Russian liberal attacks Kremlin Ukraine stance

By Chrystia Freeland in London and Arkady Ostrovsky in Moscow

Financial Times

Published: December 16 2004

Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Russia's market reforms and one of the country's leading liberals, condemned the Kremlin's policy towards Ukraine as "stupid" and said the triumph of the opposition there would be a catalyst for democratic changes in Russia.

"The processes in Ukraine are a hugely important factor which will influence Russian politics," Mr Gaidar, a former acting prime minister, said in an interview with the Financial Times. "This is the first stone thrown at the edifice of Russia's managed democracy."

Mr Gaidar said that the popular support for Ukraine's democratic opposition had re-ignited interest in politics among Russians, particularly young people.

"The events in Ukraine have inspired a level of politicisation among the Russian youth I haven't seen in years," he said.

However, Sergei Markov, a political adviser to the Kremlin who worked in Ukraine for the government's candidate, warned that popular protests "orchestrated by some western institutions" could lead to a clampdown on the activities of international non-governmental organisations in Russia.

"Unfortunately there are people [in the Kremlin] who think that international organisations are playing a subversive role in Russia and undermining the county's independence," Mr Markov said.

Mr Markov said that the results of the Ukrainian elections "could become a strategic defeat" for Russia if Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition leader, won the rerun of the elections.

Mr Markov said the responsibility for Russia's failure in Ukraine rested with the country's political elite, including the Kremlin. "Ukraine has shown that our ruling elite is incompetent and badly prepared for resolving big strategic tasks," he said.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, aggressively supported Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister and candidate of the authoritarian Ukrainian regime in the election. Mr Putin's support and the instrumental role Russian advisers played in his campaign have hurt Russia's standing with the west and could complicate its relations with Ukraine.

Mr Yanukovich now looks almost certain to be defeated by Mr Yushchenko when Ukrainians return to vote on December 26.

Mr Markov said the Kremlin's objective was not to back Mr Yanukovich, but to prevent Mr Yushchenko coming to power. "Yushchenko himself is not a threat. But he is a weak politician surrounded by nationalists and radicals who want to root out our Russian language and culture and sacrifice Russia's economic relations to nationalistic ideology."

Mr Yushchenko has insisted he is keen to establish good, productive relations with Russia.

Mr Gaidar said he thought Mr Yushchenko would be a good neighbour and that the Kremlin now should admit to having made a mistake and seek to normalise relations.

Mr Gaidar said: "It is hard to conceive of a more stupid way of conducting policy towards your closest and most important neighbour."