- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

In August 1991, the aborted coup against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev chimed the death toll for the Soviet Empire. Ten years later, we are still dealing with the consequences. The first President Bush built relations of trust with Mr. Gorbachev which also facilitated an orderly management of the Soviet decline. Today, the second President Bush is building a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin in order to guide the U.S.-Russian ties into the post-Cold War era.
However, the differences between 1991 and 2001 are obvious. Back then, the public in the USSR thought that independence would mean immediate prosperity and freedom. Despite the majority vote to maintain a more loosely knit version of the USSR in March of 1991, most Soviet voters opted for a break-up after the August coup.
In 1991, an atmosphere of naive hope and inflated expectations prevailed East and West. Hopes for a brighter tomorrow were encouraged by elites who dreamed about becoming their nations' leaders, rather than the local party secretaries and government bureaucrats. Nationalist myths held sway in Georgia under Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Legends to suit the occasion, such as the state-inspired cult of Tamerlane in Uzbekistan had to be invented.
Meanwhile, in Russia, young reformers around Boris Yeltsin believed that for economic and moral reasons Russia would be better off focusing on domestic problems, rather than trying to reinvent a post-communist empire. The phantom pains of the empire resided with the unreformed communists, ultra-nationalists and retired Soviet generals.
The United States, as in the past, tried to apply the principles of civil society, the rule of law and free market economics to areas in which no democracy, industrial-era market institutions, or working court systems had existed for centuries. After 74 years of communism, Russia simply did not have the human capital and know-how to absorb vast U.S. aid. And nothing like de-Nazification in post-World War II Germany could be attempted; Russia did not surrender and was not occupied.
Eager to help, the U.S. Congress appropriated billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, to be spent primarily by the U.S. Agency for International Development, a branch of government which had neither the area or language expertise, nor the tools, necessary to deal with the post-communist transition in Eurasia. The results of its efforts in the former Soviet Union were mixed at best.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the track record of the post-Soviet societies has been uneven. For the peoples of Eurasia, the Soviet putsch opened a window of opportunity to redefine their national paths, to shed imperial ties, and to reinvent nationalist narratives. The Baltic states have been the most successful. They placed themselves staunchly and unequivocally in Europe, embraced markets and democracy and are on the way to membership in NATO and the European Union.
Belarus remained the Soviet-era Jurassic park. However, President Alexander Lukashenko's authoritarian rule is such an anachronism in Europe that only Russia can support it. Ukraine is split over its cultural and historical choice - between Central Europe or the Eastern Slavic brotherhood, which would include Russia and Belarus.
The Caucasus is mired in a sea of competing nationalisms, ethnic splits, old hatreds. Caspian energy and pipeline politics add a geopolitical and geo-economic dimension to post-Soviet development in the Caucasus, as the recent Iranian threats against Azerbaijan demonstrate.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan tried to experiment with democracy until the mid-1990s, but pervasive corruption convinced the regimes to switch to the authoritarian model. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan morphed into autocracies almost overnight. Tajikistan self-distructed in a bloody civil war. Now all these regimes are facing a growing threat of militant Islamic takeovers inspired by the neighboring Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban.
And then there is Russia. First, Russia attempted to build democracy and a market economy almost overnight - an effort which looked as shoddy and brutal as Stalinist industrialization imitating the great industrial revolution in the West. Now, the pomp and circumstance, if not the substance, of great power foreign policy are making a return in Moscow. The Commonwealth of Independent States summits have all the charm of the Warsaw Pact meetings, while the ultimate survivors, Heydar Aliev and Nursultan Nazarbaev, muse about the "good old days" of the Soviet Union. Russia has not completely rid itself of its communist heritage, either.
Russia seeks security, prestige and prosperity. It is still trying to decide what it wants to be - an empire, a republic or a Slavic Union. One thing is certain: It cannot be all of these things. And other post-Soviet countries cannot become prosperous democracies if they insist on being authoritarian.
Ten years later after the August 1991 coup, pessimism and disillusionment are widespread among the elites and ordinary people of the former USSR. However, it may be too early to jump to conclusions. As Chou En-Lai reportedly told Henry Kissinger in 1972 when asked to judge the results of the 1789 Great French Revolution, "it is too early to tell." The Eurasian post-imperial space is still a work in progress. And there is another President Bush in the White House watching this difficult transition.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis."

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