Democracy Lab

Snow Blind

When Americans look at Russia, they see what they want to see. And that's dangerous.

Two of Russia's most famous dissidents are visiting the United States. I speak, of course, of Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, members of the feminist conceptual art group known as Pussy Riot who were recently released from jail by President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. media have been raving. "Pussy Riot gals stun Brooklyn crowd with powerful speech," blared the New York Post about the duo's appearance at a charity concert in New York this week. "Pussy Riot stole the show from Madonna" was the verdict from Time. They put in a bravado performance on The Colbert Report and even had the New Yorker gushing about their presumed artistic achievements. Pretty impressive.

There's just one problem. Most of the adoring coverage of the two Pussy Riot stars presumes that their protest is having an enormous impact on the political situation in their home country. If not, why are we (and Madonna) paying such inordinate attention to them?

In fact, though, there is little evidence that they have any sort of influence on Russian public opinion at all. Most Russians regard Pussy Riot with outright hostility. As one recent public opinion survey revealed, the number of Russians who view the prison sentence the two women received as either fair or too soft has actually grown in the two years since they went to jail: The figure is now 66 percent. (A reminder: Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were convicted on charges of "hooliganism" after performing an impromptu anti-Putin concert in a Moscow cathedral in 2012.)

But the overarching sentiment regarding Pussy Riot back home can probably be characterized more accurately as general indifference. The broader opposition movement in Russia has never embraced Pussy Riot -- perhaps because members of the group exult in their reputation as radical avant-gardists, a position that is scarcely calculated to gain much traction with the country's deeply conservative mainstream. (Tolokonnikova once had herself photographed having sex with her husband in a museum as part of an edgy protest against patriarchy, or something.)

Indeed, the remaining members of Pussy Riot have now expelled Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina from the group for sundry minor misdeeds, which means that the two women now represent the outer fringe of a fringe. A caption in a fine story by New Republic reporter Julia Ioffe, who shows how other Russian critics of Putin's regime regard the group as an irrelevant sideshow, makes the same point: "Pussy Riot, who galvanized Western outrage over Putin's repressive regime, evokes a more complicated response at home." Andrew Monaghan of the London think tank Chatham House, who tracks public opinion in Russia, puts it with rather less understatement: "My sense is that most Russians just don't give a damn."

The Pussy Riot episode is just one part of a much bigger recent history of a vast perception gap between Russia and the West. In the 1980s, Westerners went gaga over Mikhail Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, who, with her designer clothes and outspoken political opinions, seemed to embody the kind of more modern and cosmopolitan USSR her husband was trying to build. Meanwhile, her compatriots back home despised her, seeing in her highfalutin' airs just the sort of arrogance of privilege they'd come to expect from high-ranking communists. Soon enough, of course, Gorbachev himself fell victim to the same sort of disillusionment. The more Berliners and New Yorkers adored him for dismantling the Iron Curtain, the more Russians grew to detest him for dismantling the empire and presiding over a collapsing economy.

These days, many Westerners, appalled by Putin's authoritarian airs, find themselves almost instinctively rooting for the opposition. Western reporters covered the big anti-Putin protests of 2012 as if the president's fall from power was just a matter of days -- yet here he is, glibly presiding over the Olympics, and the protesters are nowhere to be seen. Not only that, his approval rating, now hovering at around 65 percent, would be the envy of just about any of his counterparts in the West.

By contrast, the most prominent opposition leader, corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, scores at 1 percent in most current opinion polls -- which, one should point out, is less than the usual margin of error. "We look at Russia and often want certain things to happen," notes Monaghan. "Navalny has presented himself very well to the West. He's undoubtedly a talented politician. But he's done much better over here than in Russia." As far as Russians themselves are concerned, Monaghan says, the real opposition in their country today is the Communist Party, which regularly garners about 20 percent in elections and opinion surveys and which, unlike the liberal protesters, has a solid organizational infrastructure across the country. This isn't to say that Navalny isn't completely irrelevant. It's just to point out that he's probably not as relevant as we think he is.

