A specter is haunting the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); the specter of popular unrest. In the last year we have seen political crisis strike country after country in the region:
— cabinet struggles in Kazakhstan,
— the government’s electoral defeat in Ukraine as it confronts rising scandals,
— large-scale popular protests against the Moldovan government’s Russification policies,
— the resignation of the entire Georgian cabinet amidst a scandal over governmental efforts to suppress the media,
— continuing large popular demonstrations against the false imprisonment of a popular Kyrgyz legislator,
— growing popular unrest in Azerbaijan, and
— a purge of the security apparatus and much of the cabinet in Turkmenistan.
It also is clear that former Turkmen cabinet ministers are forming an opposition movement against Saparmurat Niazov’s erratic and sultanistic regime, seeking foreign help in Moscow and Washington, and that Niazov’s security services cannot penetrate this movement due to its popularity.
All these signs of elite and popular disaffection are occurring amidst the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and the advent of American bases throughout the region. Greater international attention is thus being paid to internal developments in the CIS states. At the same time just about all these states face crushing economic inequalities and yawning democratic deficits.
Are these signs of a broader trend that might culminate in widespread revolutions or uprisings of the sort that convulsed Europe in 1848? Or are they all merely local events that can be easily suppressed and have no wider resonance? If they were to lead to protests that toppled incumbent rulers, what would be the consequences of such outcomes?
Undoubtedly CIS governments have generally miserably failed their societies, politically, economically, ecologically and militarily. Certainly they do not grant enough opportunities for democratic self-governance. Many of them face ethnic wars that are presently frozen, but which could reignite at any moment. Georgia, for instance, is prone to inciting renewed fighting with its secessionist Abkhaz minority and then failing to achieve its objectives, thus triggering a greater crisis and external Russian intervention.
Likewise, these states are almost all in desperate economic straits, with inequalities having grown tremendously as national economies stagnated. And, due to the rupture of the Soviet social safety net, many of these societies and their overall ecology are in serious danger. Numerous reports attesting to these threats highlight the degradation of both the social and natural environment throughout the CIS. All of these states are also threatened, albeit in varying degree, by the possibility of terrorism, external threats of military action, and/or insurgency. Thus, in one way or another, all of the CIS governments are under severe stresses that offer them little margin for error or scope for domestic maneuver.
As the recent and widespread signs of elite and popular disaffection in Georgia, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan are occurring amidst the broader international and U.S.-led war on terrorism that has led to numerous American troop deployments, we must consider the possibility of broad, if uncoordinated, popular and elite uprisings against these failed governments.
Foreign observers often reproach U.S. policy for not placing a higher priority on democratization, especially in Central Asia. Whether such criticisms were or are unfounded, they apparently neglect the difficulties inherent in persuading dictators to change their ways while they still have the time to do so. Moreover, the Bush administration has apparently taken those strictures to heart in its relations with Central Asian governments. The respective country’s leaders now are at pains to defend themselves as democrats or point to the limited reforms they are now introducing.
Finally, few of these critiques take account of the fact that these states’ most important foreign policy partner, Russia, has strongly supported antidemocratic forms of rule in these states since they gained independence. Moscow, not Washington, stands to lose more from unrest in the CIS. For if there indeed are these pervasive manifestations of discontent, then the possibility of widespread regional conflict–internal and/or interstate in nature–is real and potentially imminent. And Russia would be hard-pressed to refrain from intervening in those conflicts.
If indeed, instability and revolution are in the offing for one or more CIS regime they would take place even while foreign troops are present in those territories. While armed conflicts, whether ethnic, revolutionary or other, might be the only way to unseat undemocratic regimes; they cannot guarantee subsequent democratization or peace or preclude the possibility of a major power conflict in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Nor does history suggest that widespread revolution, if it occurs, is necessarily a harbinger of stability and democratization. Many political scientists observe that perhaps the most dangerous period and one in which states are most prone to belligerent acts is in the middle of a stalled or deformed democratization process.
Although 1848 was the springtime of nations in Europe, most of those revolutions failed to bring democracy, instead unleashing a dynamic that brought a generation of war to Europe. While we may wish to transform and democratize ruling CIS regimes, U.S. policymakers and analysts have the responsibility of carefully monitoring those possible regime transformations, lest U.S. troops and interests be caught in the middle of revolutions and internal or interstate conflicts there. But, beyond merely monitoring the situation, we should be thinking of ways to prevent conflicts from breaking out or of defusing existing ones, so as to join with other interested governments in steering development into more pacific and democratic channels.
The mere fact of rising public and elite opposition to CIS governments may not herald fundamental political change, but it certainly suggests the possibility for that outcome, especially as these states gain more prominence in world affairs and therefore undergo more scrutiny. However, if these governments should happen to fail we may be confronting long periods of civil strife, failed states and other well-known challenges to security with which the international system has not coped well in the past decade. Those potential conflicts could then undermine not only the internal security of the afflicted states, but also the war on terrorism and regional, or even international security. The emerging regional situation therefore merits not only the most careful scrutiny and attention by interested observers but also serious multilateral actions to anticipate crises, prevent conflicts and provide mechanisms by which these states can move forward in solving their enormous problems. Otherwise if we fail to do that, their problems will soon become our problems.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, PA. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.