Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posts dozens of tweets a day, reacting to pretty much all major news stories. But he has been uncharacteristically silent on the colossal anti-government protests which have been rocking the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a landmark trade agreement with the EU.
Over the past few weeks Navalny retweeted some photos of the rallies and cartoons mocking Yanukovych, in a clear show of sympathy for the protesters. But I’ve never heard him utter a word of support or simply make a comment on the drama unfolding in Ukraine, Russia’s closest and most important neighbour.
He didn’t even break his silence when Russia gave Ukraine a $15bn loan and offered a huge discount on imported gas as a reward for rejecting European integration (in essence, not formally). Normally, he is quite vocal about Putin’s most extravagant spending projects.
This is an illustration of the Russian opposition’s ambivalence towards Ukraine.
In 2012, Navalny had a rather unpleasant experience: While being interviewed by a Ukrainian TV channel, he accidentally made a comment which sent waves of outrage in Kiev and the nationalistic western regions of the country. He said[Ru] that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.
It was done in good faith, without imperialist undertones, by a person who – in his own words – is ethnically “more Ukrainian than Russian”, with his family hailing from Chernobyl. Although he was insensitive to Ukrainians nationalist feelings, Navalny said what millions of people take for granted, not just in Russia, but in Ukraine itself. An opinion poll [Ru] conducted by Kiev’s Research & Branding Group showed that half of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia, while 28 percent have close relatives living across the eastern border. Around 60 percent of participants in that poll said they don’t regard Russia as a foreign country.
But for weeks after his gaffe Navalny was badly ostracised by the Ukrainian media which branded him as an unreformed Russian imperialist who rejects the country’s independence. He has refrained from commenting on Ukraine ever since.
The population of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south-eastern region is 25 million out of the country’s total of 46 million.
Traversing Ukraine from west to east, one can’t help noticing how the country gradually blends into Russia. The architecture transforms from quaint Central European into austere Soviet with Lenin statues in central squares, and people switching languages from Ukrainian to Russian. Large industrial cities at the far east of the country, such as Kharkiv and Donetsk, are hardly distinguishable from their equivalents across the Russian border.
The border itself never existed before Ukraine became independent in 1991, not even centuries ago. It was created in 1991, creating a major headache and a good number of outright tragedies for separated families.
The population of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south-eastern region is 25 million out of the country’s total of 46 million. These people are wary of the Kiev protests, largely because of their anti-Russian and occasionally xenophobic rhetoric. One of three main opposition leaders, Oleh Tiahnibok of the far-right Svoboda party, is known for glorifying WWII Ukrainian guerrilla fighters who – in his words – fought against “Russians, Jewry and other crap”.
In Ukraine’s second largest city and former capital – Kharkiv, around 80 percent of the population favours integration with Russia in some shape or form, while around 20 percent support fully-fledged unification with Russia, say local pollsters.
At the same time, EU integration is not necessarily anathema for east Ukrainians: around a third of them support it, which contributes to the above 50 percent nationwide support for the plan.
The main problem for these people is that they are facing a false dilemma – EU or Russia. One party responsible for creating this is Vladimir Putin’s isolationist and anti-Western regime, which is trying to form an Eurasian alternative to the EU – the Customs Union. But the West also helps to reinforce this dilemma by employing a “clash of civilisations” rhetoric as in the case of this tweet by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, posted after an attempt by the authorities to disperse the Kiev protesters:
Eurasia versus Europe in streets of Kiev tonight. Repression versus reform. Power versus people. pic.twitter.com/vSAVXZap5E
Now imagine Navalny’s cousins approaching him and saying: “Well, Alexei, we realise you stand for democracy and universal values, yet you belong to an alien Eurasian civilisation and from now we should part our ways.”
In reality, such people reject the Kiev protests.
The reason why both eastern Ukrainians and pro-democracy Russians, such as Navalny, find themselves in the crossfire is the complete absence of a European perspective for Russian people. Their country looks so enormous and alien, while the perception of Russians in Europe is so fantasised and inadequate that the discussion of even a very distant possibility of a single union spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as envisaged by Charles de Gaulle, is taboo in EU’s political circles.
Instead – as pictures of EU’s foreign policy chief standing next to Tiahnibok testify – the West tolerates and supports even the most extreme nationalists, so long as they are anti-Russian.
The continuing alienation of Russians (as opposed to their leaders) by Europe will remain the source of multiple conflicts and impeded development for decades to come.
But it is the EU prospect alone which prevented Central European countries from slipping into a kind of populism that would have likely led to the emergence of modern, media-savvy, Putin-style versions of authoritarianism in the years of economic hardship that followed the “velvet revolutions” of the late 1980s.
The lack of such prospect drives Russians, who find themselves in a cultural and political limbo, into extreme cynicism. It is through this filter that they observe events in Ukraine. The Ukrainian crisis has been sympathetically reported by a small number of Russian media outlets, which remain independent from the government, such as Dozhd TV channel. But after the initial wave of enthusiasm, audience figures are plummeting – people are tired of Ukraine, so they switch to domestic news.
Russian democrats have been traditionally supportive of their neighbours’ fight for freedom. One of the largest demonstrations in the history of Moscow and Russia was staged in January 1991 to support Baltic states at the most critical point in their fight for independence. Democratic Russia peacefully released its satellite states, including Ukraine, after the collapse of Communism in 1991, although the “Yugoslav scenario” was very much on the table. The old Polish slogan “For our and your freedom” meant a great deal in the late 1980s and still resonates in Russia, but it hardly features in the Kiev protest. It explains why the Russian opposition didn’t stage any large-scale protests to support Ukraine this time.
The Russian edition of Newsweek once asked Polish independence hero Lech Walesa what he thought of the Russians in relation to Poles – aliens or relatives. He answered with his trademark working man’s pithiness: “Russians are same as us, but always unlucky with the government.”
The continuing alienation of Russians (as opposed to their leaders) by Europe will remain the source of multiple conflicts for decades to come.
Leonid Ragozin is a freelance Russian journalist. He is a co-author of Lonely Planet guides to Russia, Ukraine and Trans-Siberian Railway.
Follow him on Twitter: @ leonidragozin