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The Post-Soviet States, 25 Years On

December 27, 2016

After three elderly and infirm Soviet rulers died in office within a span of 28 months, the Communist Party finally turned to a new generation. In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took power at the age of 54.

Gorbachev introduced sweeping reforms that came to be known as perestroika, which is Russian for “restructuring,” and glasnost, or “openness.” A free press informed the public in a way that the official media never had, and the public vigorously exercised its new freedom of speech to complain about what it learned. Civic tumult followed, not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the Communist-controlled countries of Eastern Europe. After Gorbachev declined to follow the precedents of military intervention in 1956 and 1968, the Berlin Wall effectively fell on November 9, 1989.

Following suit, the 15 constituent republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics asserted sovereignty. On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic became the first to formally declare independence from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union remained in a somewhat ambiguous status until August 1991, when senior officials in Gorbachev’s government staged a military coup in an effort to head off liberalization. The coup collapsed on its third day, effectively ending the Soviet Union. The formal dissolution of the Union is usually assigned the date of December 26, 1991, the day that upper house of the Soviet legislature voted itself and the Soviet Union out of existence.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the final dissolution of the Soviet Union – a good time to measure the progress of the Soviet Union’s 15 successor states.

For starters, we can fairly call only the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, liberal democracies. The Economist, which compiles an annual democracy index, ranked those countries #29, #38 and #42, for 2015. (For comparison: the United States was ranked #20; Norway came in first.) Moldova did relatively well to rank in the top half, at #70, but the other 11 successor states were deemed to be either authoritarian or hybrid democratic-authoritarian states.

Similarly, only the Baltics won top political freedom ratings in the 2016 “Freedom in the World” report from Freedom House. The report compiles indicators of political rights, including measures of the electoral process, and civil liberties and individual autonomy. (The United States was rated “free,” scoring slightly below Estonia and Lithuania, and slightly above Latvia. Finland, Iceland, Norway, San Marino and Sweden tied for first place.) Five former Soviet republics rated “partly” free, and seven rated “not free” – including Russia, by far the largest of the Soviet successor states.

In freedom of information, which includes press freedom and government openness, again only the Baltics won “good” or “satisfactory” ratings in the 2016 report from Reporters Without Borders. Four former republics were deemed to have “noticeable problems,” five were characterized as in a “difficult situation,” and three – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – fell into the bottom category, “very serious situation,” scoring in the lowest 10 percent of countries in the world, alongside countries like China, North Korea and Syria. (The United States rated “satisfactory,” scoring 41st in the world, reflecting a significant decline in recent years that is largely due to disclosures about the federal government’s secret spying programs. Finland took first place.)

The old Soviet Union scored well on the United Nations Development Program’s human development index, which is a composite of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators. In 1991, the Soviet Union ranked 33rd in the world in human development.

The chaotic break-up of the Soviet Union reduced average incomes substantially, and in 1992, only Lithuania scored as high as the old Soviet Union had scored the year before, at 29th in the world – followed closely by Estonia at #34 and Latvia at #35. Russia did well, at #37, and five other former Soviet republics were given “very high development” ratings. Three former republics were rated “high development” and three were rated “medium development.” (By contrast, the United States, a “high development” country, ranked sixth in the world in both 1991 and 1992. Canada came in first in 1991; Japan in 1992.)

But none of the 15 former republics has improved its human development score since 1992, and only one, Estonia, has improved its ranking – from #34 in the world in 1992 to #30 in 2014. Only the three Baltic countries still get “very high development” ratings; seven rate “high development” and three rate “medium development.” Russia’s ranking dropped from #37 in the world to #50; Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan each dropped more than 30 places in country rankings from 1992 to 2014. (The U.S. dropped from #6 to #8 during that time.)

Nine of the former republics have lost population since independence. The most severe losses in percentage terms are in Georgia, Latvia and Lithuania, which have lost about a quarter of their Soviet-era populations. The largest losses in absolute numbers are in Ukraine (more than seven million people) and Russia (almost four million). (Both of those numbers presumably include the transfer of more than two million Crimeans from Ukraine to Russia in 2014.)

Two of the former republics have lower real gross domestic products now than under the Soviet Union a quarter century ago – Moldova and Ukraine. Georgia has shown just 9 percent real GDP growth, and Russia just 20 percent. (By comparison, real U.S. GDP nearly doubled from 1991 to 2016. The United States accounts for more than 16 percent of world GDP; Russia accounts for 3.3 percent.)

It’s bad enough that post-Soviet development has been spotty; it’s worse that half of the former republics have fallen into despotism. In Belarus, for example, Alexander Lukashenko has won all five post-independence presidential elections, only the first of which was widely considered to have been reasonably free and fair. Lukashenko has held the office of president since it was created, in 1994. By virtue of constitutional amendments adopted through a rigged referendum in 1996, the president governs with nearly absolute power.

In Uzbekistan, long-time President Islam Karimov also won all of his country’s presidential elections held during his lifetime – the difference with Belarus being that not even his first election was free or fair. Karimov was head of the Uzbek republic’s Communist Party under the Soviet Union, and he retained power, rigging his first election to the new office of president in 1991 and each succeeding election. He wielded dictatorial power, institutionalizing torture, directly controlling the media, and faking elections, until he died earlier this year. Karimov was succeeded by the long-time prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is likely to change little that he inherited from Karimov. Mirziyoyev won his first presidential election this month, taking 88.6 percent of the vote in the official count.

