Promise and Reversal: The Post-Soviet Landscape Twenty Years On | Freedom House
Promise and Reversal: The Post-Soviet Landscape Twenty Years On
by Arch Puddington
On August 19, 1991, a group of hard-liners in the Soviet leadership, backed by elements of the military, announced that it had seized power in the Kremlin and declared a state of emergency. The coup’s instigators placed the reformist Soviet head of state, Mikhail Gorbachev, under house arrest and attempted to shut down independent media.

Just two days later, the coup collapsed, having failed to win broad support either in the military or among ordinary Soviet citizens. Indeed, a large section of the public rallied around Boris Yeltsin, the popular president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, who defiantly opposed the coup.

While Gorbachev was restored to his position as Soviet leader, the failed putsch effectively ended an experiment in totalitarian socialist rule that had lasted some 74 years. Four Soviet republics—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia—had already declared independence, and Yeltsin had announced that Russia would no longer be governed by Soviet authority. One by one, the remaining republics announced their intention to leave, and on January 1, 1992, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, having been replaced by 15 new sovereign states.

This was not the outcome that the West, and especially the United States, had sought. Less than three weeks before the coup, President George H. W. Bush, in a speech before the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine, had cautioned against “suicidal nationalism” and made clear America’s preference for a reformed Soviet Union as opposed to the collapse of the entire edifice. In the end, however, there was little support for the Soviet system, despite Gorbachev’s attempts at reform and modernization.

The breakup of the union prompted expectations that at least some of the successor states would embrace democracy and free-market economics. In 1989, the countries of Central Europe had broken free from Soviet domination and communist rule. By the time of the Soviet collapse, a number of these countries—including Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—were well on their way to democratic stability. Czechoslovakia would later break apart into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but it did so in a peaceful manner that seemed to leave both sides satisfied. More ominously, the splintering of Yugoslavia had already begun in 1991, and a bloody ethnic war between Serbs and Croats was in full swing. The Yugoslav conflict stood as a warning to other newly independent states whose populations included discontented ethnic minorities.

For those who hoped that the post-Soviet environment would be dominated by democracies, the initial indications were encouraging. For 1992, their first full year of independence, an impressive 11 post-Soviet countries were ranked as Partly Free in Freedom in the World. One country, Lithuania, was designated Free, and the remaining three—Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were ranked Not Free. The Partly Free status assigned to important countries like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia was regarded as a positive sign for the region’s future.

By 2000, the three Baltic states ranked as Free, had joined NATO, and were on track to become members of the European Union (EU). However, prospects for democracy had dimmed elsewhere. The three Central Asian countries that had earned Not Free designations in 1992— Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—had not improved, and they were now joined by three formerly Partly Free countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The presidents of these states appeared to share a desire to retain their positions for life, frequently circumventing term limits through dubious referendums and engaging in a range of abuses to ensure reelection.

Conditions had deteriorated even further by 2010. The only countries in the region to register a ranking of Free in the Freedom in the World report covering that year were the Baltic states. Of the remaining twelve, just five—Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine—ranked as Partly Free, and seven ranked as Not Free. Ukraine had earned a Free status beginning in 2005 thanks to reforms instituted after the peaceful Orange Revolution of late 2004, but the ranking declined again due to a series of negative actions taken by President Viktor Yanukovych after his election in early 2010.

Putin at the Helm

The development that has had the single most significant impact on the state of democracy in the region was the 2000 ascension of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia. Under Yeltsin, Russia experienced a period of economic and political instability, but it also contained some of the raw elements of a future democracy, including an independent-minded media, active civil society groups, and a politically diverse legislature. Under Putin, this sense of uncertainty, with all of its potential for good or ill, was steadily eliminated. Opposition parties were co-opted or marginalized, the leading television outlets were taken over by the state or loyalist businessmen, academic freedom was restricted, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were hemmed in by bureaucratic and legal obstacles, and the justice system was used to punish critics of the regime.

Putin was fortunate in that his rise to power coincided with a major increase in global energy prices. He showed great skill in melding his economic and energy policies with foreign relations, moving aggressively to shoulder aside Europe’s other potential energy suppliers, and then brandishing the energy weapon to silence European criticism of his increasingly repressive regime. Putin was also assertive in stoking nationalism and stirring up trouble for neighboring democracies, at various times using intimidation tactics against Poland, the Baltic countries, and Ukraine. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia after years of mounting bilateral animosity. In the aftermath, Russia all but annexed the separatist Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In many ways, the Russian experience reflects the trajectory of the region as a whole. Most of the new states initially featured some degree of political competition, media diversity, and civic activism, among other building blocks of democracy. But in the subsequent years, and in the last decade especially, these countries have accumulated a democracy deficit on a scale rivaling that of the Arab Middle East. If the Baltic states, now EU members, are separated out and placed with Central Europe and the Balkans, the remaining 12 former Soviet countries rank near the bottom among all global regions according to the aggregated indicators used in the Freedom in the World methodology. These include elections, political pluralism, effective and open government, freedom of expression and belief, freedom of association, rule of law, and personal autonomy.

Countries in the region similarly rank near the absolute bottom on press freedom indicators. In Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report, they account for a quarter of the 28 worst-performing countries in the world.

Wavering Color Revolutions

The so-called color revolutions that swept Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005 set off a variety of aftershocks. These movements of reform-minded activists, which swept away corrupt and repressive leaders after fraudulent elections, were regarded as potential models for democratic change both in neighboring countries and elsewhere in the world. Within a few years, however, the color revolutions were seen as major disappointments due to the display of authoritarian tendencies by the new presidents in Georgia and especially Kyrgyzstan, and the infighting and incompetence of the new leadership in Ukraine.

The most recent developments suggest a more complex outcome. On the positive side, all three color revolution countries, plus Moldova, have thus far escaped the authoritarian fate of practically all other non-Baltic states in the region. For example, although the new president of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, grew increasingly autocratic after taking power in the country’s 2005 uprising, he was forced into exile in 2010. The politicians who replaced him presided over the adoption of a revised constitution and national elections that were regarded as credible and competitive. Among other improvements, the new charter shifted significant power to the parliament, moving away from the kind of superpresidential system that has undergirded autocratic rule in other Central Asian countries. Subsequent parliamentary elections took place in a peaceful environment and were regarded as an improvement. As a consequence of these developments—and despite a wave of persecution against the ethnic Uzbek minority in mid-2010, in which hundreds are believed to have been killed—Kyrgyzstan’s Freedom in the World status improved from Not Free to Partly Free.

Similarly, Georgia, which has experienced both reform and regression since its color revolution in 2003, received an improvement in its civil liberties rating for 2010 due to a more relaxed security environment and increased media diversity. Meanwhile, Moldova earned its second consecutive ratings improvement after the opposition took power through elections in 2009 and oversaw significant gains in media freedom in 2010.

On a less positive note, events in Ukraine in 2010 caused it to fall from Free to Partly Free. Yanukovych, whose fraudulent electoral victory in 2004 was overturned by the Orange Revolution, won the presidency on his second attempt in early 2010. He then presided over a deterioration in press freedom, state efforts to curb student activism, intimidation of NGOs, local elections that were almost universally derided as neither free nor fair, and signs of increased executive influence over the judiciary. Ukraine had been the only country in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union to earn a Free designation, and its decline represents a major setback for democracy in the region.

Behind the Democratic Deficit

While there may be no single, definitive explanation for the failure of the region to embrace free elections and democratic institutions, several contributing factors are clearly present.

First, Russia under Putin has functioned as an “enabler” for despots in surrounding countries. Whatever Russia’s differences with neighboring countries over energy policy, trade, or diplomacy, Putin has almost invariably supported authoritarian leaders when their democratic failings have been called to account by the international community. Thus the Kremlin was quick to endorse the patently fraudulent December 2010 election in Belarus despite serious arguments with incumbent president Alyaksandr Lukashenka over the energy sector and other matters.

Second, a number of regional states—Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan—are afflicted by the so-called energy curse. Abundant supplies of oil and natural gas, combined with high global prices, have allowed these regimes to maintain corrupt domestic patronage networks and rebuff international criticism of their human rights abuses.

Third, countries including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Russia are burdened by interethnic unrest or territorial disputes with neighboring states.

Fourth, in response to the color revolutions, authoritarian leaders took decisive steps to crush potential sources of dissent or opposition, including political parties, NGOs, independent media, and fair-minded members of the judiciary. The resort to raw repression has become more frequent and more brazen as criticism from the outside world has grown increasingly feeble.

Indeed, the final factor is the less-than-impressive role of the world’s democracies, most notably the United States and the countries of Western Europe. In the immediate aftermath of communism’s collapse, Western Europe made a crucial decision to work with the former communist states of Central Europe and the Baltic region toward the eventual goal of incorporation into the EU and NATO. Among other benefits, this process ensured that the postcommunist states would adhere to the established norms of democracy.

Unfortunately, the democracies have never developed a serious structure that would provide enticements for democratic reform to the states further east. Policies toward Russia have been especially weak. The U.S. government, for instance, has oscillated between sharp criticism that lacked strategic grounding and an approach that effectively ignores violations of democratic standards. Europe has gone to even greater lengths in ignoring or explaining away the rampant corruption, distorted legal system, muzzling of the press, and smothering of the opposition that characterize Putin’s Russia. Much the same can be said of the democracies’ attitudes toward other despots with energy supplies to offer, such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev.

By contrast, both Europe and the United States have taken a more resolute stance on Belarus since Lukashenka’s crackdown on protesters following the December 2010 election, and they have at least begun to ask pertinent questions of Ukraine’s Yanukovych, especially after his government launched a prosecution of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a leading opposition figure. But the democracies will face a renewed challenge if, as seems highly likely, Putin seeks election to the Russian presidency in 2012. If he runs and, as is also highly likely, wins, the problems that flow from his authoritarian policies are almost certain to become more pronounced.

As grim as conditions in the region are today, they are clearly much less oppressive than under Soviet rule. At the same time, using totalitarianism as the basis for comparison means setting the bar at its lowest possible level. People in other parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and the Americas, have emerged from dictatorships of both the left and the right to forge successful democracies, in which ordinary citizens can go about their lives free of state violence and hold their leaders accountable through fair elections, a free press, and independent courts. The fact that societies on the immediate periphery of a free and fundamentally prosperous Europe remain mired in authoritarian rule should be a source of deep concern for democrats everywhere.

Eliza B. Young and Tyler Roylance assisted in the preparation of this report.