March 29, 2005

Contagious Democracy - The Second Breakup of the Soviet Union

The liberal revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe toppled communist dictatorships like dominoes in a chain. But most of the Central Asian republics remain authoritarian - and in some cases, totalitarian. Some, like Chechnya, weren't able to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Empire at all, and are still officially parts of Russia.

But it looks like that process might not have stopped. It was just put on hold. Parts of the old Russian empire are convulsing again. And revolution may be just as contagious this time as it was last time. The Christian Science Monitor explains.
BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN – The shock waves from Kyrgyzstan's lightning revolution are spreading around the former Soviet Union - and into the heart of Russia - leading analysts to wonder which regimes might be next to face the peoples' wrath.

Recent days have seen a spate of copycat protests launched by opposition groups that were perhaps hoping their own local authorities might fold and flee under pressure, as did Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev when demonstrators stormed his Bishkek complex last week.

About 1,000 people rallied last Friday in the capital of Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko runs the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe, to demand his resignation. Police quickly dispersed the crowd and dispatched the ringleaders to prison.

Two Russian ethnic republics, Ingushetia and Bashkortostan, have seen mass street demonstrations this week directed against Kremlin-installed leaders. Even in remote Mongolia, the former USSR's Asian satellite, hundreds of protesters gathered last week to "congratulate our Kyrgyz brothers" and demand a rerun of last June's disputed parliamentary polls.

Some experts see a common thread among these upheavals that began 17 months ago when Georgians overthrew Eduard Shevardnadze in a peaceful revolt and continued with Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" late last year.

"Every situation is different, but a single process is unfolding," says Valentin Bogatyrov, a former Akayev adviser and director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Bishkek. "Kyrgyzstan is a kind of trigger that will spread this unrest to our neighbors, and beyond. We are witnessing the second breakup of the Soviet Union."
Bashkortostan is an absurdly complicated ethnic hodgepodge that makes Lebanon look like Japan by comparison. If it breaks away from Russia it, too, could fracture.

Ingushetia, like Chechnya, is mostly Muslim. The Islamic tradition there is, again as in Chechnya, a liberal/moderate one. If the people want out of the Russian Federation we had better loudly support them. Because if we don't, the Islamist jihadis certainly will. Nothing good can possibly come of that, not for Ingushetia, not for Russia, and not for us. Look no further than - yes, once again - Chechnya for that object lesson.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 29, 2005 07:38 PM
Comments

“We are witnessing the second breakup of the Soviet Union."

And it is probably long overdue. Their relationship with each other was not based on common interests and reciprocity. Stalin forced many of these groups to be a part of the former Soviet Union. I doubt very much if ideological Communism ever took hold in these areas. It seems to me that the respective governments were likely comprised of petty gangsters.

Posted by: David Thomson at March 29, 2005 09:54 PM

"But most of the Central Asian republics retain authoritarian - and in some cases, totalitarian - rulers even today. Some, most famously Chechnya, weren't able to throw off the yoke of the Soviet Empire at all,"

Working under the assumption that the world can never have too much pedantic twittery, I'll point out that Chechnya isn't in Central Asia, it's in the Caucasus (a very different kind of place) and it was not a Soviet Socialist Republic (there were 14 of these, all of which legally became independent countries in 1991). It was part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (it was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic within the RSFSR).
When the USSR broke up, the RSFSR became plain old Russia and the autonomous republics (several, I don't know how many) remained part of Russia.

I mention all of this, just because pro-Chechen mythology tries to pain Chechnya as the only soviet republic not granted independence, which is just untrue, no matter what you think of the Chechen cause.

Posted by: Michael Farris at March 29, 2005 09:57 PM

"It seems to me that the respective governments were likely comprised of petty gangsters."

There was/is nothing petty about some of them, and if you think this is likely to change .....

Posted by: Michael Farris at March 29, 2005 09:59 PM

It is patently against Russian interests for liberalization to continue in the region, and Russia is a major player in our multilateral efforts against Islamic terrorism. Do you have any thoughts on how Bush might manage the conflict if Russia places a "hands-off" criterion on some kinds of cooperation?

Posted by: Kimmitt at March 29, 2005 10:13 PM

Kimmitt: Do you have any thoughts on how Bush might manage the conflict if Russia places a "hands-off" criterion on some kinds of cooperation?

