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. By contrast, today all of the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic states, which themselves needed to overcome a decades-long legacy of Soviet media culture and control, are assessed as Free in Freedom of the Press. However, they too continue to contend with the challenges and imperfections that media in democratic systems invariably face and in recent years have moved backward in Freedom House's evaluations.


If one force has come to define the power of Russia in the first decade of the 21st century, it has been that of natural energy resources. As oil and natural gas prices have risen, so has Moscow's relative power. Along with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, Russia forms a post-Soviet authoritarian bloc that is part of a larger, global phenomenon of oil-fueled authoritarian influence. Among the troubling byproducts of the growing hydrocarbon wealth has been the further erosion of democratic accountability. As the price of oil has risen over the past 10 years, the former Soviet energy-rich countries have performed poorly on Freedom House indicators. Nations in Transit findings, for example, reveal a striking decline in the openness and independence of institutions such as the judiciary and news media that could be paving the way for more transparent and accountable governance.

The extent of this correlation is particularly evident in the three key post-Soviet states that have enjoyed economic growth on the basis of oil and gas exports--Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia. From 1999 to 2008 these three countries moved backward on every indicator in the Nations in Transit study, the only exception being Russia's still very low score on corruption, which is slightly better in 2008 than a decade earlier. The marked regression in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia has occurred systematically and across different sectors, affecting the spheres of electoral process, civil society, independent media, and judicial independence.

The data do not suggest that abundant energy resources reshaped these countries into authoritarian polities. Instead, where transparency and accountability were already weak, the new wealth has apparently enabled dominant elites to further muzzle independent voices and assert control over crucial institutions. At the same time, the hydrocarbon resources have masked negative fundamentals, like pervasive rent-seeking and widespread corruption, that are preventing meaningful institutional reform in these systems.

Russia's decline in democratic accountability stands out. Over the course of this decade, Russia has experienced a consistent and systematic shrinking of public space as the Kremlin has exerted greater control over the country's political life and strategic parts of the economy. In 2004, the country moved from Partly Free to Not Free status in Freedom House's analysis of political rights and civil liberties.

Under Russian President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's guidance, powerful political and economic interests reorganized themselves to claim a predominant role in the Russian system. Each successive annual Freedom House analysis identified a forging of political power with the commanding heights of industry--along with the security services--that has created a deeply entrenched set of interests in Russia, subject to few if any checks on their power. These same interests have worked to ensure a political succession scenario that would not alter the status quo. Using elaborate political choreography made possible by the dominance of state institutions and state-owned companies, Putin set the stage for a new and enduring role for himself at the pinnacle of the Russian system in 2008. As prime minister, he remains the country's paramount leader.


Challenges of Russian Authoritarianism

There are five points that should be taken into account in considering the challenges posed by the resurgent Russian model.

First, there are no longer any meaningful domestic checks on the Russian leadership, which now has complete influence over all institutions of political accountability, including the news media, political opposition, judiciary, and civil society. Under Putin's leadership, the full force of the Russian state has been brought to bear against those holding opposing views or applying a critical eye to the authorities. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and selective prosecution of tycoon Mikhail Khordokovsky are just two of a panoply of examples of the ruthlessness toward independent-minded Russians. Each successive year of Putin's tenure has seen a shrinking of public space as the Kremlin exerted greater control over the country's political life and strategic parts of the economy. Organized crime and corruption corruption have grown unabated and are deeply woven into the fabric of Russian society.

Second, the Kremlin's chokehold on news media is the linchpin of regime security. Unlike the all-controlling and deeply ideological Soviet-era media model, the contemporary form of media management is achieved through a mix of state-enabled oligarchic control, broadcast monopolies of enterprises aligned with the Kremlin, judicial persecution, and subtle and overt forms of intimidation. The authorities have brutally suppressed independent sources of news and information, while creating a disciplined communications strategy that presents slavishly positive coverage of the country's leadership in state-controlled media. This same state-managed news machinery regularly attacks regime critics, including domestic gadflies such as Garry Kasparov and a number of international watchdog organizations. A dangerous byproduct of Kremlin dominance is its use of the news media as an instrument to unleash harsh propaganda campaigns to shape and distort public perceptions, a political communications tool that has been employed with great effect against a number of neighboring states including Estonia and Georgia.

Third, Russia's authoritarian system now animates its posture toward the outside world. Unaccountable at home, Russia's leadership apparently has no expectation of being held to account beyond its borders. Possible Russian links to the poisonings of Ukraine's pro-reform president, Viktor Yushchenko, and ex-spy, Alexander Lit-vinenko, in London, along with mysterious cyberattacks on neighboring countries, including Estonia, Lithuania, and now Georgia, suggest that the Kremlin believes impunity at home translates into impunity abroad. Russian authorities deny having a hand in any of these episodes but also steadfastly refuse to cooperate with investigations in order to get the bottom of these crimes. The rejection of cooperation with the British authorities in the gruesome Litvinenko murder in this regard stands out.

Fourth, the Russian authorities have undertaken an active effort to undermine established rules-based institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe(OSCE), a key transatlantic body that forms the largest regional security organization and has a wide range of issues, including human rights and democratization, on its agenda. Russia, along with other authoritarian governments within OSCE, orchestrated a campaign to deliver that body's chairmanship to Kazakhstan, the first nondemocratic country to take the post. Kazakhstan will serve its one-year term in 2010. Concurrent with the OSCE, chairmanship effort was a parallel initiative, led by Russia and supported by a number of other former Soviet countries, to gut the capacity of the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, including its well-regarded election-monitoring function.

