MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin’s regime is warning Russians that their budding “Snow Revolution” will be as big a mistake as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004. But, while the similarities between these two popular movements are palpable, their differences are essential, so comparing them might help the Russian opposition to avoid some mistakes.
Like the Snow Revolution, the Orange Revolution was a broad middle-class reaction against corruption and the absence of the rule of law. In contrast to the Arab Spring, the Orange Revolution was entirely peaceful, as the Snow Revolution has been, and neither was triggered by economic or social crisis. In 2004, the Ukrainian economy grew faster than ever, by 12%, and Russia’s GDP increased last year by a respectable 4.3%.
But there are also significant differences. Ukraine has a big ethnic divide between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. The Ukrainian opposition was well entrenched in the parliament and media, rendering it part of the old system.
The outstanding achievement of the Orange Revolution was political and civil freedom. But its ultimate flaw was a nearly complete political stalemate, which led to even worse corruption and authoritarianism. Having been in Ukraine during and after the Orange Revolution, and having just spent time in Moscow, some pitfalls facing the Snow Revolution seem evident to me.
The Orange Revolution was peaceful because a sufficiently large number of people took to the streets. The Russian opposition has already absorbed that insight, minimizing the risk of violence.
But it might have been a mistake in 2004 to occupy the center of Kyiv and pursue persistent demonstrations that forced a quick resolution of the crisis, because it prompted a flawed compromise with the old regime. The sudden relief caused dangerous euphoria and hubris among the Orange revolutionaries.
For this reason, the Russian opposition is probably being sensible by holding large demonstrations from time to time, showing the regime its strength but not forcing an instant solution. Indeed, the sudden resolution of the Orange Revolution led to the adoption of a dysfunctional constitution with a confusing and unwieldy division of powers. It looked like a trap set by the old regime’s operators.
There is no reason for anybody to repeat such a mistake. A constitution requires serious consideration. The old regime’s adherents can more easily trick the newcomers into dangerous compromises if the process is exceedingly fast.
The other major shortcoming was that the leader of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, turned out to be a feckless and irresponsible president. Initially, he traveled the world for months to celebrate his victory, ignoring the chaos back home. Then he began vetoing virtually all decisions by the government, causing a political stalemate, and, toward the end of his presidency, tacitly joined with the old guard (now back in power) against then-Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko (whose party, to its credit, had voted against the constitution).
But, while Yushchenko serves as a warning to Russians not to elect an accidental president with excessive powers, an underlying cause of the Orange government’s breakdown was that most of its ministers (Yushchenko appointees) were defectors from the old regime. Most had never opposed its corruption, and the prominent businessmen who funded the Orange Revolution expected to profit handsomely from their political investments. As a result, there was no cleansing of the old cadres, and corruption declined only temporarily.
By contrast, Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” of 2003 carried out a wholesale change of senior officials, bringing in young and well-educated leaders with Western educations. Russia needs to follow the example of Georgia (and Estonia) by promoting a new generation of young, skilled, and untainted professionals.
The Orange Revolution’s greatest policy mistake was its early focus on “re-privatization” – the renationalization and resale of enterprises that had been privatized at exceedingly low prices. The Orange government spent its first half-year discussing which enterprises should be reprivatized and how. Meanwhile production slowed every month, as uncertainty about property rights scared businessmen. In the end, only one big metallurgical enterprise, Krivoryzhstal, was reprivatized; by then, the Orange coalition had already fallen apart.
For Russian politicians, re-privatization is a great political temptation. Indeed, all three opposition parties in the Duma (parliament) call for far-reaching renationalization, though it would be politically and economically devastating. Instead, a new democratic government could call for higher property taxation and prosecution of corrupt officials. In comparison with Ukraine, Russia has quite decent legislation, and its economic courts enjoy some respect.
The ultimate reason to expect a more successful democratic breakthrough in Russia today than in Ukraine in 2004 is that Russia is so much richer and more developed than Ukraine, with per capita GDP (at current exchange rates) four times higher. As modernization theorists like Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington would have noted, Russia is simply too wealthy, well-educated, and open to be so authoritarian. According to the NGO Freedom House, only seven small oil-exporting states and Singapore are wealthier than Russia and still authoritarian.
Russia should draw four major lessons from the Orange Revolution as its own Snow Revolution proceeds. First, the new democrats must avoid being tricked into a dysfunctional compromise with the old regime. Second, leaders are critical to a sustainable democratic breakthrough, and this choice will be as vital as it is difficult. Third, Russia needs a cleansing of corrupt officials, and it should draw from its wealth of young and well-trained talent. Finally, re-privatization is a poison pill that must be avoided.
The Orange Revolution was no mistake, but a just cause is no guarantee of victory. Russia’s Snow revolutionaries must make sure that the good fight is also a smart fight.