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Wake-Up Call in Russia and Eurasia

December 21, 2011

by Christopher Walker  (@Walker_CT)
Vice President for Strategy and Analysis

AJ English Kazakhstan Photo
Screengrab courtesy Al Jazeera YouTube Page

International attention has turned to Eurasia in recent days, as Kazakhstan uses deadly violence and draconian information controls to crush widening labor unrest in its strategic oil region, and Russia faces the most serious popular challenge to its puppet-theater political system in many years. But long before the current shocks, when things were looking more placid in both countries, there was abundant evidence of trouble to come. Six months ago, Freedom House published a report that pointed to the glaring vulnerabilities of dead-end authoritarian regimes across the former Soviet Union. It noted that these entrenched authoritarian systems exhibited many of the same features that led to the collapse of their Middle Eastern counterparts in the Arab Spring.

The report’s findings did not suggest that a change of regime was imminent in Russia or other authoritarian states in Eurasia. Instead, they indicated that these thoroughly corrupt and repressive countries were demonstrably more susceptible to instability than their better governed counterparts, and therefore needed to change course while they had the chance. It would be better for all concerned, the report argued, to pursue a peaceful, orderly, and sustainable transition—which would be more likely to occur when negotiated between the regime, the opposition, and civil society—than to wait until a crisis emerges, with impatient crowds already massing in the streets. Six months later, in Russia and Kazakhstan at least, those crowds have begun to assemble.

The report cited four key points related to the ever-growing tenures of authoritarian leaders in Eurasia:  

1. Consolidated authoritarian systems have no mechanism to enable a peaceful rotation of power, even if they hold stage-managed elections in a bid to maintain their legitimacy. The contorted, choreographed succession between Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, combined with the deeply flawed parliamentary elections on December 4, was apparently a bridge too far for many increasingly restive Russians. Succession concerns in Kazakhstan are creating their own growing tensions. The regime in Astana seems determined to stave off the issue for as long as possible, taking measures like the snap presidential election in April 2011, in which incumbent Nursultan Nazarbayev was credited with 95 percent of the vote, to quell questions about the president’s health and who might follow him.

2. Governments in Eurasia, like those in the Middle East, systematically deny space for moderate political voices that could offer a viable alternative to existing policies and leaders. Russia’s state dominated media have been consistently and cynically used to discredit and distort opposition voices. In Russia’s case, the “deficit of opposition” is becoming more apparent as cracks in Putin’s governance model widen. This sort of political marginalization can lock societies into a dangerous cycle of extremism among government opponents and violent crackdowns by the authorities.

image from
Protests against flawed elections in Moscow (Photo Credit: Freedom House) 

The inherent corruption and lawlessness of these governance systems stunt economic opportunity and reform. Russia, for example, has made no meaningful headway in diversifying its economy and reducing its reliance on state-controlled oil and gas exports. Ballooning capital flight and shrinking levels of foreign direct investment are a testament to the arbitrary nature of business regulation and property rights in the country. Putinism is already under pressure from key segments of the population, but the regime would face a much more acute challenge if Russia’s economic conditions took a turn for the worse.

4. The longer the wait to begin a serious reform process, the more difficult and complex the reform challenge becomes. Yet the prevailing strategy of Eurasia’s authoritarians is to tighten the screws and hope for the best, an approach that is rife with obvious shortcomings given the recent experience of the Middle East and North Africa. If Putin is successful in granting himself another six or twelve years in power, sorely needed reforms will be postponed for at least that long. And if energy-rich Russia and Kazakhstan, typically viewed as the most advanced and stable countries in the region, are showing signs of fragility, this should stimulate serious concern about the prospects for other shoddily governed states in the neighborhood.

Democracies to the west should be thinking hard about new approaches that do not rely so heavily on these authoritarian regimes. Freedom House’s June report concluded that “in large measure, the democratic world missed opportunities over the years in the Middle East by consistently casting its lot with the region’s authoritarian leaders.” There have been similar missed opportunities in Eurasia, where the policies of the United States and other democracies have gravitated toward even closer relations with repressive regimes, including those in Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan.

Managing relations with nontransparent, coercive governments is always fraught with contradictions and challenges. But the creaking sounds now coming from the systems in Russia and elsewhere should be interpreted as alarm bells, adding urgency to the search for more innovative policies, including more effective attempts to reach the societies living under these ossified authoritarian structures. Ordinary Russians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Azeris should know that the world’s democracies are genuinely supportive of their rights and aspirations, and have not forgotten them in the process of building ties with their autocratic rulers.

As antigovernment stirrings increase in Eurasia, it is becoming clearer than ever that the region is subject to some of the same forces currently shaking the Middle East and North Africa. Policymakers in the United States and Europe will have no excuse if they are caught off guard a second time.

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