, where the standoff has strong nationalist tones, reflecting the country’s long-running rift between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking eastern provinces – Yanukovych’s home turf – and the pro-European, nationalist West.
2) Conflict readiness: The relatively poor participants of the “Arab Spring” were better ready for a direct, possibly violent standoff than the Western-minded middle class in Ukraine and Russia, still relatively well-off and therefore reluctant to risk violence. The Arab protests have often resulted in bloodshed (most notably in Syria and Libya, but also in Egypt and Bahrain), but protest in Moscow, Minsk and, until lately, Kiev, was largely peaceful.
The regimes hit by the “Slavic Spring” have a valid reason to uphold the status quo, given their wide public backing, and so far, they have managed to contain dissent without resorting to compromise. However, protesters, while comprising a minority, still constitute a significant part of the respective populations of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, and failure to address their concerns leads to increasing tension in society.
While possible scenarios are many, one effect of the “Slavic Spring” – the rise of aggressive nationalism – is not hypothetical anymore, at least in the case of Ukraine. Ethnic tensions are the highest in Ukraine, which has made it most likely to develop a militant far-right community ready for a fight, but the trend can spread to its neighbors.
Russia has been long haunted by the spirit of militant nationalism, which has already shown its teeth during the xenophobic riots on Moscow’s Manezh Square in 2010. The far right movement in Belarus has kept a lower profile, but is also present and stands a chance of capitalizing on the ongoing “national awakening” in the country. Russian and Belarusian nationalists have both been accused of working with the authorities, but calls for a tactical alliance with the “middle class” protest are already being voiced by right-wing ideologues.
The development is sensible from a political standpoint: When peaceful protest proved ineffective, violence begins to look like an attractive option, much as it did during the “Arab Spring,” which strengthened radicals – though of the Islamist, not nationalist, variety. But long-term repercussions of the far right’s rise to prominence in the former Soviet republics on the strength of anti-government protests are yet to be understood – and they are unlikely to be good news, if the rise of radical Islam facilitated by the “Arab Spring” is any indication.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.