Fifth, Russia is an emerging petrostate, whose growing economy has been built on the back of surging energy prices. The billions of petrodollars flowing into the Russian state's coffers have enabled what could be called the Kremlin's "authoritarian-capitalist compact," through which ordinary Russians have ceded meaningful political rights in exchange for the authorities delivering economic growth. As history has shown, however, economic development based principally on hydrocarbon wealth is fraught with risk. Because Russia's economic growth is reliant on such natural resources, the country's economic prosperity is fragile. The slumping energy prices that accompained the global economic downturn in the last quarter of 2008 change assumptions about the Russian economic model and, potentially, the authorities' ability to maintain their end of the compact. Looking forward, Russia therefore confronts a serious dilemma: in order to bring about a new phase of reform, the system must enable the active participation of the very institutions--news media, independent business, and civil society, among others--that the authorities have systematically smothered over the course of the last eight years.

In contrast to the authoritarian trajectory of the former Soviet Union, the countries of central and southeastern Europe, along with the Baltic states, have pressed forward with democratic reform. This progress has been enabled by these countries' commitment to opening their systems and through the attractive force of the European Union. Despite indisputable progress, however, these countries continue to navigate the complex and messy realities of consolidating democratic systems. The temptation of political elites in a number of the new EU member states to pursue narrow, private interests rather than the broader public good remains a serious problem, and many ordinary citizens feel alienated from those who govern. Public cynicism and frustration has fed populist impulses and a growing distrust of state officials and institutions.

News media in the new democracies have also come under greater pressure from governmental and other powerful elites. In Nations in Transit, it is evident that the entire region has suffered independent media declines over the past five-year period, with a total of 15 countries slipping backward. For new EU members, the average independent media score has fallen, influenced by the downward trajectory in Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia. In the Balkans, no country improved its media performance in the last five years, and Serbia and Montenegro slipped backward, with violence against journalists playing a major role.


In the former Soviet Union, a markedly bleaker picture has emerged. In environments that were already inhospitable to independent media, authoritarian governments have focused intensely on controlling and manipulating media infrastructure and content. The Internet, the freest medium and principal challenger to media hegemony in the region, is receiving new and negative attention from the authorities. Over the past five years, media scores worsened in 8 of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics in Nations in Transit. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Russia underwent the steepest declines, as powerful elites exerted greater influence over news outlets. Other countries, including Georgia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, experienced somewhat smaller declines. Standing in direct contrast, Ukraine, which received the strongest media score in the region, also enjoyed the most positive upward trajectory during this period.

Overall, democratic accountability is an ever-scarcer commodity in the countries of the former Soviet Union, whose regimes put a premium on their own security and use increasingly coercive and predatory means to govern. The latest Nations in Transit findings indicate that on the NIT scale, with a score of 7.00 representing the weakest democratic performance and 1.00 the strongest, the former Soviet Union achieves an average democracy score of nearly 6.00. Of the non-Baltic former Soviet countries, only Georgia and Ukraine manage to score better than 5.00. Kyrgyzstan, which experienced a political opening in 2005, has slid backward since that time. In 2007, the country saw declines in a number of areas, including electoral process, independent media, corruption, and local and national governance.

Ukraine's Success and the Color Revolutions

The only clearly positive news among the former Soviet republics is in post-Orange Revolution Ukraine, where authoritarian control has given way to politics that are messy but vibrant and competitive. Ukraine has managed to demonopolize power in a region whose dominant feature is precisely such a monopolization. Unlike virtually all of the other former Soviet republics, Ukraine has, since the Orange Revolution, held competitive elections and enabled an independent news media. Despite the many problems it faces in its new period of democratic development, Ukraine has safeguarded civil society and the news media, two indispensable institutions for advancing deeper political reform.

While Ukraine has managed to advance competitive if not entirely liberal politics, Georgia, the other Color Revolution hopeful with the most promising prospects for reform, has not fared so well. Even before Russia's incursion into Georgia shocked the world and brought into sharp relief the new rules of the game in the region, President Mikheil Saakashvili's reform ambitions had already come under extreme duress. In October and early November 2007, thousands of people took to the streets to oppose Saakashvili, in the largest demonstrations since the 2003 Rose Revolution. The Georgian authorities, who violently dispersed the demonstrators, closed an opposition television station and declared a state of emergency on November 7.

The upheaval illuminated deeper fissures in the Georgian political landscape that have no easy solutions. Despite their stated interest in joining NATO, the Georgian authorities have yet to demonstrate that dissenting voices can be heard and play a meaningful role in the country's policy debate. At the same time, the country's political opposition has yet to show that it buck the norm in the former Soviet Union by offering a mature and responsible alternative to the incumbents.

Moving Toward Democratic Institutions

Today's map of Europe, while dramatically different than that of the Cold War era, suggests a period of increasing obstacles to the development of democratic standards and institutions in many countries. Paralleling these obstacles is a concomitant tension in interstate relations as authoritarian regimes seek to suppress local, and fend off external, pressure for change. Enlargement of the EU has brought into sharper relief a number of conspicuous contrasts on the geopolitical map between, on the one hand, the Central European and Baltic states and, on the other, those countries to the east that remain outside the EU. The growing division is also explained by the emergence of a distinct set of authoritarian states, boosted in several key cases by extraordinary energy riches that are playing an influential role in impeding democratic governance and establishing a new set of rules for the relationship with western partners.

While the recent downward swing in energy prices underscores the volatility and unpredictability of the energy market, the fact remains that the percentage of EU energy imports coming from Russia expected to grow from 50 percent to 70 percent over the next decade and a half. Given Europe's heavy reliance on these resources and its inability, along with the United States, to craft effective policies to manage relations with the authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union, realizing the positive vision of the immediate post-Cold War period will remain a significant challenge.

CHRISTOPHER WALKER is director of studies at Freedom House. He is coeditor of Freedom House's annual survey of democratic governance, Countries at the Crossroads.

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