Will Ukraine's Protests Swallow Putin, Too?

Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, will be watching event unfold in Ukraine and take steps to make sure the pattern isn't repeated.
Now that Ukraine's protesters have forced concessions from the government, can Russia's Putin hold on to power? Photographer: Sergei Karpukhin/AFP/Getty Images

Two events that took place on Friday highlighted the enormous difference between Ukraine and Russia, two large, neighboring, corrupt, misgoverned East European nations whose peoples understand each other's language and share cultural references.

In Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych conceded defeat at the hands of protesters who had held the center of the capital for three months. After all-night talks with parliamentary opposition leaders, EU and Russian mediators, he said he would call an early presidential election in December 2014, but before that, the constitution would be amended to curb the president's powers and move toward a parliamentary republic. At the same time in Moscow, a court found eight people guilty of "taking part in mass disturbances" and violence against riot police in May 2012. The verdict, which carries prison sentences of as long as six years, sealed Russian President Vladimir Putin's victory over the protesters who accused him and his allies of rigging elections in 2011 and 2012.

Russians, both Putin supporters and opponents, will now grapple with the question of how relevant the Ukrainian example is to them.

Putin's and Yanukovych's regimes have a lot in common. Both presidents run their countries through party machines that have fostered adverse selection among local officials. In both countries, presidential cronies have grown fat on state contracts. In both countries, government officials live in ostentatious luxury that sharply contrasts with most people's modest existence. Holding on to private property in both countries is a matter of staying on good terms with bureaucrats, courts are a travesty and cops are to be feared, not called on for help. What is different is the level of resistance to all this in the two societies.

While Muscovites' failed "snow revolution" of two years ago was a chain of discrete peaceful rallies with only a few minor episodes of violence and little support in the Russian hinterland, Ukraine's protests swelled and spread geographically as the authorities attempted to put them down. The core of the protesters, backed by reinforcements from fiercely nationalist western Ukraine, never left Independence Square in central Kiev, erecting a competently governed tent city and holding it against repeated riot police attacks. They also turned out to be willing to take up crude weapons like baseball bats and shovel handles, and then handguns and hunting rifles, to defend themselves and, at times, counterattack. They seized government buildings and braved tear gas, water cannons in sub-freezing weather and, finally, bullets that killed dozens of people in their midst.

Because the Russian protest, with its small base in Moscow's educated, well-to-do middle class, was timid and gentle, while the Ukrainian one was forceful and explosive, they have yielded strikingly different results. Putin was allowed to strengthen his hold on power with repressive laws and ubiquitous, in-your-face propaganda, and the eight protesters' sentences now seem part of the natural order of things. Yanukovych was repeatedly forced to retreat and make concessions, and even his promises of an early election and constitutional reform are not enough for many protesters. They now want him to step down immediately and then to stand trial for the bloodshed.

Though the Ukrainian example is uplifting, and a source of envy to many of those who rallied in vain against Putin two years ago, it may still turn into a powerful deterrent to Russian protest. A lot depends on how Ukrainians handle the aftermath of their apparent victory. Various opposition factions, which have little in common ideologically apart from their hatred of Yanukovych, will have to resist the temptation to seek revenge. That could only lead to more chaos in a country that came so close to civil war. Besides, cruel reprisals against Yanukovych and his cronies, which many Ukrainians crave, even blocking roads to airports to prevent officials' families from fleeing the country, would make it that much more difficult for any Russian protesters to succeed: Their enemies will fight more fiercely if they don't expect any quarter in case of defeat.

New Ukrainian leaders -- probably still the heads of the parliamentary opposition, Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok -- will need to achieve a working truce with politicians in the Russia-leaning southeastern part of the country and start the painstaking work of building government institutions from scratch and consolidating a parliamentary system that will make another dictatorship impossible.

They will have to do it in an abysmal economic situation. Standard & Poor's has just downgraded Ukraine's debt to CCC, two levels above default grade. Inability to service public debt is a real possibility for a country that hasn't seen steady economic growth for two years and, in 2013, had a current account deficit of 8.9 percent of gross domestic product. Any new government will have to devalue the currency and drastically cut public spending, which ballooned to 49.5 percent of GDP under Yanukovych. Keeping public support throughout all this will be more difficult than ever: Ordinary people, still flush with their victory over the regime, don't feel they owe politicians any thanks for what they have achieved at a bloody price.

At every step, Putin's propaganda machine will try to seize on the new Ukrainian leaders' smallest mistakes and blow them up for Russians to see that they shouldn't go down the same path. While he still has the benefit of an economy buffered by vast oil resources, Putin will watch with anxiety how Ukrainians manage. He will need all his considerable cunning to make sure his own people don't follow in their footsteps once the economy falters.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.