Perspectives April 20, 2023
Moscow’s War in Ukraine Undermines Freedom across Eurasia
The invasion has been accompanied by authoritarian crackdowns, intensified border conflicts, and security threats well beyond Ukraine itself.
Three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, authoritarian regimes continue to dominate the Eurasia region, where not a single country is ranked Free, according to the findings of Freedom in the World 2023. Yet conditions grew even worse over the past year, as Moscow’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine contributed to a significant decline in political rights and civil liberties in the area stretching from Belarus to Tajikistan.
The war aggravated socioeconomic and political tensions that triggered clashes between protesters and police in some countries, while also catalyzing geopolitical shifts that threatened peace and security in settings including Armenia and Azerbaijan. And despite the Kremlin’s preoccupation with Ukraine, it continued to play a behind-the-scenes role in destabilizing countries like Moldova, where it has long supported separatist forces.
Antigovernment protests lead to deadly violence
A series of antigovernment protests in Central Asia last year highlighted public dissatisfaction with authoritarian rule and the local regimes’ reliance on brute force to maintain power. In January 2022, for example, large-scale protests erupted in Kazakhstan over high fuel prices, but they soon gave voice to broader socioeconomic grievances and demands for political change. A Russian-led military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), backstopped the government as it violently suppressed the protests, resulting in over 200 deaths and hundreds of arrests. In May, residents of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region mounted protests in response to persistent police violence and efforts by the central government to reduce regional autonomy. Authorities declared martial law and cut internet and mobile connectivity to facilitate their crackdown on the demonstrations.
Even in repressive environments, however, the courage of protesters can force governments to make concessions. Uzbekistan experienced its largest protests since 2005 after President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed constitutional amendments that would have removed Karakalpakstan’s status as an autonomous region. Authorities used lethal violence to put down the demonstrations, but the legislation in question was quickly withdrawn. More recently, in March 2023, Georgians took to the streets to oppose a draft “foreign agents” bill that would have hamstrung civil society organizations and media outlets in the country, which is still rated Partly Free. The government withdrew the bill after a second night of protests in which police attempted to disperse demonstrators with water cannons, tear gas, and stun grenades.
An escalating risk of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan
Moscow’s heavy investments in the war in Ukraine have reduced its ability to shape events elsewhere in Eurasia, and the resulting vacuum has been particularly destabilizing for Armenia, one of the region’s most democratic states, which relies partly on Russian defense guarantees to protect it from authoritarian Azerbaijan.
In September 2022, Azerbaijani forces launched an attack on Armenia, marking the worst escalation of violence between the two nations since 2020. The assault left over 100 people dead and more than 2,700 civilians displaced. Although Russia has positioned itself as a mediator in the conflict, the Kremlin failed to address either this episode or the two most critical points of contention that stand in the way of a lasting peace: the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and Baku’s demands for a corridor of land linking its Nakhchivan exclave to the rest of Azerbaijan. Moscow may never have mediated in good faith in the past, but now it seems almost entirely absent.
In January 2023, the European Union (EU) announced a two-year monitoring mission to encourage stability at the border, a strong first step toward minimizing future fighting. Without a peace settlement, however, Armenia will be exposed to further aggression.
The war in Ukraine shakes neighboring Moldova
Despite its declining security influence in the South Caucasus, the Kremlin still has the means to apply pressure and disrupt democratic institutions in vulnerable countries, and it is especially willing to interfere when doing so might support its war effort in Ukraine.
Throughout 2022, Moldova took steps to protect itself from such meddling by obtaining EU candidate status and reducing its dependence on energy supplies from Russia and the Russian-backed separatist territory of Transnistria. In response, the Kremlin raised the prospect of using Transnistria as a second military front against Ukraine and violated Moldova’s airspace during missile attacks against Ukraine’s western cities.
In February 2023, Moldova faced political turmoil when Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița resigned, citing a series of crises caused by Russian aggression. Two days later, President Maia Sandu alleged that Russian agents were involved in a plot to foment unrest and attack Moldovan state institutions.
Given Moscow’s ongoing disinformation efforts and its military presence in Transnistria, the possibility of armed clashes in Moldova remains a real concern.
Supporting democracy in a land of authoritarian giants
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a disturbing decline in freedom for residents of both countries and caused waves of hardship—including shortages of food and energy—around the world. As the war enters its second year, democracies everywhere should maintain robust support for Ukraine as it defends itself against authoritarian aggression.
But democratic policymakers would also do well to keep a watchful eye on the rest of Eurasia, as unresolved conflicts and acts of repression continue to threaten stability and fundamental rights. Democracies should demonstrate solidarity with local political and civil society actors as they work to counter domestic authoritarianism as well as Russian interference, strengthen the rule of law, and bring their countries closer to international groupings founded on shared democratic values, like the EU. The challenges facing the region are immense, but rapidly changing conditions could create new opportunities for freedom to expand.
Dasha M. is the Freedom in the World junior fellow for Europe and Eurasia.