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Freedom House Report Says Former Soviet Space 'Increasingly Vulnerable' To Arab Spring-Style Crises

Kazakh police bar demonstrators access to the presidential residence in Astana in March.

Kazakh police bar demonstrators access to the presidential residence in Astana in March.

When a popular revolution in January toppled the longstanding regime in Tunisia, it unleashed a wave of mass protests throughout the region that soon become known as the "Arab Spring." Many were quick to consider whether a similar string of uprisings could occur in the nations of the former Soviet Union, which share a number of features of the Arab Spring states, including entrenched authoritarian leaders, concentration of economic power in the ruling circles, and widespread official corruption. While the world has not yet witnessed Arab Spring-style uprisings in the former Soviet space, Freedom House's latest edition of its "Nations In Transit" report argues that many of these nations are "increasingly vulnerable to unpredictable crises of the sort recently seen in the Middle East and North Africa." The annual report, which monitors democratic development in countries from Central Europe through Central Asia, cites progress in countries such as Moldova and Georgia. But it also says some 80 percent of the population of the non-Baltic former USSR was living in authoritarian settings in 2010, sowing potentially dangerous seeds for the future. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke to Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, on the day of the report's unveiling.

RFE/RL: What are the main findings of this year's report, which you've titled, "The Authoritarian Dead End: The Arab Spring's Implications for the Former Soviet Union"?

Christopher Walker: This year we found several challenges in all of the regions that we examine in "Nations In Transit" -- 29 countries in all. In particular, we noted the ongoing erosion of institutional accountability and democracy in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union. This also indicated that the leadership in the vast majority of these authoritarian countries both remain in power with no meaningful rotation of power in sight and also have really suggested no indication that a serious reform initiative is likely. And I think that's what's striking in the findings -- that we've seen, especially in light of developments in the Middle East and North Africa, that there really is no inclination towards reform in any of the countries that are sharing a number of the features on democracy indicators that we see in the Middle East and North Africa.

RFE/RL: How exactly did you go about comparing the political and social landscapes of nations affected by the Arab Spring and those in the former Soviet Union?

Walker: What we've looked at very directly are the levels of performance on our democracy indicators in the authoritarian countries of the former Soviet Union, and what we've found is that these are countries that aren't reforming and that perform in a similar way [to many nations affected by the Arab Spring] on democracy indicators. It's not to say that they're identical in all spheres of society -- this is far from the case -- but when you look at the democratic performance and the democracy indicators that we are examining, you see countries in which it's impossible to have a peaceful rotation of power among different political forces, where moderate political voices are routinely denied space in political life and [are] marginalized, and where corruption and the absence of rule of law are the most consistent features of the systems, often perpetuating the systems. So as we looked at these features, we decided it was worth, given the changes in the Middle East and North Africa, to take a closer look at what sort of reform efforts the authoritarian governments were taking to ameliorate some of the looming challenges they'll be confronting on all these levels.

RFE/RL: The report highlights the fact that many of the authoritarian leaders in the non-Baltic former Soviet countries are relatively young. What affect do you see that having on hopes for future political change?

Walker: One of the things that was striking when we took a close look at the profile of the leadership throughout the authoritarian states of the former Soviet Union was that in only two of the nine countries that we categorized as authoritarian were there leaders that were older than 70 years old, and that's in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. If you look across the other countries that are authoritarian regimes in the region, you'll see that the leadership is actually rather young -- in relative terms, certainly. [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev is 49 years old; President [Emomali] Rahmon in Tajikistan is 58; [Russian Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin is 58 years old; [and Russian President] Dmitry Medvedev is still in his 40s. So you have leaders under the current arrangements that may be there for quite some time and based on the past track record, the assumption is they'll be there indefinitely, and I think, given the fact there's no meaningful reform on the horizon in any of these countries -- no serious liberalization efforts -- these countries really face the prospect of political stasis for the foreseeable term.

RFE/RL: The report also argues that the lack of space afforded to moderate politics forces works to promote extremism. Can you explain this?

Walker: Well, you see it in different forms across the former Soviet Union, but the end result is that initiatives by alternative forces [and] moderate political voices in these countries are routinely and systematically denied a place on the political landscape; and even just in recent weeks, we've seen the sort of maneuvering that's going on to hobble [and] prevent the participation of political parties in Russia. This is really the standard across these countries.

And of course, when moderate political voices aren't given a role in the discussion and an opportunity to take some sort of part in the policy discussion in these countries, it creates opportunities for extremist voices. And if this hasn't already manifested itself in every example, it's certainly a prospect that these countries face as they don't allow some sort of voice that can be a meaningful competitor. This has moved along more quickly in the Middle East and North African context in a number of instances, but nevertheless, it's a feature that is shared in terms of the commitment of the regimes to deny moderate politics a role.

RFE/RL: The report makes a number of parallels between corruption and lawlessness in the countries of the former Soviet Union and economic problems. What are some of the clearest examples of this?

Walker: I think there are a number of countries that fit this profile in the former Soviet Union. In Russia's case, it's a country that relies on hydrocarbons for its economic prosperity and what we've seen in an inability of the system to diversify away from hydrocarbons, even when the leadership has said on numerous occasions that this is one of the objectives that they have. At the same time, I think what you're seeing certainly in the Russian case is that on the fundamentals, in terms of investment in the country -- foreign direct investment -- that things are heading in the wrong direction at the moment. If we look at countries that are far removed from any sort of even nominal economic modernization ambitions like Belarus, what you see is an economy that's in crisis and the political system in the country is not able to adapt and reform in a meaningful way. The end result is what we're witnessing now -- a serious economic catastrophe.

RFE/RL: Your report also addresses the legacy that years of authoritarian rule can have on a country after it manages to undergo a political transformation. What is the comparison, in this case, between the Arab Spring countries and the countries of the former Soviet Union?

Walker: I think what we're seeing in the most recent instances in the Middle East and North Africa, say in a country like Egypt, is that after 30 years of mismanagement and corruption and crony capitalism, the legacy left by the [ex-President Hosni] Mubarak era is extremely difficult to reform. It's really not reasonable to expect the forces that for so long have been denied an opportunity to participate in a normal political environment and to have access to resources and to have a civil society that operated with openness and without intervention and encroachment by the authorities -- to expect this to be resolved in short order is unreasonable. What we can take away from this is that the systems that avoid reform, and in the cases of so many of the former Soviet republics, actively seek to deny the evolution of independent institutions and political actors that can play a moderate, meaningful role, it simply means that when the time does arrive for the possibility of meaningful reform, it's all the more difficult.