Since the collapse of the USSR, there have been many achievements in the twelve states of Eurasia that were once Soviet republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the three South Caucasus, and the five Central Asian states). Parliaments and political parties have been created and elections held. Economic reforms have been initiated, a degree of macroeconomic stabilization has been achieved and regional economies have attracted some foreign investment. The region has been integrated into a range of international institutions. A new cadre of technocrats and future young leaders is emerging, many seeking training in the U.S. and Europe. And a range of new non-governmental organizations and small businesses have sprung up in place of outdated and inadequate government entities and antiquated, loss-making enterprises.
But this list of achievements remains just that, a list of achievements. Although over the last decade, the formal institutions and mechanisms of democratic politics and free market economies have been created, they have yet to be endowed with real content. To a greater or lesser degree the twelve states of Eurasia are virtual or false democracies, and virtual or even collapsing economies1. They still have a long way to go.
On the political front, ten years out from the dissolution of the USSR, although Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and other Eurasian states have successfully undergone changes in executive power, in Central Asia, former Soviet party secretaries have been preserved as "new democratic presidents" and have effectively privatized their states. Uzbekistan's and Kazakhstan's Presidents have suppressed political opposition. In Turkmenistan, an insular political regime has been established with an extreme Soviet-style personality cult around the President, Saparmurad Niyazovthe self-styled "Father of the Turkmen" (Turkmenbashi) and recently declared "President for Life"that brooks no other contender for power.
In the South Caucasus, Gorbachev-era Politburo members were returned to power after brief and disastrous flirtations with untested post-Soviet presidents and catastrophic civil wars. In Azerbaijan, the current President's choice of successor appears to be his son, and other serious figures have been marginalized or hounded abroad. In Georgia, although the parliament has emerged as a serious institution, President Shevardnadze still dominates political life and a tendency to extreme violence in resolving political questions manifests itself during every election. And in Armenia, a similar propensity for violence was underscored by the assassination of its Prime Minister and key members of parliament in October 1999.
In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenka has cracked down on the opposition in a manner that has resulted in the deaths and disappearances of leading opposition figures, and the arrest and beating of demonstrators even at independence day and Chernobyl rallies. The Lukashenka regime has imposed direct state control over the judiciary and the media, and shunned political and economic reform. Belarus has been excluded from membership in international institutions and has become politically isolated from all but Russia within the region. September 2001 presidential elections in Belarus will be critical in determining how far Lukashenka needs to and is prepared to go in order to stay in power.
Even in relatively enlightened states, such as Kyrgyzstan, which was once touted by the U.S. government as a bastion of democracy in Central Asia, the President has cracked down on opposition groups and attempted to ban domestic monitors from observing elections. While in Ukraine, which seemed to have firmly embraced integration with Europe in the early 1990s, the President is implicated in the disappearance and death of a journalist investigating corruption in his inner circle. And, in Russia, even as he pushes forward with an impressive set of economic reforms, President Vladimir Putin appears to be reversing some of the democratic achievements of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, by clamping down on press freedoms and sanctioning the harassment of NGOs and environmental and human rights activistsnot to mention pursuing a second round of war in Chechnya, which has brutalized the region's civilian population.
Across Eurasia, governments are distinguished by strong executives and weak legislatures. Politics are focused on elections and on the struggle between presidents and parliaments over respective authorities. Presidents routinely manipulate elections and rule by decree to bypass parliament, and opposition political parties have experienced difficulties in presenting themselves as viable alternatives to the ruling regime. There are few intermediaries between high politics and the people, and the press that might play that role relies on the patronage of the state or powerful business cliques with their own agendas.
Networks of elites based on geographical association, common educational background, and extended family ties have replaced or simply evolved from the old Communist Party nomenclature. Flawed privatization programs have served to transfer state assets into the hands of these same cliques, who cluster around the presidents. In Kazakhstan, for example, President Nazarbayev and his immediate family and associates directly control most media outlets as well as the bulk of the economy.
While elites have enriched themselves, the gains in living standards that the rest of Eurasia's population experienced in the final post-World War II decades of the USSR have been eroded. Millions of people have fallen below their country's poverty line: ranging from around 30% of the population in Russia to a staggering 80% or more in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In terms of democratic development, we could now group the twelve states of Eurasia according to four rough (and slightly tongue-in cheek) categories:
Democracy Gained/Democracy Imperiled? Russiabasic civil liberties enshrined, critical institutions created and functioning, but progress set back by "soft authoritarianism" of President Vladimir Putin, with recent restrictions on press freedoms, political parties and NGOs, increasing harassment of political activists, independent researchers, and foreign scholars, and continued fall-out from the war in Chechnya. Ukraineas in Russia, basic civil liberties enshrined,critical institutions created and functioning, but opportunities to move forward squandered by a corrupt political leadership, an inability to push forward with economic reforms, and an increasingly bankrupt President Kuchma. Moldovaperhaps one of the unluckiest countries in Eurasia, with democratization set back by an amputated territory, collapsed economy, and devastating natural disasters
Fiona Hill is a fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and a member of the Central Eurasia Projects Advisory Board.