Vladimir Putin once notoriously declared that the breakup of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Putin got it dead wrong, of course. The real tragedy of the post-Soviet sphere is that a part of the world that endured more than 75 years of totalitarian brutality has experienced a further period of autocratic rule, highlighted by systematic injustice, rampant corruption, bogus elections, pervasive censorship, and personality cults.
Putin is not solely responsible for this depressing state of affairs. But his actions have contributed mightily to the woes of his neighborhood.
The grim facts are reflected in the findings of Nations in Transit, an annual report on the condition of democracy in the post-Communist world issued by Freedom House. Among the major conclusions:
- Four out of five people in the 12 Eurasia (i.e., former Soviet) countries live under authoritarian rule;
- 97 percent of the region’s citizens live in societies with major restrictions on press freedom;
- Every country in the region save two (Georgia and Moldova) has experienced a decline in democratic standards over the past decade;
- The past decade has seen major setbacks in judicial independence and civil society;
- Azerbaijan and Russia have registered the most serious setbacks over the decade.
A little more than two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Eurasia vies with the Middle East as the world’s most repressive region. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are two of the world’s most flagrantly repressive regimes. Alexander Lukashenka, President of Belarus, has been dubbed Europe’s last dictator. The leaders of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan rank high among the world’s petro-despots.
Again and again, however, the findings of Nations in Transit point to Russia’s role as model and enabler for the region’s fellow autocracies. We are increasingly witnessing a kind of copycat effect, where measures adopted by Russia for repressive purposes find their way into the legal and political systems of neighboring states.
This is especially the case concerning civil society. As early as 2005, Putin pushed through legislation to restrict the activities of non-governmental organizations, and this became a model for other regimes in the region. After Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, he launched a series of measures to further restrict NGOs, culminating in the law that brands groups that accept funding from abroad as foreign agents. In 2013 alone, some 1,000 civil society groups were investigated, harassed, or shut down altogether, as in the case of GOLOS, a respected election-monitoring organization.
In the wake of the Russian initiatives, other countries have subsequently followed suit. A similar law has been introduced in Azerbaijan, although the action smacked of overkill given the vast arsenal of laws and policies that the regime of Ilham Aliyev has already assembled to crush critics. In Ukraine, then-President Viktor Yanukovych proposed a foreign agents measure shortly before fleeing the country this past February. Similar laws have been adopted or contemplated in Kazakhstan, Belarus, and the states of Central Asia.
Similarly, country after country in the region has emulated Russia’s reprehensible 2013 law that prohibits LGBT “propaganda.” Similar measures have been proposed or brought up for discussion in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and even Latvia, a European Union member state. In June 2013, Moldova passed a law that banned the promotion of “relationships other than those linked to marriage and the family,” but removed the relevant legal clause four months later under European Union pressure.
There are, to be sure, some positive developments in the post-communist sphere. Most notably, the countries of Central Europe and the Baltics continue to rank among the world’s stable democracies, even as some are plagued by corruption and ineffective government.
But Central Europe’s achievements beg the question as to why democracy seems to have stopped at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Twenty-five years ago, in June 1989, Poland’s Solidarity movement swept the ruling communists aside in an election victory that would change the face of Europe. This year also marks 15 years in NATO for Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, and ten years of EU membership for those countries plus Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Baltics, which also joined NATO in 2004. The fall of communism and the gradual expansion of NATO and the European Union have been accompanied by remarkable overall improvements in democratic governance in the states affected.
This divergence between Central Europe and the post-Soviet states is not simply the result of internal weaknesses or EU absence. Something else is at work. The Kremlin’s recent belligerence in Ukraine has made it clearer than ever that struggles for democracy in a given country do not play out in isolation; there are external adversaries working to thwart and reverse them.
The United States was inspired to wage the Cold War for more than four decades by the proposition that freedom belongs to all people. The outcome of that struggle remains incomplete as long as Eurasia overwhelmingly remains a vast expanse of injustice, corruption, and repression, and as long as the Russian leadership claims the right to deny freedom not just to its own people but to its neighbors as well.