I wish. It would depend, at least in part, on what is happening in the "hands-off" places.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 29, 2005 10:20 PM

I rather doubt Russia has the resources needed to keep things together. Chechnya and Dagestan are already hotspots, and Russian infrastructure overall is crumbling for lack of resources. Chief among them the people needed to simply maintain what Russia has. If Russia tries a policy of suppression against new pro-democracy uprisings she could well find herself overwhelmed. A second Russian civil war is not what anybody needs.

Expect Russia, at the very least, to be reduced to a European nation bordering Asia, with her holdings both in Europe and Asia going their own way, if not incorporated into a neighbor or fought over by two or more.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at March 29, 2005 10:36 PM

And boy is it complicated. Georgia, home to one of those revolutions where Mikhail Saakashvili replaced Eduard Shevardnadze, has its own de facto independent secessionist region-- South Ossetia-- and Saakashvili is trying to regain control of it for Georgia. There's a North Ossetia too, which is part of Russia, and Ossetians. The South Ossetian separatists are pro-Russian, since the Russians support them as part of deepr plans. Fun.

So it's not as though everything's sweetness and light, even among these revolutions. Lots of ethnic groups, all moved around during years of czarist and Soviet rule, all wanting independence and to prevent other groups from becoming independent of their own rule.

Posted by: John Thacker at March 29, 2005 10:50 PM

And we can't forget another de facto independent former province of Georgia, Abkhazia. Used to be mostly Georgian until after a war which ended with almost the entire non-Abkhazian population fleeing. The Georgians were winning until support from various groups-- including possibly both Russia and Chechens-- helped turn the tide. Now mostly Abkhazian, with a reduced population.

Posted by: John Thacker at March 29, 2005 10:57 PM

Too bad the Swiss Canton system hasn't been more positively exported, to allow really a GREAT deal of local autonomy.
Know the Swiss president?
Who cares -- little power there.

Prolly a lot of violence coming.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at March 30, 2005 04:26 AM

First a little history lesson - Stalin did not incorporate these areas into the Soviet Union, these areas have been integral parts of the Russian Empire since the early 19th century, and in many cases earlier than that. A few regions in the Caucuses managed to declare independence after the 1917 revolution but they were all very shaky and the Bolsheviks re-established control quickly. None of these areas have any traditions of statehood in the modern sense and all are inhabited by many small ethnic groups that will want out as soon as the larger group decides to bolt (see Georgia for example). Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are all fabulous examples of how great life could be for these people if they decide to leave the Russian Federation. Is it really in the US interest to have a bunch of poor, semi-lawless independent states in the Caucuses instead of Russian semi-civilized control?
If the 20th century taught us anything it should be that nation states formed on an ethnic basis have not been the great boon idealists supposed they would be back in 1917. The break-ups of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and even British Empire did not lead to the creation of democratic, prosperous nations in the former imperial dominions, but instead created gangster states, further war, strife and worse authoritarianism than existed under the empires. Central Europe is finally pulling out of that quagmire after 90 years but the Middle East, Pakistan and Africa are still horrendous messes.
Finally, Russia could be a key ally for the US both in the war against islamic fanaticism and as a counterweight to China. Why should we pursue policies designed to make Russians hate and distrust us?

Posted by: Vanya at March 30, 2005 07:22 AM

I guess the domino theory was correct after all--in reverse?

Posted by: neo-neocon at March 30, 2005 09:23 AM

Finally, Russia could be a key ally for the US both in the war against islamic fanaticism and as a counterweight to China. Why should we pursue policies designed to make Russians hate and distrust us?

Vanya, I agree on the first part, but I'd turn the question around. Why should Russia hate and distrust us for supporting democracy in the CIS? They are starting to understand it's not really a threat unless they push away democratic states. I hope that continues.

As for breakaway ethnic regions in Russia, I've got to say that I somewhat take this as a sign that the Russian government is failing to make its minorities feel safe, afloat in a "sea of nations." Some groups, even some Muslim ones, feel much more comfortable as part of Russia rather than on their own. I unfortunately don't know enough about the grievances of all these nationalities or what the pattern is to who is and is not upset, but it certainly warrants attention. Because, almost more frightening than fracturing is the long marches of Eurasia going back to the old days of small, short-lived ethnic hodepodge empires ruled by whoever happens to be strongest at the time. This isn't a part of the world where borders are a particularly powerful or sensible concept.

As for protesters saying the Kyrgyz inspired them, well, I'm skeptical. I know in the case of the JSCM in Mongolia, they were protesting against corruption long before this week. A commenter on my blog said he recalls them being out protesting in 2002. Good marketing, but worth taking a second look at. The Bashkir though? I have no clue...

