For more than a year, Westerners have watched Russian President Vladimir V. Putin wield an iron fist against the media, against political rivals, and against the titular representative of private corporate power, Yukos, the huge Russian oil giant, built by Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky. Putin has imposed censorship rules on TV, proposed replacing elected provincial officials with appointees, and called on his state's vast taxing power to frighten Russia's resistant oligarchs into submission. He has turned Parliament into a rubber stamp. Even the secret police is making a comeback.
Yukos former Chairman Khodorkovsky is in jail, and Yukos is about to be auctioned off to satisfy part of a $24 billion tax bill that Putin's government claims is due. Until the recent Ukraine elections, this authoritarian juggernaut seemed unstoppable. Now, amazing as it may seem, there are strong signs that the people power that drove the velvet revolutions of a decade ago is alive and well.
The massing of thousands of Ukrainians to protest the rigged election of Putin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych as their next leader has dealt a telling blow in Moscow. If there is a fair runoff election, which now seems highly likely, Viktor Yushchenko, the candidate demonized by Russia, will probably win.
This means Putin's goal of linking Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in a new economic union dominated by Russia is a mirage. But that is only the first result. The larger question is whether the mass turnout of Ukrainian workers, government employees, and intellectuals against the stolen election will encourage a similar backlash among other Russian-dominated republics such as Belarus and even within Russia itself.
This largest blow to Putin's prestige follows the failure of his military and security forces to save schoolchildren in the Beslan terrorist attack. It also follows the scare tactics he has applied to business with his plan to have the state, in effect, confiscate Yukos' assets without compensation. It is too early to say whether Putin will see the need -- or even possess the will -- to roll back his authoritarian agenda. But outside Russia, his image is increasingly that of a badly damaged strongman. The sea of unfurled orange flags waved by protesters in Kiev and across the Ukraine tells the story. Enough is enough.