Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Regional Politics

Anyone who is even superficially acquainted with me knows that I am more than mildly interested in all things Russian. This includes Russian literature, language, history, politics, and economy. I had a great opportunity today to attend a guest speaker who spoke about Russia's place in transatlantic relations. This woman is a professor from St. Petersburg State University, so she was whole orders of magnitude more interesting than a diplomat from Canada. She was actually allowed to say what she thinks, as opposed babbling ridiculous pro-EU drivel. Do I like the EU? Yes I do. Do I think that it's a sunny paradise full of avuncular role models? Of course I do. That's why I should be a diplomat. I know how to sweet talk.

But this Russian professor had some really interesting things to say about Russia's official policies toward NATO, the EU, and the United States. Policies toward each of these bodies continue to diverge, which represents an ever changing world. After her presentation I asked her the same question I put to the Canadian ambassador. I really would like to know what Russian experts feel will be the result of the recent democratic political revolutions in Russia's back yard.

A little background: Political upheaval was relatively unheard of through the first 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though no one would accuse any of these post-Soviet states of being particularly democratic, the regimes have at least been stable. That changed during the summer of 2003 when the Rose revolution swept then Georgian President Shevernadze out of power in favor of a liberal president with an American wife. Ukraine's Orange revolution overturned a sham election this past winter, installing the western-leaning Yuschenko as president. Shortly thereafter, Kyrgyzstan chased their own president from power following suspect parliamentary elections. I have spent significant time in both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and even met with members of opposition political parties in Ukraine.

What does Russia think about these developments? They were officially opposed to the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and even accused western governments of toppling the pro-Russian regimes in those countries. Russia is concerned about losing influence in these countries, but as the visiting professor confirmed to me, they are even more concerned that these democratic winds might soon blow through Moscow as well.

I could talk about this subject all day, but there's one issue that specifically concerns me that I want to point out. I would feel a lot better if the recent political upheaval took place in at least one of the more repressive regimes of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, on the contrary, each of these states is relatively liberal (this is good liberal with a little 'l' as opposed to bad Liberal with a big 'L' for you suspicious republicans... urgh) and has already established a tradition of at least limited democracy. Now I realize that your average American differentiates each of the "-stans" in Central Asia about the same way they do junior colleges in Saskatchewan. You know, they're a long ways away, rather unimportant, they never really DO anything and they're pretty much the same when all is said and done, right? As much as I would like to make a plug for Saskatchewan JCs (I'm sure they've got some great northern wildlife mascots), I really know nothing about them. But Central Asia (and more generally the former Soviet Union) seems to be a veritable hotbed of political activity that might actually affect you one day. Maybe. I'll tell you why.

Politically speaking, Kyrgyzstan is unambiguously by far the most liberal of any of the "-stans". Check out what the CIA has to say about them. For another good regional analysis go here. The point is that citizens have no fear of publicly criticizing the government in Kyrgyzstan. The result? When things don't work out so well, the current regime is held responsible, and eventually gets the boot if people get too sick of 'em. That's the way things are supposed to work. Ukrainians got sick of corruption and Moscow meddling in their elections. So they dismissed the hand-picked Moscow lackey who rigged the election. But Ukraine has a history of significant political diversity and has always striven for westernized democracy. Former Georgian President Shevernadze was actually one of the architects of the fall of the Soviet Union and has always served as an advocate of democracy amidst a political culture of tyranny. Each of these regimes made the same timeless mistake that toppled the Soviet Union. Gorbachev allowed freedom of speech and press. He permitted political dialogue. The Soviet Empire was doomed as soon as its citizens realized that the could criticize and even mold their own government.

Why does this worry me? Soviet-style autocratic regimes still exist in the region. I've tentatively broached political issues in my discussions with taxi drivers and entrepreneurs in almost every country of the region. Though people are obviously nervous to discuss politics with a foreigner, anyone who has been to Russia knows that most ordinary people are at least somewhat nostalgic for old Soviet times. They miss the order, the predictability of life in an autocratic regime. Though people might envy the economic affluence of the West, they are deeply fearful of the perceived political and cultural chaos associated with our prosperity. Strange religions, commercialism, crime, and urban sprawl, to name just a few, worry people. I would argue that a poor paternalistic society is a dismal substitute for what I have grown up with, but I realize that my world-view is fundamentally different. In spite of my desire to understand where people are coming from, I still think that I'm right when I say that democracy is better than the alternative. So I worry that these autocracies will use the chaos in the more liberal post-Soviet countries as an impetus to further latch down on any potential democracy within their own states.

My conversation with the Russian professor confirmed this. She pointed to the developing civil society and non-governmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan as prime agitators encouraging political unrest. "If you don't like your social environment, you have the power to change it" is a bylaw of civil society. So the knee-jerk reaction in other states is to clamp down on civil society. This is evident in Byelorus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan where most NGOs are completely unwelcome. The US Peace Corps was dismissed from Russia a couple of years ago. Many of these things happened before the political upheaval really got going in the liberal (small 'l') states. Most of the authoritarian regimes can see the proverbial writing on the wall, and though Russia occupies a more moderate position between the Turkmenistans and Kyrgyzstans of the region, I worry that political upheaval will persuade Putin to further limit individual rights. The Russian professor agreed, saying that Russians are concerned as to whether they might also catch the revolution bug. They are willing to impose measures to prevent this.

So it seems to me that while the revolutions in three countries mean democracy and freedom for a few people, it could be a harbinger of worse things to come for just about everyone else in the region. I hope I'm wrong.

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