The Lands Autocracy Won’t Quit
MOSCOW — Let the Middle East and North Africa be buffeted by populist discontent over repressive governments. Here in Lenin’s former territory, across the expanse of the old Soviet Union, rulers with iron fists still have the upper hand.
Their endurance serves as a sobering counterpoint for anyone presuming that the overthrow of a tyrannical regime by a broad-based movement is inevitably followed by vibrant democracy.
The long-serving president of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, for example, won another term in December with 80 percent of the vote, then took great offense when the results were called shamefully implausible by his opponents. (They have not been heard from since.)
Over in Kazakhstan, the even longer-serving president has had himself coroneted with the formal title of “national leader.”
The strongest of the post-Soviet strongmen, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is actually a comparative newcomer, having reigned unchallenged for a mere decade now.
Nearly two decades ago, the collapse of Soviet Communism offered the promise that power would soon be wielded differently in this region: The newly independent former Soviet republics, sprung from the shackles of totalitarianism, would embrace free elections, multiple political parties and a vigorously independent media.
But those hopes now seem premature, or perhaps naïve. In the 1990’s, the Soviet breakup sowed chaos — most notably in Russia — and a corps of autocrats arose in response, pledging stability and economic growth. The brand of democracy that is advanced in the West emerged discredited in many of these countries.
And so even as upheavals in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world have garnered attention across the former Soviet Union, the region’s leaders express confidence that they are not under threat.
“In the past, such a scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts to implement it are even more likely,” Mr. Putin’s protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev, warned last week. “But such a scenario is not going to happen.”
The wilting of the democracy movement was reflected in the arrest of several Russian opposition leaders at a small rally in Moscow on Dec. 31 — one of the regular protests scheduled to highlight the 31st article of Russia’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly.
There was no public outcry over the arrests, and people went about with their lives. Tunisia, it was not.
The same opposition politicians, now out of jail, returned on Jan. 31, hoping that an inspiring new example — Egypt — would prove galvanizing, and Triumphal Square in Moscow would have the feel of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
“We are all watching what is happening in Egypt,” Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, told the crowd.
“They have had 30 years of the dictator Mubarak, who is a thief and corrupt,” he said. “How is he really any different than our guy?”
People shouted, “Russia without Putin!” But once again, society did not join in. It did not appear that more than 1,000 people attended.
What’s more, many were not particularly young. That helps to explain why such uprisings seem to have had a harder time taking root. Populations in Russia and many other former Soviet republics are aging, in contrast to those in the Middle East. Here, there are fewer people to carry out youthful acts of rebellion, whether on the streets or on Facebook and Twitter.
The older generation grew up under Soviet rule, which was so tightly controlled that today’s autocracies feel like an improvement. They also enjoy more economic freedom today.
Even in the six former Soviet republics that have Muslim majorities, the events in the Middle East have not had significant repercussions.
If anything, the violence has strengthened the hand of the autocrats in the short term because it has caused oil prices to spike, benefiting the economies of petro-states like Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
The current crop of post-Soviet leaders has also skillfully played upon fears of instability and misery in the wake of the 1990’s, knowing that when times are tough, people often prefer authoritarian order to cacophonous democracy.
A talk show on the Echo of Moscow radio station, which is something akin to the NPR of Russia, chewed over the question of why protesters had flooded the streets of Middle Eastern capitals and not Moscow. “Our people endure, and will patiently endure, suffering,” said Georgi Mirsky, a well-known political analyst. “Because Soviet Man is still alive — that’s the thing! The mentality of the people (or at least a considerable number of them) has not changed enough for them to develop a taste for freedom.”
There are, of course, exceptions. The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have joined the European Union and embraced Western mores. But they were always outliers within the Soviet Union, and only became part of it when Stalin seized them during World War II.
Even the so-called color revolutions over the last decade in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, which were widely viewed as a repudiation of authoritarianism, have since fallen flat.
In Ukraine, a new president was elected last year after a backlash against the Orange Revolution, and he is pursuing a Putin-style crackdown on the opposition.
A revolt in Kyrgyzstan last year ousted a ruler who had ousted a predecessor. As a result, politicians in Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors in Central Asia now maintain that they need heavily centralized rule to avoid Kyrgyzstan’s fate.
“We have to feed our people, then we can create conditions where our people can become involved in politics,” said Nurlan Uteshev, a Kazakh from his country’s ruling party.
Mr. Putin, Russia’s prime minister and former (and perhaps future) president, regularly cites the example of neighboring Ukraine. “We must not in any way allow the Ukrainization of political life in Russia,” Mr. Putin once warned.
For a time, Georgia seemed at the forefront of a democratic wave. But in 2007, President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close American ally, violently suppressed his opposition. Now, his rivals characterize him as no better than Mr. Putin.
Mr. Saakashvili’s supporters defend him by contending that he will not try to stay in power when his term expires in 2013. They say he has made enormous strides in modernizing Georgia, adding that it is unrealistic to expect a country long immersed in the Soviet system to be transformed overnight.
That is a common refrain. Janez Lenarcic, a diplomat who heads democracy promotion for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has the taxing job of trying to persuade these countries to loosen the reins.
“The notion of stability plays an important role here,” Mr. Lenarcic said. “They say, ‘We need more time, we need to get there at our own pace.’ We respond that long-term stability will come only with strong democratic institutions, not with personalities, because personalities are not around forever.”
He said he remained optimistic, despite the stagnation. And perhaps views are evolving. A recent poll of Russians asked if they preferred order (even at the expense of their rights) or democracy (even if it gives rise to destructive elements). Order won, 56 percent to 23 percent.
That may not sound encouraging, but a decade ago the spread was 81 percent to 9 percent.
Copyright 2011 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, February 27, 2011.