An Illusory Transition: Resilient Authoritarianism in the Former Soviet Union

By Walker, Christopher | Harvard International Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

An Illusory Transition: Resilient Authoritarianism in the Former Soviet Union


Walker, Christopher, Harvard International Review


When President George H.W. Bush gave his "A Europe Whole and Free" speech in Mainz, (West) Germany in May 1989, the assumptions of the time suggested a clear path in establishing open and democratic countries in Europe and Eurasia, what he termed a "commonwealth of free nations."

Two decades later, the inevitability of that vision is in doubt. Despite impressive democratic gains in the former Soviet republics of the Baltics and the satellite states of Central Europe--countries that have forged democratic institutions and achieved both European Union and NATO memberships--a massive portion of Eurasia is still not free. The vision of a Europe "whole and free" has not been fulfilled. Today, it is evident that the new democracies of Central Europe and the authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union inhabit entirely different political spaces; in many respects the trajectories of their respective political development are propelling them even further apart.

Russia's resurgence as a leading authoritarian state, along with the assertion of influence by the region's other ambitious and increasingly illiberal energy-rich countries, has recast expectations for interstate relations in the coming era. Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and its reassertion of what President Dmitri Medvedev characterized as Moscow's "privileged" sphere of interests, on and beyond the Russian Federation's periphery, are emblematic of the transformation of the geopolitical landscape. These developments suggest that a good deal of history is still left within the region that formerly was the Soviet Union, its satellite states, and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Through its range of analytical publications, Freedom House has tracked this history for over three decades.

Freedom House evaluates all of the countries of the region each year in three of its major analytical works: Freedom in the World, The Global Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties; Freedom of the Press, which examines media freedom in all the world's countries; and Nations in Transit, which assesses democratic development in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Today, the overall picture for democracy in the former Soviet Union is grim. In Freedom in the World, of the 12 former non-Baltic Soviet republics, seven are categorized as Not Free, four are Partly Free, and one, Ukraine, is characterized as Free. Indeed, only Ukraine has achieved demonstrable democratic progress over the course of the new decade.

Independent media is a principal target of regimes in the region. Findings from Freedom House's annual survey of global media independence, Freedom of the Press, reveal that ten of the 12 post-Soviet states are ranked "Not Free," indicating that these countries do not provide the basic guarantees and protections in the legal, political, and economic spheres to enable open and independent journalism. Russia, which moved from the ranks of Partly Free to those of the Not Free countries in 2003, has seen the most precipitous decline in recent years. Today, all of the major national television channels (Channel One, RTR, and NTV), from which most Russians get their news and information, have come under state control.

Russia is not, however, an isolated case regarding the freedom of the news media. Similarly controlling policies toward the information sector are in place in most other former Soviet republics, including such countries as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Decline of Russian Freedom

The Russian authorities' domination of television news is, however, only one piece of a broad and comprehensive campaign to bring media that produce news of political consequence under Kremlin control. Of the 195 countries examined in Freedom of the Press, which annually examines global media freedom, three of the world's 10 worst press freedom performers--Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan--are found in the former Soviet Union. …

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