Thursday, 29 November 2007

New Statesman: Putin's copycats

Interesting article in New Statesman today by Thomas de Waal. Very relevant to us (and the South Caucasus region) for this election period, recommend it. Below are some extracts. Full article is here

Whether in pro-western or pro-Moscow states, repression and corruption are flourishing among Russia's neighbours

A post-Soviet president makes a highly publicised visit to a patriotic youth camp where he denounces the international community for being "amoral" in its stance towards his fight with separatists. Later he moves to clamp down on the opposition and has its main television station pulled off the air. He blames most of his troubles on a London-based oligarch. The president behaves in this slightly paranoid and aggressive manner even though his party dominates parliament and he has marginalised his critics.

This is not Vladimir Putin, but the Georgian president for almost four years who was until recently a darling of the west - Mikhail Saakashvili.

Sixteen years after the end of perestroika, this is a depressing picture. In 1991 western opinion was much too utopian about these newly independent states. The favoured image used to be one of "transition" and even the smallest Anglo-Saxon news story used to refer to countries from Armenia to Tajikistan as being "in transition to democracy and a market economy".

Nursultan Nazarbayev, once regarded as a reformist ally of Mikhail Gorbachev, has slowly transformed himself into president-for-life in Kazakhstan, with his family installed in key positions. In Azerbaijan, the communist-era boss Heydar Aliyev became leader and then handed over the presidency to his son.

The first priority was to retain power. When the Armenian opposition tried to dispute the outcome of the 1996 election, the then defence minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, famously put them in their place, saying: "Even if they win 100 per cent of the votes, neither the army nor the National Security Service, nor the ministry of the interior, would recognise these leaders." [current Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Serj Sargsyan was the Minister of National Security back then - Unzipped] In the South Caucasus and central Asia, no presidential candidate from the ruling elite has lost an election since 1991. Increasingly, parliaments are stuffed with loyal servants or friendly businessmen.

Geography matters here. In the central Asian republics, where the EU exerts no pull and international condemnation means little, governments can get away with abominations such as the 2005 massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Uzbek town of Andijan. In the western and southern states, "the idea of Europe" means something. In the South Caucasian states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the governments worry about their status in the Council of Europe and Nato, and behave better, but sharing power is not an option.

The Georgian crisis has at least opened some eyes in Europe. The issue of how to deal with its eastern neighbourhood is surely becoming the EU's biggest foreign policy challenge. How do you exert positive influence in countries where a progressive minority still has an "idea of Europe" when you are unable to offer the one prospect with the power to transform - the hope of eventual EU membership?

Where Georgia leads, others may follow. Weak states with self-serving elites are prone to in stability. We can be certain of two things: that Putin's copycats will not give up power easily; and that if events do force them to come tumbling down, the collapse will bring an awful lot of rubble and chaos with it.

No comments: