March 7, 2005
Is Russia heading for an upscale version of Ukraine's late-2004 Orange Revolution?

Bob Tippee

Is Russia heading for an upscale version of Ukraine's late-2004 Orange Revolution?

Russian media were buzzing with the question before former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov hinted on Feb. 24 that he might challenge the increasingly imperious President Vladimir Putin.

Kasyanov chose an interesting date on which to say at a news conference he wouldn't rule out opposing Putin in 2008. On the same day, at a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, Putin was hearing complaints from US President George W. Bush about Russia's recent retreats from democratic reform. And it was a year to the day after Putin fired Kasyanov as prime minister, a job he held for 4 years.

Few at this point would predict a democratic upwelling strong enough to unseat Putin. While the Russian president's approval ratings have declined lately, the reason may be less about his exertions of power than about a series of bungles that have made his control look shaky.

The Orange Revolution is an example. In Ukraine's presidential election, Putin interceded clumsily on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, who won a crooked run-off vote Nov. 21 that triggered protests and was overturned by the judiciary. Yanukovych lost a new election Dec. 26 to reformist Viktor Yushchenko, who survived an apparent poisoning attempt during the campaign and was sworn in as president in January.

Rumors have circulated that Yushchenko received funding from dispossessed Russian oligarchs, the unpopular financiers who profited from privatization of Russian industries in the mid-1990s. Putin has cracked down on the tycoons, most prominently former OAO Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed since October 2003 and on trial for tax evasion. Interpretation of the Ukranian election as a proxy for the Putin-oligarch conflict helped kindle expectations about a comeback for Russian democracy. Yasyanov's hint about opposing Putin in 2008 fanned the flames.

But two reasons offered in Russia for the futility of such a move by Kasyanov show that more is at work here than pent-up hope for democracy. One is his bureaucratic association with the resented privatizations. Another, which no one should overlook, is the perception that he enjoys favor in the US.

(Online Mar. 7, 2005; author's e-mail: [email protected])