Post-Soviet Squalor

By Joshua Foust

Central Asia may no longer be Communist, but it certainly isn't free either

central asia body.jpgThe Associated Press reports that the former Soviet Union is not all that democratic. Most of the AP report is pretty anodyne, so let's look at what they say about Central Asia:

Ukraine, where massive protests in 2004 ushered in a reformist Western-leaning pro-NATO government, almost immediately devolved into factional jealousies that effectively paralyzed the country. Voters threw out that regime last year in favor of a Russia-friendly president, who is under wide criticism from the West for politically motivated prosecutions and pressure on independent news media. Ukraine meanwhile has acquired international notoriety for frequent brawls in parliament, and whether the country ultimately tilts West or East remains a question.

Georgia, whose 2003 Rose Revolution led the way for the region's regime-changing mass protests, was driving firmly toward NATO and European Union membership under reformist President Mikheil Saakashvili. But the momentum petered out after Georgia's five-day war with Russia in 2008, which both the Kremlin and many Georgians blame on Saakashvili's impetuosity.

Well... okay. We should probably add that Ukraine's world-class hottie-Parliamentarian Yulia Timoshekno is currently on trial for alleged involvement in some weird money laundering issue concerning Ukraine's natural gas (there is currently a debate over the exact nature of Ukraine's gas-transaction relationship with Russia). And there is also, let us not forget, a tremendous PR effort to spin Georgia's 2008 war with Russia as one of hapless Georgia victimized by evil, rampaging Russia (and oh yeah, and Georgia's continued harassment of journalists).

There are some other interesting tidbits in there, like how the riots last year in Kyrgyzstan say... something about the country's prospects for "democracy" (however defined, and the author doesn't really say how or why). They declare Turkmenistan has "thrown off much of the personality cult engendered by the late eccentric leader Saparmurat Niyazov," which is just not correct. And then the piece ends with, "well, the former Soviet Union is a varied, heterogeneous place." Thanks for that, AP!

On my blog this past April, both blog-founder Nathan Hamm and I discussed Central Asia's fall from grace, of sorts. While I focused on the social and economic issues facing much of the region, Nathan actually made a far more interesting point:

I have wondered recently whether or not there is an under-appreciation for the extent to which current practices of Central Asian governments are the result of the preservation or resurrection of Soviet institutions, modified though they may be... Obviously, none of these countries are perfectly characterized as Soviet replicants with national characteristics. However, the state-society relationship seems to be fundamentally unaltered. Each government acts as if its primary function is to shepherd its citizens toward a goal spanning from Kazakhstan's mundane but admirable and realistic desire to be wealthy and important in the international system to Uzbekistan's abstract, hard-to-pin-down desire to build a distinctly Uzbek super-awesome-state that everyone will avoid looking directly in the eyes because it's so super-awesome.

That each of these governments has a somewhat to downright adversarial relationship with their respective publics helps, I think, explain a good deal of the "why?" to which Josh referred at the end of his post a couple days ago. But it doesn't satisfactorily answer the timing.

We might never understand why this is all happening at once, 15-20 years after they became independent. But it's certainly worth pondering as the international community embarks on new nation-building campaigns in places like Libya, or Somalia, or even Afghanistan. You could maybe see this as a form of bureaucratic inertia, or perhaps just the power of culture to shape political institutions (though I'd be hard pressed to say why Uzbek culture, for example, would somehow compel dictatorship apart from a dictator choosing to remain one).

A version of this post appeared at Registan.net.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/08/post-soviet-squalor/243700/