Democracy in the CIS; Supporting the Struggle for New Freedoms

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Democracy in the CIS; Supporting the Struggle for New Freedoms


Byline: Christopher H. Smith, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the last year, a political earthquake has struck the countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and the ongoing Orange Revolution in Ukraine are a direct challenge to ruling elites in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. They also threaten to derail Russian President Vladimir Putin's policy of retaining as much control as possible over the former Soviet empire.

Throughout this region, ex-communist rulers allied with oligarchic groups have, to varying degrees, seized control of their countries' economies and political arenas. While claiming to observe the democracy commitments voluntarily accepted when their countries joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992, these leaders have remained in power by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using any means necessary. Executive control of the legislative and judicial branches of power, as well as the state's coercive apparatus, has made it possible to largely intimidate the public out of politics, which has remained an "insider's-only" game.

This arrangement has served the Kremlin well. Building alliances with leaders of dubious legitimacy seemed an ideal way to stem the "invasion of Western influence" and its annoying imperative of free and fair elections. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) routinely approved of elections in CIS countries which OSCE monitors criticized or damned with faint praise. In this way and others, Moscow showed other CIS capitals that, unlike the United States, Russia would not question their right to rule by hook or by crook and was a reliable bulwark, unlike the preachy West.

Consequently, the democratic revolution which swept Georgia last year horrified the leaders of other former Soviet republics. For the first time in ex-Soviet space, opposition leaders united to mobilize a broad-based protest movement that overturned the results of a rigged election. The emergence of Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia's Rose Revolution and was subsequently elected president in a landslide, signaled more than the end of Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt, moribund regime: Mr. Saakashvili symbolized the first popular revolt against the system of pseudo-democracy prevalent on post-Soviet soil. What is now transpiring in Ukraine is the logical continuation of what began last year in the Caucasus. And every successful precedent emboldens opposition movements in other CIS countries and gives hope to impoverished, frustrated and seemingly apathetic publics, proving that real change is possible.

The picture of a victorious Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili ushering in a New Year in Kiev's Independence Square no doubt causes angst in other CIS leaders, even as it inspires those living under repressive regimes elsewhere in the region. In a telling twist, CIS election observers for the first time criticized an election held in the former Soviet Union, decrying the conduct of Ukraine's Dec. …

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