On the way to democracy in the former Soviet Union, two roads diverge
NEW YORK — President Vladimir Putin is poised to give the Russian government the tools to exert even greater control over the country's already beleaguered nongovernmental sector. The restrictive NGO law that awaits his signature broadens the grounds for denying registration to or closing Russian NGOs, setting the stage for greater government interference in their work. The draft law on his desk, however, represents only the most recent blow in what is a larger, systematic effort by the authorities to curb independent voices in Russia.
Moreover, this Kremlin measure is just the latest in a string of repressive steps throughout the former Soviet Union. This tightening by autocratic regimes is in no small part a reaction to the recent democratic movements in neighboring countries. The ferocity with which post-Soviet strongmen have reacted, while not entirely surprising, confirms that these regimes are dropping even the pretense of democratic practice.
Two divergent story lines have emerged in the past year in the former Soviet Union (FSU). One is in the "revolution" countries of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, where popular pushback against corrupt, autocratic leadership opened the door for a degree of democratic reform not previously experienced in these countries' suffocating political environments.
The other narrative, found in virtually all of the remaining countries of the non-Baltic FSU, is one of increased state repression to ensure regime security.
Findings from Freedom House's recently released survey of political rights and civil liberties, "Freedom in the World," underscore these developments. Of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven countries are rated "not free," four are "partly free," and one is "free." Ukraine, whose Orange revolution captured the world's imagination, joined the ranks of countries rated "free" in 2005, becoming the first non-Baltic post-Soviet state to achieve this distinction. Kyrgyzstan, whose status moved from "not free" to "partly free," is dealing with a far more difficult transition but nonetheless is showing signs of political activism. In these two countries, as well as in Georgia, efforts to institutionalize reform have moved to the front burner. This is not to suggest that these transitions are going entirely smoothly. To be sure, Tbilisi, Georgia; Kiev, Ukraine; and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in particular, have enormous reform challenges.
Meanwhile, in contrast to struggles for reform in these countries, leaders in capitals such as Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Minsk, Belarus; and Moscow are pursuing a dramatically different agenda. Last year saw a raft of measures, all designed to bring about even greater obedience from independent forces in society. The brunt of the political assault hit the last vestiges of independent civic life, which included new regulations to limit political competition and protest, as well as brutality of an entirely new order in Uzbekistan.
In Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenka signed into law on Dec. 21 legislation that would further undermine the opposition in the run-up to this year's presidential elections. The new measure makes it a crime punishable by up to two years in jail to "discredit Belarus" in the eyes of international organizations and foreign governments.
The authorities in Kazakhstan, two weeks after President Nursultan Nazarbayev won reelection on Dec. 4 with a reported 91 percent of the vote, tightened the screws by refusing to register the country's main opposition party, Authentic Ak Zhol. Repressive Uzbekistan continued its crackdown on independent assistance organizations and media. Last month, the regime refused to renew the agreement that has allowed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to operate a bureau in Tashkent. President Islam Karimov's militia is believed to have massacred some 500 protesters in the eastern city of Andijan last May.
Moscow, meanwhile, is constricting political space at home as it carves out a role as an enabler of autocracy in neighboring states. Restricting independent NGOs is one thing. The Kremlin is taking things one step further by creating obedient parallel bodies - "pseudo-civil society" - whose principal purpose is to toe the authorities' line. Outside Russia's borders, such bodies take the form of Moscow-backed election monitors who give their stamp of approval to the sham elections held in neighboring countries. These entities are part of what US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried describes as a "bizarre alternative universe."
Ratcheting up repression belies a basic insecurity within the leadership in these countries. This should come as no surprise for regimes not accustomed to being held accountable by their own citizens.
The sad fact remains that in much of the unreformed FSU countries, the recent onslaught of new restrictive measures, including the pending Russian NGO law, is gratuitous. Given the lack of media, legislative, and judicial independence, the leadership in these reform-starved lands is already well positioned to clamp down on whomever they deem politically undesirable.
Greater repression is not the cure for what ails these post-Soviet societies. On the contrary, what is needed is an approach that recognizes average citizens' rights and offers a path for the normalization of politics. The sooner these societies are opened, the better for everyone.
• Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.