It is perhaps fitting that the Ukraine-Russia gas conflict has rekindled debates whether Russia truly belongs in the prestigious Group of Eight (G-8) advanced liberal democratic market economies. As the Wall Street Journal Europe (January 3) editorialized, “All of this makes Russia’s assumption of the G-8 presidency this month not just ironic but almost as absurd as when Sudan chaired the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Moscow’s inclusion in the club was never (and still isn’t) justified on economic grounds.” The conservative Daily Telegraph (January 3) was even blunter: “The West has to tell Russia that, plainly and simply, its conduct is unacceptable if it wishes to remain part of the club of civilized nations.”
In its 2006 world human rights report, the New York-based human rights group Freedom House downgraded Russia from “partly free” to the status of “unfree” (freedomhouse.org). It upgraded Ukraine from “partly free” to “free.”
The Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute is therefore no longer a conflict between two former Soviet republics but a conflict between an autocratic, non-democratic regime headed by “Putin’s Mafia Politics” (Wall Street Journal Europe, January 3) and a democratizing regime headed by Viktor Yushchenko. As the Daily Telegraph (January 3) pointed out, “The methods of gangsterism and blackmail now being used by [Russian gas giant] Gazprom are reminiscent of the Soviet era.”
Russia’s downgrading to “unfree” places it on a par with other autocratic, non-democratic post-Soviet regimes, such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan was promoted to “partly free” due to its “Tulip Revolution” in March 2005.
Russia was downgraded in part due to its growing hostility toward non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society. In late December 2005 both houses of the Russian parliament approved a new law requiring NGOs to re-register and making it more difficult for re-registered groups to obtain foreign funding.
Such restrictions on civil society are only Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest move against the media, regional governors, oligarchs, and democratic political parties. Russia’s attitudes towards civil society place it squarely in the same camp as the last dictatorship in Europe—Belarus—which is propped up by Russian gas subsidies.
Both Russia and Belarus believe that civil society only exists because of foreign funding, an attitude inherited from the former USSR when dissidents were routinely accused of being CIA or “Zionist” agents. This wariness is complicated by another Soviet-era holdover: conspiracy theories that blame the democratic “color revolutions” on the United States.
Freedom House downgraded Russia to “unfree” because of the marginalization of the political opposition, state control of the media, declines in judicial independence, growing “anti-democratic tendencies,” and pressure on civil society. Freedom House noted Ukraine’s improvement in all of these areas.
Even before the latest gas conflict erupted, Freedom House had condemned Russia’s attempts at undermining democratic progress in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
In contrast, Ukraine is the first CIS state to join the “free” group of countries in the world, vaulting ahead of the other three post-communist states to experience “color revolutions”: Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Twelve of the post-communist East-Central European states are also designated as “free.”
These rankings show how quickly the post-communist states in East-Central Europe and the CIS are radically diverging. They also confirm that 2004 and 2005 were pivotal years, during which Russia turned toward autocracy and Ukraine toward democracy.
Few Western commentators have bothered to connect Russia’s growing autocracy and undemocratic regime at home with a return to a neo-Soviet foreign policy. It is now evident that Russia’s aggressive stance towards Ukraine, evident both in the gas conflict and during Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, indicates how closely Russia’s domestic and foreign policies are interwoven.
The resignation of Russian presidential adviser Andrei Illarionov on the eve of the gas conflict brought home this inter-connection. The use of gas pressure, Illarionov claimed, was first tested inside Russia during elections for regional governors. After their success, the Russian authorities decided to apply them towards foreign countries (grani.ru, December 21).
The gas dispute is merely the latest evidence of the close connection between Russia’s undemocratic domestic policies and its support for autocratic regimes abroad. Of the six CIS states that are designated by Freedom House as “unfree,” four are politically aligned with Russia: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Russia’s support for Uzbekistan’s brutal massacre of civilians in May 2005 led to Tashkent’s re-alignment away from the United States and toward Russia.
During President George W. Bush’s second term the United States has gradually become more aware of the links between Russia’s undemocratic domestic and aggressive external policies. But it is “old Europe,” inside the European Union, that is now finally having to come to terms with the real Russia under Putin.
Germany’s new government has already changed that country’s view of Russia. But traditionally Russophile France continues to view Putin’s Russia favorably, a stance that, as the gas conflict proves, is out of touch with reality.