'Color' revolutions wane

Russia asserts its influence ahead of elections in Belarus and Ukraine this month.

Two key former Soviet states - Belarus and Ukraine - head into elections this month amid dramatic accusations of planned coups, state coercion, and vote-fixing.

But Moscow isn't worried.

Instead, there is a sense of calm and fresh confidence here that contrasts sharply with the Kremlin's panicky reactions to the surge of "colored revolts" that swept through the region in recent years. That revolutionary wave - which began with Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and continued with Ukraine's Orange Revolution - seemed unstoppable just a year ago, when Krygyz President Askar Akayev was overthrown.

But the inability of new leaders to fulfill revolutionary pledges, together with the failure of popular pressure to effect change in other Soviet satellite states, has opened the way for Moscow to reassert its influence in the region.

"Those upsurges were the response of people to bad governance and worsening conditions, and the new leaders that came in have shown themselves unable to offer improvements," says Gennady Chuffrin, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Ukraine could even see a reversal of what happened a year ago. Obviously the Kremlin would like to see a weakening of [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yushchenko, and I think that's what's going to happen."

Ukraine's economic decline and disillusionment have propelled the pro-Moscow opposition party into first place in opinion surveys for parliamentary elections on March 26. In an ironic twist, the opposition leader Mr. Yanukovych, who was forced out of power after being accused of rigging Ukraine's 2004 presidential election in his favor, claims the authorities are preparing to steal the polls. "The orange team can only remain in power through massive falsifications, and this is what they are doing," he said last week.

According to a survey conducted last week by the Institute of Social and Political Psychology in Kiev, Ukraine, Yanukovych's Party of Regions leads with 27 percent support, followed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Bloc with 19 percent and Mr. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement with 17 percent.

If the elections bring in a deeply split parliament, it could lead to an extended political crisis that would play into Moscow's hands. A January gas blockade by Russia appears to have deepened Ukraine's economic slump while strengthening the hand of the pro-Moscow Yanukovych.

"We can make Ukraine strong and rich, because democracy is impossible in a poor country," Yanukovych told his campaign workers last week. "Unlike the present leadership, we will not build our strategy to the detriment of relations with Russia."

In Belarus, good relations with Russia are not an issue. The Kremlin will try to put the best face on President Alexander Lukashenko's almost certain third-term victory in polls slated for March 19. But even Russian experts who support the Belarussian leader refrain from calling the election process democratic.

Two candidates running against Lukashenko, Alexander Kozulin and Alexander Milinkevich, have been all but barred from media and their rallies have been broken up by force. Last Thursday, Mr. Kozulin was arrested and allegedly beaten by police after he attempted to stage an impromptu press conference at the Palace of the Republic, Belarus' parliament, in Minsk. "I wanted to tell the truth about the dictatorship that we live in," Kozulin told journalists.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm chairman who has maintained a strict, state-controlled economy, can point to healthy growth rates, low unemployment and stable, if meager, living standards.

"Lukashenko, for all his lack of democracy, has the support of his people and is pursuing sensible policies," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Globalization Institute in Moscow. "He may be the devil incarnate to the West, but Belarussians regard him as their legitimate leader."

But at least a few Belarussians apparently have other ideas. Last week, the chief of Belarus's KGB security service accused an allegedly foreign-funded opposition group of planning to stage an election-day coup after publishing faked voting results.

Opposition leaders deny the allegations. Mr. Milinkevich has called for peaceful protests if vote-rigging occurs. But all election-day demonstrations were banned by government decree last week. "These elections are being held under conditions of total falsification and persecution of the opposition," Milinkevich told journalists Friday.

The turmoil prompted US Deputy Secretary of State David Kramer to warn Belarussian leaders that "there will be consequences" for incidents like Kozulin's arrest. "We are paying very close attention to those who are involved in activities that promote either fraudulent elections or promote violence," he said.

Many Russian experts worry that the perceived rivalry between Moscow and Washington for influence in the post-Soviet arena, as played out through these events, is accelerating a chill between the two countries. A US Council on Foreign Relations report released over the weekend noted a "downward trajectory" in US-Russian ties, in part due to Moscow's alleged meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, through energy squeezes and political pressure. "Russia's relations with other post-Soviet states have become a source of significantly heightened US-Russian friction," the report said.

That view is mirrored in Moscow. "Unfortunately, the [wave of revolutions] was perceived in Russia as a kind of conspiracy against Russian interests," mainly promoted by the US, says Irina Zvigelskaya, an analyst with the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow. She says the problem results from poor communication over each other's policies in the region. "The US has been obsessed with the notion of democracy, while we have been obsessed with the notion of stability," she says. "It's a deeply fraught misunderstanding"

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