Authoritarian Rule Inextricably Woven Into the Culture

February 26, 2011

The Lands Autocracy Won’t

MOSCOW — Let the Middle East and North Africa be buffeted by populist
discontent over repressive governments. Here in Lenin’s former territory, across
the expanse of the old Soviet Union, rulers with iron fists still have the upper
Their endurance serves as a sobering counterpoint for anyone presuming that
the overthrow of a tyrannical regime by a broad-based movement is inevitably
followed by vibrant democracy.
The long-serving president of the former Soviet republic of Belarus, for
example, won another term in December with 80 percent of the vote, then took
great offense when the results were called shamefully implausible by his
opponents. (They have not been heard from since.)
Over in, the even longer-serving president has had himself coroneted with the
formal title of “national leader.”
The strongest of the post-Soviet strongmen, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is
actually a comparative newcomer, having reigned unchallenged for a mere decade
Nearly two decades ago, the collapse of Soviet Communism offered the promise
that power would soon be wielded differently in this region: The newly
independent former Soviet republics, sprung from the shackles of
totalitarianism, would embrace free elections, multiple political parties and a
vigorously independent media.
But those hopes now seem premature, or perhaps naïve. In the 1990’s, the
Soviet breakup sowed chaos — most notably in Russia — and a corps of autocrats
arose in response, pledging stability and economic growth. The brand of
democracy that is advanced in the West emerged discredited in many of these
And so even as upheavals in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world have
garnered attention across the former Soviet Union, the region’s leaders express
confidence that they are not under threat.
“In the past, such a scenario was harbored for us, and now attempts to
implement it are even more likely,” Mr. Putin’s protégé, President Dmitri A.
Medvedev, warned last week. “But such a scenario is not going to happen.”
The wilting of the democracy movement was reflected in the arrest of several
Russian opposition leaders at a small rally in Moscow on Dec. 31  —  one of the
regular protests scheduled to highlight the 31st article of Russia’s
Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly.
There was no public outcry over the arrests, and people went about with their
lives. Tunisia, it was not.
The same opposition politicians, now out of jail, returned on Jan. 31, hoping
that an inspiring new example — Egypt — would prove galvanizing, and Triumphal
Square in Moscow would have the feel of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
“We are all watching what is happening in Egypt,” Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former
deputy prime minister, told the crowd.
“They have had 30 years of the dictator Mubarak, who is a thief and corrupt,”
he said. “How is he really any different than our guy?”
People shouted, “Russia without Putin!” But once again, society did not join
in. It did not appear that more than 1,000 people attended.
What’s more, many were not particularly young. That helps to explain why such
uprisings seem to have had a harder time taking root. Populations in Russia and
many other former Soviet republics are aging, in contrast to those in the Middle
East. Here, there are fewer people to carry out youthful acts of rebellion,
whether on the streets or on Facebook and Twitter.
The older generation grew up under Soviet rule, which was so tightly
controlled that today’s autocracies feel like an improvement. They also enjoy
more economic freedom today.
Even in the six former Soviet republics that have Muslim majorities, the
events in the Middle East have not had significant repercussions.
If anything, the violence has strengthened the hand of the autocrats in the
short term because it has caused oil prices to spike, benefiting the economies
of petro-states like Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
The current crop of post-Soviet leaders has also skillfully played upon fears
of instability and misery in the wake of the 1990’s, knowing that when times are
tough, people often prefer authoritarian order to cacophonous democracy.
A talk show on the Echo of Moscow radio station, which is something akin to
the NPR of Russia, chewed over the question of why protesters had flooded the
streets of Middle Eastern capitals and not Moscow. “Our people endure, and will
patiently endure, suffering,” said Georgi Mirsky, a well-known political
analyst. “Because Soviet Man is still alive — that’s the thing! The mentality of
the people (or at least a considerable number of them) has not changed enough
for them to develop a taste for freedom.”
There are, of course, exceptions. The Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and
Lithuania — have joined the European Union and embraced Western mores. But they
were always outliers within the Soviet Union, and only became part of it when
Stalin seized them during World War II.
Even the so-called color revolutions over the last decade in Ukraine,
Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, which were widely viewed as a repudiation of
authoritarianism, have since fallen flat.
In Ukraine, a new president was elected last year after a backlash against
the Orange Revolution, and he is pursuing a Putin-style crackdown on the
A revolt in Kyrgyzstan last year ousted a ruler who had ousted a predecessor.
As a result, politicians in Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors in Central Asia now maintain
that they need heavily centralized rule to avoid Kyrgyzstan’s fate.
“We have to feed our people, then we can create conditions where our people
can become involved in politics,” said Nurlan Uteshev, a Kazakh from his
country’s ruling party.
Mr. Putin, Russia’s prime minister and former (and perhaps future) president,
regularly cites the example of neighboring Ukraine. “We must not in any way
allow the Ukrainization of political life in Russia,” Mr. Putin once
For a time, Georgia seemed at the forefront of a democratic wave. But in
2007, President Mikheil Saakashvili, a close American ally, violently suppressed
his opposition. Now, his rivals characterize him as no better than Mr.
Mr. Saakashvili’s supporters defend him by contending that he will not try to
stay in power when his term expires in 2013. They say he has made enormous
strides in modernizing Georgia, adding that it is unrealistic to expect a
country long immersed in the Soviet system to be transformed overnight.
That is a common refrain. Janez Lenarcic, a diplomat who heads democracy
promotion for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has the
taxing job of trying to persuade these countries to loosen the reins.
“The notion of stability plays an important role here,” Mr. Lenarcic said.
“They say, ‘We need more time, we need to get there at our own pace.’ We respond
that long-term stability will come only with strong democratic institutions, not
with personalities, because personalities are not around forever.”
He said he remained optimistic, despite the stagnation. And perhaps views are
evolving. A recent poll of Russians asked if they preferred order (even at the
expense of their rights) or democracy (even if it gives rise to destructive
elements). Order won, 56 percent to 23 percent.
That may not sound encouraging, but a decade ago the spread was 81 percent to
9 percent.
Copyright. 2011. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

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