Domino Theory; Will Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution' Spread? Russia's Vladimir Putin and His Men Certainly Think So

Newsweek International, January 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Domino Theory; Will Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution' Spread? Russia's Vladimir Putin and His Men Certainly Think So


Byline: Michael Meyer (With Frank Brown in Moscow)

At a critical moment in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, John Herbst, got a frantic phone call. The husband of Leonid Kuchma's daughter, Lena, was on the line. Protesters had surrounded the outgoing president's residence outside the city. His family was trapped inside. "They're putting up ladders against the fence! They're going to climb over!"

Herbst flashed a call to an opposition leader. "What's going on?" he asked. The man didn't know but promised to find out. He phoned back moments later. "It's nothing," he told the ambassador. "The ladders were propped up against trees, not the fence. The demonstrators were just doing "a little sightseeing," he explained--and letting themselves be seen. "It was a form of psychological pressure," says one of those involved, and very effective.

Not to mention dangerous. Opposition leaders were pushing Kuchma to sign a new election law that would open the way to a rerun of November's fraudulent presidential ballot, won on Dec. 26 by their leader, Viktor Yushchenko. But Kuchma was balking--until the demonstrators threatened to come over his fence. Had they, Ukraine's velvet revolution would have turned violent. The peaceful outcome is a credit to Yushchenko's levelheadedness and considerable diplomatic skills. But it's revealing for something else: Kuchma's assumption that Washington was calling the shots, or at least was close enough to the opposition to be able to guarantee his security and guide the revolution. And that, in turn, is key to understanding what happens next, not only in Ukraine but also in neighboring Russia and beyond.

No foreign government has followed events in Ukraine more closely than Moscow, or with more concern. "If you're Vladimir Putin, following an anti-democratic trajectory, you want similar regimes around you," says a Western diplomat in Kiev. But what just happened? While Viktor Yanukovych, the establishment candidate for whom Putin campaigned hard, was continuing to insist that he would contest the election results last week, the fact remains that he was blocked by people power from stealing the election. That's been deeply unsettling for Putin, all the more so for the signs that appeared on Kiev's now-famous Independence Square: UKRAINE TODAY, BELARUS TOMORROW, RUSSIA... ?

That sound bite resonates in Moscow. Vitaly Tretyakov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, recently warned that within two years a "Kiev scenario" could topple autocratic regimes across the former Soviet space--Belarus, Moldova and Central Asia, according to the Eurasia Daily Monitor in Washington. Among others, Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Moscow's liberal Yabloko Party, predicts that Ukraine's "domino effect" could soon spread to Russia as well. Kremlin hard-liners would not have been reassured by Oleksander Zinchenko, Yushchenko's campaign manager, in Kiev last week. After warning against the risks of "getting drunk on victory," he told reporters at an exuberant press conference: "I don't want to boast, but events here will change not only Russia's policies toward Ukraine, but also domestic policies within Russia."

Many in the Kremlin blame the United States. It's the same mind-set, the Western diplomat says, that prompted Kuchma, in extremis, to call the American ambassador. Events in Ukraine are less the product of democratic yearnings, they say, than evidence of a vast conspiracy to isolate Russia and strip it of its influence. Another well-placed Moscow analyst, Vyacheslan Nikonov, recently set out what he described as a "view from the Kremlin" in the daily newspaper, Trud. Ukraine is but the first phase of "a large-scale geopolitical 'special operation' of the united West," he warned, aimed at "revolutionary regime change." U.S. support for civic action NGOs in Ukraine is only the latest proof. Kremlin leaders are also still angry over U. …

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