Like Karimov, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the head of his republic’s Soviet-era Communist Party, and just stayed on after independence. He was the only presidential candidate on the ballot in the December 1991 election. As president, he coordinated the drafting of a constitution that gave him nearly unchecked executive power. The constitution was ratified by the holdover Communist parliament.

In Azerbaijan, the long-time Communist Party bigwig Heydar Aliyev was out of favor with Moscow and largely out of power when independence came. But after a military coup in 1993, Aliyev won a fake election with more than 98 percent of the vote. After Aliyev died in office in 2003, he was succeeded by his son, Ilham Aliyev, who has followed very much in his father’s footsteps. Aliyev the Younger was once named “Person of the Year” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and his entire family won runner up honors in 2015.

Turkmenistan was run from before independence until 2006 by Saparmurat Niyazov, a dictator who engaged in eccentricities like renaming the days and months of the calendar after people and events in his personal life and building gold statues of himself with oil revenue. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, seems to be less eccentric but just as authoritarian. (He did restore the names of the days and months.)

Emomali Rahmon has run Tajikistan all but unchallenged since 1992; his current presidential term runs to 2020.

And of course Vladimir Putin has turned the Russian presidency and prime ministership into a rotating pair of lifetime positions. Rather than repeal term limits, as so many of his despotic colleagues have done, Putin simply arranged for a stand-in to hold the presidential seat for a term, while Putin wielded power from the prime minister’s office pending his foreordained return to the presidency. One way or another, Putin has run the Russian government nearly unilaterally since Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly and inexplicably resigned the presidency on December 31, 1999, making then-Prime Minister Putin the acting president. Putin’s military maneuverings have badly weakened Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, raising the fear level in the Baltics and the former Warsaw Pact countries to levels not seen in many years.

In short, seven of the 15 successor states to the Soviet Union are dictatorships, and one of them, Russia, is a direct and persistent threat to Eurasian peace and well-being.

It’s hard to recall now, but American policy, under President George H. W. Bush, was opposed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Bush hoped that Gorbachev’s reforms would lead the Soviet Union to become a friendly democracy. Gorbachev permitted the Warsaw Pact countries to go their own way; he agreed to the reunification of Germany; he assisted the first President Bush with the first Iraq War; he pushed ahead with nuclear arms reduction talks; and he kept his Communist hardliners at bay. The alternative, dissolution of the Soviet Union, meant chaos in one of the most heavily armed regimes in the world; the Soviet nuclear arsenal was spread across several of the 15 constituent republics. There was no guarantee that the splintering of the Soviet Union would be limited to the 15 republics – even now, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and other units of the 15 post-Soviet countries fight for independence.

Almost until the very end, Bush firmly sided with Gorbachev against Yeltsin and the rising nationalists. And with so many of the Soviet Union’s successor states in such bad shape, it’s tempting to think that President Bush may have had it right after all – that the world would be better off if the center had held, Gorbachev had retained power, and the constituent republics had remained a single country. But I don’t think so.

The right of self-determination is critically important, even if the peoples of the world don’t always make good use of the opportunity. Three of the former republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have become liberal democracies, and, along with all of the Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact allies, have joined the European Union and NATO. Three other former republics (Armenia, Georgia and Moldova) have made sustained efforts toward liberal democracy, and Ukraine has made more intermittent efforts in that direction, including currently.

I often look to South Korea for a time frame for transition from autocracy to democracy. South Korea became a country in 1948, run by an American-sponsored dictator, Syngman Rhee. For the next 40 years, a series of authoritarian governments held power, and transfers of power were usually accomplished by assassinations and coups. In 1987, popular demonstrations led the government to agree to a new constitution and direct election of the next president. The new constitution initiated the Sixth Republic, which remains in place.

Only under the Sixth Republic did South Korea become a liberal democracy, some 40 or 50 years after the country’s founding.

I’ve also pointed out that our own experience should be instructive. Our country was conceived and our constitution written by educated gentlemen of the liberal Enlightenment, but it cannot be said in fairness that the United States was at its creation a liberal democracy.

At our founding, neither our president nor our senators were popularly elected. And in any event, voting rights were held by a small minority, denied to African-Americans, native Americans, and women. For the first four score and seven years of our national existence, we enslaved an entire race of our own people. For well more than that, we treated women virtually as legal nonentities. And for even longer, the prevailing notion of religious liberty consisted largely of Protestants’ begrudging tolerance of Catholics.

I stand by the proposition that people everywhere want the civil liberties and political rights that are basic to liberal democracy: individual autonomy, free expression, equal protection of the laws, participatory self-determination, and the right to due process in connection with a state-imposed penalty or deprivation. I don’t accept the contention that these ideals are “Western ideals” inapplicable to non-Western peoples. I think these are human ideals rooted in human aspirations.

Given a chance, people will push toward those ideals, as people did in 1989 in the former Communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as people did in South Africa in the 1990s, as people did in the Arab world in 2011, as people will someday do in China, in North Korea, in Cuba, in the Congo, and in every other country governed by repression.

When I was in college, a professor of mine counted a grand total of 13 liberal, capitalist democracies in the world. Today’s count will vary with the precise criteria, but in any event the number now is several times what it was then.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave its people a chance to join the club, and some of them took it. Others are still trying. The lesson of our own history is that becoming a liberal democracy is hard and takes time. The lesson of our own history is that 25 years is not necessarily enough.

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