By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is an assistant director at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed are solely her own.
On September 15, another wave of anti-Putin protests shook Russia – the latest in a series that started in December 2011, making these the largest and most enduring protests in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Only three days later, the Kremlin expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from Russia, depriving civil society and pro-democracy organizations of funding they depend on, revealing how frightened Russian President Vladimir Putin really is that Russians prefer freedom over his authoritarian rule.
As I walked past the orthodox synagogue on Bolshaya Bronnaya in Moscow this month prior to the protests, I recalled that around the time I left Russia as a refugee, after the Soviet Union collapsed, vigilante anti-Semitic groups carried out several attacks on the synagogue, including a failed bombing attempt. For many Russians, freedom carries a risk of disorder that they look to their government to uphold, and the government exploits that fear.
In many respects, Russia is a different place than it was when the Berlin Wall fell, and many understand now that they live in a country where corruption and lawlessness starts at the top, from a small ruling elite; that ultimately it is this problem that Russia needs to overcome if it is to evolve into a stable, prosperous, developed nation.
But many also do not see how taking part in a protest will change the situation. Nor do they see many alternatives – either accepting the status quo and hoping for the best, or leaving the country – something so many Russians, especially the younger generation, are doing.
Historically, Russians view political activism with suspicion. Since the time of the czars it was not only safer for an average person to stay out of politics – it was also more proper. Politics was for the less pure of heart. The idea of freedom, in the Western sense, is also foreign and frightening, particularly for the older generation, and carries the risk of dangerous extremist sentiments.
So I could not help but feel glad to see so many people peacefully demonstrating in Moscow on September 15; to see that they are willing, despite the centuries of history to the contrary, to demand basic human dignity and respect from their government, that they are no longer willing to be fooled into sacrificing their freedom under the slogan of stability and order.
In the end, Russian people have to take responsibility for their country. Respect from others ultimately comes from self-respect, and those Russians who are peacefully demanding a Russia without Putin – who have been doing so since last December – show just that.
True, such sentiments are so far more prevalent in large cities, and a small minority among the protestors has less than peaceful aims. But ultimately, it is impossible to accurately access across the country the level of support for Putin, although some of the latest polls show a steady decline.
The majority of Russians get their news from Kremlin-controlled television. If they had easy access to truly independent news sources, particularly television, which is easiest for most Russians to access, it’s highly possible that over time this situation would change.
Putin knows this. This is why he expelled USAID from Russia, and why he wants to silence pro-democracy voices among his own people.
And he feels he can, because Western leaders were largely silent regarding USAID’s expulsion. The Obama administration still thinks that private conversations and public silence will win true cooperation from the Kremlin. But everything Putin has done since the U.S.-Russia “reset” shows that they will not. Without public pressure, the Kremlin only cooperates on issues that are in its own interest, to the detriment of the Russian people, but also American interests.
Astonishingly, when the Russian Foreign Ministry publically criticized USAID’s work in Russia as raising “serious questions,” the U.S. State Department said little or nothing in defense. Western silence shows Russian civil society organizations that they cannot rely on Western support. This kills their hope and erodes American values and traditions, and shows other authoritarian leaders that U.S. leadership is a pushover. The sustained protests in Russia show that Russians themselves increasingly wish to see a democratic and peaceful Russia that respects its citizens. This ought to be reason enough for the West to speak up.