Ex-Soviet Union struggles with democracy

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.

Mr. Putin then handpicked Dmitry Medvedev to succeed him last year, while Mr. Putin became prime minister.

Mr. Kupchan said that Russia “had periods of reform and progress both under Yeltsin and Putin, but the pieces did not add up to a real reform movement.”

Mrs. Gati said the economic chaos of the 1990s was a big factor in the retreat of democracy in Russia.

“The Russians had the misfortune to have their revolution at a time when we believed government was the problem,” she said. As a result, “they got a stock market, but not a [Securities and Exchange Commission]” to regulate the market.

Privatization was done badly, with little benefit for the average Russian, she added. The economy and the currency collapsed, giving democracy a bad name and linking it to chaos.

The United States also could have done more to shore up the Russian economy, she said, such as forgiving billions of dollars in old Soviet debts. She recalled a discussion in the National Security Council when President Clinton was asked whether the U.S. could provide billions of dollars to pay Russian pensions. Mr. Clinton replied, ” ‘How can I guarantee the pension of every Russian when I can’t do that in the United States?’ ” Mrs. Gati said.

Relations grew colder under the George W. Bush administration, which repeatedly accused the Kremlin of backsliding on democracy and human rights.

The Obama administration has been accused of not pressing Moscow enough on those issues in an attempt to “reset” the tense relationship it inherited.

However, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did meet with democracy activists and other civil society leaders during a visit to Moscow last month.

“We are very clearly committed to supporting people who are democracy advocates in every sense of the word,” she said. “I have no doubt in my mind that democracy is in Russia’s best interests, that respecting human rights, an independent judiciary, a free media are in the interests of building a strong, stable political system that provides a platform for broadly shared prosperity.”

Mrs. Gati said Russia has made progress despite the setbacks, and that the pendulum appeared to be shifting away from Putin-style authoritarianism. Russians have much more personal freedom than they did under communism, including the right to travel.

“You have a whole generation that doesn’t have the fear of those who came before,” she said.

Mr. Medvedev has raised hopes that his younger generation of leaders will spearhead more democratic changes. In September, he surprised many when he started a national debate about democracy in an article on a Russian Web site, in which he warned of “negative democratic tendencies” in the country.

Mr. Kupchan, however, predicted slow progress even after Mr. Putin’s generation passes from the scene and said the space “between Medvedev and Putin is much less than the press would indicate.” He also said the Obama administration has “slim to no leverage over the course of Russian domestic politics.”

Mrs. Gati was also cautious, but a bit more upbeat.

“The Russians are going to find their own way, but over time,” she said. “These are people who love their country and will find their own definition of democracy and central-versus-regional power. It lifts a huge burden from us. We can be us, and they can be them.”

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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