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The Arab Spring and the Former Soviet Republics

February 6, 2014

Americans being an impatient people, we tend to want instant results. Worse, we tend to judge an event by its immediate aftermath. We aren’t inclined to wait and see.

Thus in many quarters the Arab Spring has been branded a failure. Violence reigns in much of the Arab Middle East, and democracy is not exactly on the march. Most Republicans, and even many Democrats, regard this state of affairs as proof of failure of American policy, specifically President Obama’s policy, and maybe also former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy as well.

I’m an advocate for a longer view. Short-term results matter, of course, and I was a huge fan of the NATO intervention in Libya, which enabled a rabble of Libyan militias to oust the awful dictator Muammar Qaddafi. The intervention was minimal, almost entirely limited to air support for the native Libyan ground campaign. Unlike in Afghanistan or Iraq, NATO intervention left Libya in control of Libyans, and Libyans never thought of the intervention as an occupation to be fought and ousted.

I regard the Libyan intervention as a short-term success because it freed Libyans to make their own choices about how to govern themselves. The evolution of those choices will likely take decades. I have noted that it took South Koreans fully 35 years after the end of the Korean War to evolve into the liberal, capitalist democracy that it is today. Thus I see the Korean War as a great success.

The Arab Spring bears some important similarities to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Both took both American popular opinion and the American intelligence community completely by surprise. We lacked the courage of our own convictions, that liberal capitalist democracy is the superior form of social and political organization, and that all people everywhere prefer civil liberties and self-government to the alternatives. Both had short-term results that were, at the very best, ambiguous.

Surely the collapse of the Soviet Union was a good thing – at least as good a thing as the Arab Spring, right? The Arab Spring is a toddler next to the 22-year old post-Soviet republics. So how are they doing?

Of 15 former Soviet republics, precisely three have become liberal capitalist democracies: the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Four republics have lower gross domestic product today than in 1991: Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan and Ukraine. Several republics remain quite autocratic, and two of them have had the same heads of state for the entirety of their post-Soviet existence: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have also had long-time autocratic rulers. Vladimir Putin has been either president or prime minister of Russia since 1999. Azerbaijan has fallen into a dynastic presidency, a father-son pair having held control for more than 20 years.

Outside of the Baltics, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are limited, human development is mediocre to poor, democratic practices are spotty, violence is rife and armed conflict is common.

In addition to our impatience, Americans like things to be clear-cut. We’re not good with ambiguity and nuance. But despite its ambiguous results to date, the collapse of the Soviet Union was unequivocally a good thing because it created opportunities, even if most of the former Soviet republics have yet to seize those opportunities.

The three Baltic republics have joined the European Union and NATO. Ukraine now hangs in the balance between Russia and Europe, with Europhiles seeming to gain the upper hand in recent weeks. As Ukraine goes, so Moldova will likely go – Moldova recently refused to buckle to Russian pressure imposed by a Russian ban against Moldovan wine, despite the importance of wine exports to Moldova’s economy. Georgia struggles, against odds that are heavily stacked by Russian military support for separatists in Abkhazia, to develop democratic institutions, a capitalist economy, and personal freedoms.

The arc of history is long, but it is bending toward the American ideal of liberal capitalist democracy. The Arab Spring is just three years old. Four Arab Spring countries have deposed autocratic leaders (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen). Tunisia just adopted the most progressive constitution in the Arab world, and is to date the most successful of the Arab Spring countries. Yemenis concluded a “national dialogue conference” last week with an agreement to form a federal republic, and drafting of a constitution to be done by next January. Egypt’s and Libya’s fits and starts have been well covered, both countries engaged in struggles between pro- and anti-democratic forces, both countries showing flashes of popular preference for the democratic forces, especially in the cities.

Iraqis have made some big mistakes, like preferring the less inclusive Shiite Nouri al-Maliki in the 2010 elections over the more secular, pluralistic Shiite Iyad Allawi. The governing Shiite party has succeeded in sufficiently alienating Iraq’s Sunni minority that Al Qaeda affiliates have taken root – even physically taking over the important cities of Falluja and Ramadi last month.

Still, Iraq holds to the forms of democracy, elections and all, and as long as the forms of democracy remain, there is hope for development of real democracy. A people with no democratic tradition does not transition easily from Saddam Hussein to liberal democracy. On April 30, Iraqi voters will get another chance. Maybe they will choose better this time, maybe not. (Americans should never be smug about other countries’ electoral choices, given some of ours.)

Syrians may yet rid themselves of the Assad regime. Bahraini Shiites may yet oust their minority royal Sunni masters. Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco may yet loosen the holds of their ruling families.

These are opportunities that the Arab Spring has created. Some of the opportunities will be taken, some will be wasted. But the standard for measuring success cannot be perfection. The Arab Spring is already a short-term success for the opportunities it created. I’m prepared to wait several decades to decide whether it was a long-term success.

But I am optimistic, because I believe that people everywhere, not just Americans, ultimately prefer self-government, democracy, individual rights, and free markets over the alternatives, and because I believe that people everywhere, even including Americans, ultimately prefer pluralism and tolerance over perpetual conflict and forcible suppression of those of differing ethnicity or religion.

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