Thursday, January 13, 2005

Fortress Russia

At Transitions Online, veteran political researcher and commentator Vitali Silitski asks the question Has the Age of Revolutions Ended?

After Ukraine's Orange Revolution, are there likely to be any more such unexpected flowerings of democracy in the former Soviet Union - particularly in Russia itself? The prospect is not rosy, according to Silitski. Having discovered that "Ukraine is really not Russia", and that attempts to export autocracy where the success of the venture is not guaranteed, as in Ukraine, are likely to backfire in an unpredictable and - for Russian hegemony - disastrous manner, the Kremlin is now likely to cut its losses and further cement its relations with the autocrats, such as Belarus's Lukashenka, whom it really understands and in some sense controls. A repeat of Orange-ness in Belarus is not very probable:
Just a few weeks before the Orange Revolution, Lukashenka pushed through constitutional changes that open the way for a lifelong presidency.

Independent accounts of that constitutional referendum suggest that, for the first time, he might just have lost had the count been fair. But there is no guarantee that he will get away with such sleights of hand endlessly and remain Belarus’ “more or less” fairly elected president. More preemption is therefore needed. Hence his appointment of Viktar Sheiman as his new chief of staff speaks for itself: Sheiman is suspected of arranging the abduction and murder of political opponents of Lukashenka in 1999 and 2000. But Lukashenka has himself also spoken clearly, declaring, “The events in Ukraine show that modern political techniques and a weakly managed country are pregnant with serious consequences.” Hence, he continued, his authority should be strengthened. In simple terms, even more parties and NGOs will be closed down, independent media outlets silenced, opposition activists fired from state jobs, and Western monitors, journalists, and civil-society activists and human rights campaigners banned from the country before presidential elections in 2006 (and who knows whether the opposition will even be allowed to compete in those elections). In the short run, a new law on combating extremism (read: virtually any kind of democratic activity) is under consideration.

What is more, Putin and the Kremlin are likely to take lessons from Lukashenka's experiment in anti-democracy, with the result that we can expect to see more, not less authoritarianism in Russia in the near future. The Kremlin has realized that its attempt to fool the West into accepting it as a partner in the "War on Terror" has failed, and so the ramparts are being sealed, and the drawbridges raised:
Like Lukashenka, surviving autocrats will defend their power. But the Ukrainian revolution will make them understand something else even more clearly: that they should defend themselves together. This self-defense can be seen in the behavior of election observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) who routinely anoint any elections within the region as free and democratic. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had been under attack from Russia well before Putin made harsh comments about its “interference” in the Ukrainian elections: the Russian leader had long made no effort to hide his desire to remove democracy from the OSCE’s agenda, and Russia is even trying to refuse to pay its dues in order to bring about such a change.

It's time for the West to assess the true situation:
...many in the West were caught by surprise by this very old-style Kremlin behavior. Since 11 September 2001, Russia had been meant to be an ally of the democratic West. In reality, Russia accepted the new partnership largely as a new way of dividing up zones of influence between the great powers. America’s acceptance of Putin as an ally and partner was dictated by somewhat cynical thinking taken from the “realist” school of international relations: that is, it does not matter how a country behaves domestically if it is on the right side on the world stage. The most hawkish elements in the Kremlin establishment quickly took advantage. Indeed, within Russia, depiction of Russia as a fortress besieged by Western treachery and domination was never halted, while on the world stage Putin played good-guy with Bush and, when necessary, with European leaders (moreover, the anti-Western, pro-authoritarian rhetoric reached new heights following the Beslan horror: Putin himself chose to speak about the plot against Russia and lament the breakup of the Soviet Union as a convenient explanation for the comprehensive failure of his “vertical of power”).

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