Ex-Soviet Union struggles with democracy

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When the Cold War ended two decades ago, President George H.W. Bush and his counterparts across the Atlantic set out to build a Europe “whole and free.”

Today, there is widespread satisfaction among former and current U.S. and European officials, who cite the membership of most Central and Eastern European countries in the European Union and NATO.

“Overall, the story is pretty good,” said Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. “There has been disappointment with democracy in some countries, but they have to realize that democracy is not an event but a process.”

The only countries in the region that are not yet truly democratic were once parts of the Soviet Union, such as Belarus in Europe and the so-called “stans” of Central Asia.

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Russia itself has had ups and downs, with democratic rights and freedoms fragile at best.

“Eurasia never had a complete turnover of elites like Central and Eastern Europe did,” said Clifford Kupchan, a Russia and Eurasia specialist for the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm. He referred to former communist party leaders who became heads of their newly independent states after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

“They had less contact with Western Europe” during the Cold War, Mr. Kupchan said. “The nomenklatura [party elite] remained in power” after communism’s collapse. “These elites and their belief system did not support reform and change.”

While few people expected Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to turn into flourishing democracies, hopes were higher for Russia and Ukraine. Some of those expectations were unrealistic, said Toby Gati, who was a Russia specialist at the White House in the Clinton administration and later headed the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

“We were feeling triumphant while the Russians kept saying, ‘We did it, not you.’ We did not listen to them at all,” she said.

David J. Kramer, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, noted that, except for the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, none of the former Soviet republics had democratic traditions.

“In Central and Eastern Europe, you had people who were alive before the Soviet spell, and that makes a huge difference,” he said. “In Russia, they couldn’t overthrow something that had been imposed on them by others,” as was the case for Poland and Hungary.

In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko remains the last dictator in Europe, but he is moving slowly “out of Russia’s orbit,” Mrs. Albright said. Washington, which has had adversarial relations with Minsk and maintains a very small embassy there, has tried to take advantage of recent tensions between Belarus and Russia, mainly on economic matters, to push for change.

“We are working in Belarus to encourage the regime to emerge from isolation and respect the people of Belarus’ basic rights and democratic aspirations by undertaking needed political and economic reform,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Ukraine, despite frustrations over its fading “Orange Revolution,” is much more democratic than Russia, Mr. Kramer said. “We don’t know who will be president” after January elections there, unlike in Russia, where the outcome of presidential elections has been predetermined since 1999, when President Boris N. Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as his successor.

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About the Author
Nicholas  Kralev

Nicholas Kralev

Nicholas Kralev is The Washington Times’ diplomatic correspondent. His travels around the world with four secretaries of state — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright — as well as his other reporting overseas trips inspired his new weekly column, “On the Fly.” He is a former writer for the weekend edition of the Financial Times and ...

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Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times and the author of a 2007 book on Iran, titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Before joining The Times in July 2008, she was senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. She has accompanied three secretaries of state ...

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