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at March 30, 2005 09:24 AM

I think it's interesting that Michael Farris referred to something called "pro-Chechen mythology". I'm not quite sure what that means.

Chechnya, as a component state of the Russian Federation, is granted the right to secede by the constitution of Russia. When it attempted to do so, Yeltsin apparently decided to ignore the constitution and prevent Chechnya's secession through force, probably in order to a) maintain the integrity of Russia and prevent its fracturing, and b) to control access to oil in the region. Of course, that's speculation.

But I wonder: is it "pro-Chechnya mythology" to point out a fact of history and constitutional law?

Posted by: The Commenter Formerly Known as Proud Conservative at March 30, 2005 09:39 AM

ex-Proud Conservative: So do you support Chechnian independence because it is granted in the Constitution or because you believe in self-determination? what's your stance on secession within the US?

Posted by: markus rose at March 30, 2005 11:16 AM

My stance on secession within the US? Kick Texas out. Everyone else has to stay.

But seriously, folks, the point of my comment wasn't to talk about Russian constitutional law - it was to point out the very weird idea of judging someone's political intent when they state a fact.

You illustrated this quite clearly. I say "the Russian constitution grants Chechnya the legal right to secede."

You say "which of the following is the reason for your support of Chechen independence?"

I say "I didn't say that! All I said was that they have the legal right under their constitution! I just stated a fact! There was no judgement associated with that!"

Don't assume and so forth.

Posted by: The Commenter Formerly Known As Proud Conservative at March 30, 2005 12:22 PM

By "pro-chechen mythology" I mean the assertion (working from off-line memory) that Chechnya was a republic like Tajikistan or Armenia and that somehow it alone was denied independence.

I was no fan of the bipolar alcoholic Yeltsin and his hamfisted military reaction but many pro-Chechen sources also tend to ignore or downplay the influence of Chechen organized crime in both Russia and pre-war Chechnya and there were legitimate fears that an independent Chechnya would be little more than a mafia-state. Imagine Tony Soprano running New Jersey and then agitating for secession. There was/is a legitimate Chechen movement but it was also tied up with some of the nastiest people on earth.

Posted by: Michael Farris at March 30, 2005 12:34 PM

Hmmm… serious topic and only 16 posts so far. That could mean that many folks are as ignorant as I am about it. Unfortunately, and to the possible detriment of Michael’s blog, ignorance has never stopped me from posting before. And so, several moments of serious contemplation on this issue have prompted me to pen this ditty (sung – with a little improvised rhythm - to the tune of “the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone”):

Afghanistan’s connected to …
Tajikistan….
Tajikistan’s connected to…
Kyrgyzstan…and
Kyrgyzstan’s connected to…
Kazakhstan…while
Kazakhstan’s connected to…
Uzbekistan…
Uzbekistan’s connected to ….
Turkmenistan…

and.….ummm, does anyone actually recall how this ditty ends? Cause this particular ditty ends when we run into the Caspian sea….

Posted by: Caroline at March 30, 2005 02:59 PM

Caroline, you went the wrong way. You should have started with Turkmenistan and headed East. Than you can connect to Turkestan (China), Pakistan, Rajastan, etc.

Posted by: Vanya at March 30, 2005 03:14 PM

Caroline's right. Most of us know nothing about these people, yet most of us feel free to prattle on endlessly about What Must Be Done and so forth.

Great resource:
http://merln.ndu.edu/index.cfm?secID=153&pageID=3&type=section

Posted by: The Commenter Formery Known as Proud Conservative at March 30, 2005 03:23 PM

Vanya: "Caroline, you went the wrong way. You should have started with Turkmenistan and headed East. Than you can connect to Turkestan (China), Pakistan, Rajastan, etc."

Thank you Vanya. Admittedly I quickly consulted a map. However, there's no copyright on my ditty, so, for the sake of goeographical accuracy, and even merely for the sake of discovering who can compose the best and most comprehensive ditty of the region, I sincerely invite you to give it a try :-)

Posted by: Caroline at March 30, 2005 03:52 PM

Vanya: "If the 20th century taught us anything it should be that nation states formed on an ethnic basis have not been the great boon idealists supposed they would be back in 1917. The break-ups of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and even British Empire did not lead to the creation of democratic, prosperous nations in the former imperial dominions, but instead created gangster states, further war, strife and worse authoritarianism than existed under the empires"

P.S. Vanya - I forgot to add - good post. I suppose this should remind us all of the truisim, "Careful what you wish for...."

