April 4, 2011

Mideast democracy will show up former Soviet Union

As the Middle East finally begins catching up to the spirit of democratic change that first swept the West 250 years ago, our own anti-Arab prejudices and post-imperialist disdain are giving way to guarded optimism and even admiration. The Arabs’ newfound fame as democratic revolutionaries could finally underscore the failure of democracy across the euphemistically labeled "emerging democracies" of the former Soviet Union (FSU). Americans have had a vested interest in ignoring or forgiving this colossal disappointment, since we see ourselves as having liberated those nations after 45 years of Cold War confrontation and competition. I prefer the term "receding democracies", as the post-ideological, perpetual-motion political systems bear little resemblance to genuine democracies.

As a result of the dramatic events still unfolding throughout the Middle East, the FSU could finally be recognized as the industrialized world’s undisputed "left behind". In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev just won re-re-election to yet another five-year term, but at least he promotes religious pluralism (if no other democratic principles). Azerbaijan is under the control of second-generation hereditary ruler, whose father ruled the republic 13 years under the Soviets and another ten as President of independent Azerbaijan until his death of natural causes (or, as the insiders say, he died from 30 years of Soviet medicine). Eduard Shevardnadze effectively ruled Georgia as a dictator, until a popular uprising (and Kremlin plotting) forced him to step down, and now his enlightened successor runs the country with equal parts whim and fiat – making it easy for Russia to dominate.

Countries that for thousands of years have never had culture of freedom then endured three-quarters of a century of Marxist-Leninist indoctrination by the Soviet Union... What can one expect?

And then there’s Russia... Yeltsin and Putin, Medvedev, oh my!

Because of Moscow’s big footprint, the systemic shutdown of democratic culture and institutions in the Russian Federation has played out in a much more visible way than in the other Soviet successor states. Over a decade ago, Boris Yeltsin abdicated to the virtually unknown Vladimir Putin, spelling an end to wide-open democracy and free markets. Putin picked one of his own protégés to fill in for him after two terms as President, setting himself up with unprecedented powers as Prime Minister – and he’ll retake the Presidency if he ever gets bored.

The only ideological premise for the censorship and enforcement apparatus is the concentration and perpetuation of state power, as opposed to the precarious myths and doctrine of classic Soviet-era Communism. The state now actively shuts down, criminalizes or takes over media, business and political entities it dislikes or covets, while most enterprises voluntarily limit their own choices and expression.

Ukraine may come closest to sharing democratic and "Western" values, but it is beset with corruption at every level and crippled by an irreconcilable domestic division between east and west. Its best hope for breaking out from Moscow’s shadow, Viktor Yushchenko, was constrained by political rivalries and by constitutionally booby-trapped presidential powers that prevented him from ever implementing his mandate for democrati change, economic liberalization, and national self-determination. His successor, Viktor Yanukovych, was once the hand-picked successor to the pro-Kremlin autocrat Leonid Kuchma, until his sham election was overturned by the "Orange Revolution" that Yushchenko rode to power. In one of his first acts, Yanukovych granted Russia cheap, unfettered and virtually eternal rights to the Sebastopol naval base on the Black Sea. He also backed off significantly from Yushchenko’s hard line on rights to Russian natural gas transiting Ukrainian territory to European markets.

In Abkhazia and South Ossetia – internationally recognized parts of Georgia – and in the Transnistria region of Moldova, Russia maintains substantive military forces. And despite some stale official commitments, they’re not about to withdraw.

So far, not one revolution among the successors to the Soviet Union has led to a stable, sustainable democracy open to public inspection and safeguarding foreign investment. Kyrgyzstan may have turned a corner, with President Roza Otunbayeva having ensured free and fair elections at the local level, but we’ll have to see if next October’s election brings a true democrat or a return to the cult of personality. And if a reformer does get in, how far will the entrenched interests and Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors allow it to chart its own course. The nation has already endured two mini-revolutions since the Soviet collapse, and Russia’s paw prints are ubiquitous.

Twenty years ago, Germany literally bought the Kremlin’s approval for reunification after the Berlin Wall came down, but since that time it is Russia that has increasingly owned Germany, one leader at a time. After his pro-Russian tenure as Germany’s Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder retired into a comfortable sinecure with Russia’s main pipeline conglomerate. His successor, Angela Merkel, has been more concerned with assuring the flow of natural gas than in promoting democracy or facing down Moscow’s bullying of those who dare defy its geo-political and economic prerogatives across the mega-continent. This abdication of true power has helped earn Germany the role of power broker for the New Europe.

France is selling its Mistral amphibious assault ships to Russia, ships most likely to be used against Georgia, which Russia invaded barely two years ago. It wouldn’t even need such capabilities against most of its potential foes, including breakaway republics in the Caucasus or even Ukraine, where it already has significant land-based forces, secure entry points, or unimpeded military superiority.

The United States definitely needs Russian cooperation on a range of issues, and we need to agree to disagree on our use of Central Asia as part of our logistical and security link to Afghanistan and Iraq, and perhaps eventually Iran. NATO relationships will also remain a source of tensions, both hidden and revealed. But there is no comparison with the USSR – the world is much better off with a post-Communist Russian bear, and on a scale of human misery the Russian people and their post-Soviet neighbors are far better off with the status quo of 2011 than they were in the 1980s or earlier.

The dirty little secret is, had the West not locked the USSR into sudden-death nuclear roulette, and had the Soviets not pursued a subversive global agenda and Communist ideology, we probably would never had made a big deal about the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe or even the Baltic States. So why should Washington, let alone Berlin or Paris, draw a line in the sand today? Not only are those red lines all missing, the Russian Federation is a testament to our victory (or "victory" in some circles) over Soviet tyranny. Not that it can do no wrong, but neither are we prepared to start making new enemies or reviving old ones, especially when we have interests in common (and anyway, we’ll always have Al Qaeda).

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