This is not an academic point. If you can't separate your biases from your analysis, your analyses will usually turn out to be wrong. One might argue that precisely this has been the case over the past few decades. In the 1990s, Westerners (and especially the Clinton administration) trumpeted Boris Yeltsin's success at leading Russia forward into a bright democratic future -- while ordinary Russians were experiencing an everyday existence marked by evaporating savings, rampant sleaze, chronically unpaid salaries, triumphant Chechen rebels, mafia shootouts, and patently unfair privatizations that left just seven men controlling most of the country's industrial assets. The architect of that privatization effort, Anatoly Chubais, was hailed by Washingtonians as a young, tech-savvy genius (he brought a laptop to meetings!), while most Russians saw him as the nauseating epitome of a corrupt new system that didn't even trouble to conceal its injustices. Were the Russians wrong? Perhaps. But they had very good reasons for believing what they did.

The post-Yeltsin era has brought more of the same. Americans were appalled when Putin described the collapse of the USSR as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. Russians applauded. In 2001, George W. Bush looked into Putin's eyes and saw exactly the kind of soul he hoped he would see there; he was later roundly disabused of this comforting notion. But that didn't stop the Obama administration from trying to build up President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's seemingly liberal protégé, as an alternative power center -- only to discover, to their own chagrin, that there wasn't anything independent about Medvedev to begin with.

For the record: I would very much like to see Russia become a democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens. I think that Russians deserve this. But the West isn't going to help them find their way there by indulging in wishful thinking. In some cases, indeed, such dreaming might even make things worse (for example, by allowing the Kremlin's reactionaries and their ilk to brand all democrats as pimps of the West). So maybe it's time to stop seeing in Russia what we want to see.

Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

How to Solve the Crisis in Ukraine

The conflict between Ukraine’s opposition and the president is escalating. But there’s room for a possible compromise.

Yesterday, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk gave a speech in parliament in which he warned his colleagues that the country may be on the brink of civil war. I think he's right to worry.

The situation in Ukraine threatens to veer out of control. The government clearly bears responsibility for the latest escalation in violence, which has seen several demonstrators shot dead on the streets of Kiev, the capital. But a growing number of opposition members now appear willing to resort to physical attacks as well (including hurling Molotov cocktails at the police). Anti-government protesters have seized government buildings in various cities around the country.  (The photo above shows members of the opposition gearing up for battle with the security forces.)

On Tuesday, the prime minister resigned, along with his entire government. But the fact that Kravchuk saw fit to make his remarks the day after demonstrates that their move doesn't seem to have done much to defuse the tension. Earlier, over the weekend, President Viktor Yanukovych -- the focus of the protesters' ire -- offered to include two of the main opposition leaders in his cabinet. But the positions he had in mind were insignificant ones, and no offer was made to the third opposition leader. The anti-government forces, correctly concluding that Yanukovych's gambit was just an attempt to split them, denounced it. The president has also pushed parliament, which is dominated by his own party, to rescind a recent package of draconian laws designed to make life hard for the opposition.

And now, today, Yanukovych has taken off work, pleading sick. Small wonder that many in the country are wondering whether his illness is real -- or just a maneuver to play for time.

Ukrainians are right to be furious at Yanukovych. He has openly and unashamedly used his office to enrich members of his family. He has persecuted and jailed (on dubious grounds) Yulia Tymoshekno, his most powerful rival in the 2010 election that brought him to power. And he has concentrated as much power as possible in his own hands by squeezing the press and eliminating some important reforms that earlier governments had made with the precise aim of preventing a return to Soviet-style authoritarianism. Of course, Soviet-style authoritarianism is just what Yanukovych wants.

In many respects, the cause that originally brought Ukrainians out into the streets -- the president's last-minute decision to back away from signing a package of agreements aimed to bring Ukraine into closer association with the European Union -- seems long forgotten. Many Ukrainians had hoped that aligning their country with Europe would strengthen efforts to build the rule of law, strengthen accountability, and fight endemic corruption. Instead Yanukovych suddenly declared his aim to steer Ukraine back into the orbit of Vladimir Putin's Russia (which had exerted massive economic and political pressure to just that end). Now, six weeks later, the protests have become less an expression of discontent over Ukraine's geopolitical choices than a full-scale referendum on Yanukovych's presidency.

It's easy to sympathize with the many Ukrainians who want to see the president go. But there's a problem: he was elected, in a 2010 election that was basically conceded to be free and fair. He received the votes of a little over half of the electorate, most of it located in the country's eastern (and largely Russian-speaking) half. No presidential election is scheduled for another year. Yanukovych accordingly has little incentive to negotiate away his own job just because a lot of demonstrators are telling him to. Indeed, right now he has every reason to hang until the bitterest of bitter ends.

This is the main reason why the current turmoil has little in common with the 2004 Orange Revolution, which started as a protest against blatant vote-rigging (and the near death-by-poisoning of then-opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko) during that year's presidential election. The beneficiary of those vote-rigging efforts was Yanukovych; the man who emerged victorious from the protest movement was Yushchenko, whose supporters successfully pushed for annulment of the dirty election and the scheduling of a fresh new one, which Yushchenko proceeded to win (also with just over half the votes, but that time from voters concentrated in the country's pro-European western and central regions).

Pushing Yanukovych out of office is thus hardly viable without a full-scale revolution -- and so far there is little indication that Yanukovych's core supporters in the East would be willing to go along. To be sure, some Euromaidan protesters have now taken to the streets in some cities in the East --- but I still see little evidence that their numbers approach anything like those in Kiev or other opposition strongholds. (It's the fact that anyone has been willing to come out in the East at all that has surprised observers.) Yet simply toppling the president a year before his term ends would surely set an ominous precedent for Ukrainian democracy. It seems highly unrealistic to expect that large number of eastern Ukrainians who backed Yanukovych in the 2010 election will take his expulsion lying down, no matter what sort of bad behavior their president has indulged in.

In this respect, an overwhelming victory for the opposition is more likely to create new problems and deepen divides -- not least because the opposition itself is deeply divided and fractured along myriad lines itself. (Remember, it has three leaders, not one, and each one of them wants to be the next president.) Meanwhile, though most members of the protest movement are sticking to their original policy of nonviolent resistance, signs of militancy are on the rise. (One of the scariest groups, the far-right Pravy Sektor, consists of nationalists who actually reject the goal of closer integration with Europe.) There is real potential for a downward spiral into violent anarchy, one that could ultimately drive many Ukrainians back into the iron embrace of Russia.

Luckily, though, there is a way out. Rather than insisting on Yanukovych's unconditional surrender, the opposition could unify around a different demand: transform Ukraine into a parliamentary republic. The main problem with today's Ukraine is a constitution that doesn't take into account the country's geographical and ideological diversity. The current constitution gives far-reaching powers to the president, thus invariably putting the head of state at odds with the prime minister and parliament. (And this was true even under pro-Western President Yushchenko, who spent most of his term in a destructive wrangle with his onetime political partner, Yulia Tymoshenko.)

What Ukraine needs is a system where the government is run by a prime minister whose power rests on the strongest party (or coalition of parties) in parliament. This prime minister would have ample authority, but would also face sufficient checks and balances to prevent those powers from being overstepped (not to mention legislative oversight as a bulwark against corruption). The president, by contrast, would serve merely as a symbolic head of state: in other words, a bit more Germany, a bit less France. (For anyone who's interested, here's an article that spells out the mechanisms in detail.)

Part of such a compromise would include an agreement to let Yanukovych serve out the rest of his mandate (while dramatically reducing his powers to thwart any return to his previous excesses). That would address concerns in the Yanukovych heartland while leaving the opposition plenty of room to prepare for the next election under revised rules. I can't help but feel that this sort of approach would ultimately prove better for the health of Ukraine's democratic institutions. And by ensuring a smooth transition, it would also offer Moscow fewer opportunities for meddling. The Russians, who see a weak and chaotic Ukraine as an easy target for their own designs, have a clear interest in further escalation.

Is Ukraine too far gone already for any sort of compromise? That may be. It's also possible, I guess, that the fractious protesters could manage to topple Yanukovych from office, figure out a way to replace him without tearing their own movement apart, and placate looming fears of disenfranchisement among their compatriots who aren't on their side -- and achieve all of this without violent internal conflict or frenzied Russian troublemaking.

I wouldn't bet on it, though. Surely this is the moment when Ukrainians need to take a deep breath and consider how to back away from the abyss. The alternatives are frightening.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images