Posted by: Caroline at March 30, 2005 04:32 PM

I ain't composing no ditty! But the rest of you can feel free to indulge yourselves.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 30, 2005 04:58 PM

Michael! Loosen up and have a go at it! It's actually pretty fun! After all - it's a crazy mixed up world! :-)

Posted by: Caroline at March 30, 2005 05:49 PM

from Maurice Blanchot, on the work of the Marquis de Sade:

"And if it does happen in Sade's writings that Power carries out some political act and mixes with the revolution... the motivations that inspire it have nothing to do with the wiill to emancipate the law.

" - What are the reasons that make you so hate despotism? one of the conspirators is asked.
- Jealousy, ambition, pride, the despair of being dominated, the desire to tyrannize others myself.
- In your opinion does the happiness of the people count for something?
- I only have my own happiness in mind."

A little crudely put, but basically suggesting that little bullies want to replace the big bullies, so they can become big bullies themselves.

Posted by: Todd Grimson at March 30, 2005 06:28 PM

OTOH, there is something to be said for replacing bullies, even if it is only by other would-be bullies. The mere possiblity of replacement puts somewhat of a check on the action of many would-be despots.

Posted by: John Thacker at March 30, 2005 08:54 PM

"The mere possiblity of replacement puts somewhat of a check on the action of many would-be despots."

Or just goads on potentially benevolent strongmen to grab everything they can NOW NOW NOW (see presidency of Mexico for examples).

Posted by: Michael Farris at March 30, 2005 09:30 PM

Stupid question but...

As much as everyone mocked the Bush inag. it appeared to me that he was talking over heads. When I watched the speech it seemed like he was trying to speak to the people in Iran. It may seem a little Sharanskyish sp?, but was the whole point of the speech to try and deliver hope where it had all but vanished? Did people H-E-A-R the speech in former soviet republics, or was this inevitable?

Personally I doubt that Bush has much to do with the current global revolution. I worry that the President offering to Stand With You will get a few great people killed. He may be a big factor, but the Orange Revolution has as big a role (Dick Morris?).

Regarding Chechnya, Islamist jihadis are already supporting the seperation. People don't often blow up elementary schools or throw babies in fires, unless our good friend UBL has visited. We need to seperate the jihadis and hez's and put them in a box, ie: Sinn Finn. The rest ought to die, they would prefer it.

Posted by: Mike at March 30, 2005 09:45 PM

Mike: "I worry that the President offering to Stand With You will get a few great people killed"

Interesting that he's sort of following in his father's footsteps here when Bush Sr commented after GWI that the Iraqi people could take matters into their own hands. I wasn't paying a great deal of attention to these matters back then but did see a Frontline special on Gulf I and its aftermath that showed a tape of what Bush Sr actually said. Given the way the whole Shia uprising and its crushing has come down in history as something of a huge betrayal towards the Iraqi people on the part of the US, I was surprised at how brief Bush Sr's comment actually was and it didn't appear to contain any promise that we would aid them in this endeavor. I would hate to see any repeat of that kind of misunderstanding, however, especially in Iran, should things reach a tipping point on the street.

Posted by: Caroline at March 31, 2005 04:46 AM

I don't think people in Kyrgyzstan "heard" Bush's inag, because most people weren't paying attention. I lived there for a year - Bishkek is really not that different from most of the West, most average people there probably know more about Michael Jackson's trial than what's going on in the Middle East. There is no question that people in Bishkek were inspired by what happened in Ukraine - that got a lot of attention everywhere. Keep in mind too that Bishkek and Ukraine have had revolutions precisely because neither state was really very autocratic to begin with, at least by the standards of the region. When we see a revolution in Belarus, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan then it will really be time to rejoice. It is a sad truth that the lesson Lukashenka or Karimov will take from this is that they can't afford to be "weak" if they want to stay in power.

Posted by: Vanya at March 31, 2005 06:48 AM

It's been slow these last few days.

Posted by: spaniard at March 31, 2005 01:40 PM

"Express yourself completely,
then keep quiet.
Be like the forces of nature:
when it blows, there is only wind;
when it rains, there is only rain;
when the clouds pass, the sun shines through."

Tao Te Ching

Posted by: Caroline at March 31, 2005 09:18 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member



Testimonials

"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

"Terrific"
Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere


Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com


News Feeds




toysforiraq.gif



Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button

totten_button.jpg


Tip Jar





Essays

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn