All smiles and backslapping notwithstanding, the Bush-Putin Bratislava summit laid bare the stark divergence of the two leaders’ political philosophies. Describing their social ideals and values, “George” and “Vladimir” seem to be using the same words, but they mean different things. This ideological disconnect will likely increase tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship over the perceived American role in the democratization of post-Soviet Eurasia.
Speaking yesterday (February 24) to the cheering crowds in Bratislava’s main square, U.S. President George W. Bush, true to the spirit of his inaugural address, praised the 1989 Velvet Revolution that defeated communism in Czechoslovakia. “In recent times,” Bush continued, “we have witnessed landmark events in the history of liberty: a Rose Revolution in Georgia, an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and now a Purple Revolution in Iraq” — apparently a reference to the voters’ ink used in the January 30 Iraqi elections (BBC, February 24).
Bush’s tribute to revolutionary changes came right before his meeting with Putin and likely irritated Russia, which had considered Georgia and Ukraine to be within its sphere of influence. With the coming elections in Kyrgyzstan and Moldova — two countries that commentators believe may be part of the next round of “colored revolutions” — the Kremlin leader and his counterparts in the former Soviet republics are getting increasingly nervous about what some analysts and policymakers characterize as “the third wave of liberation.”
For Putin and post-Soviet rulers in the Caucasus and Central Asia, this liberation process presents a two-fold danger. First, it challenges the system of “phony democracy” that these leaders have built in their countries. Second, it leads to the geopolitical re-orientation of the nations that are “liberated,” thus undermining Russia-led efforts to fashion an alternative bloc in post-Soviet Eurasia.
In an indirect polemic with Bush, Putin has explicitly expressed his wariness of what he called a revived “theory of permanent revolution.” Talking to Slovak journalists on the eve of his trip to Bratislava, the Russian leader said he could not understand the logic of “imposing” democracy on the nations of Russia’s “near abroad.” “If democracy doesn’t work in the post-Soviet countries — as some people seem to believe — what’s the need to introduce it there?” “But if we introduce democratic principles [into these countries’ political systems], why then do we need revolutions there?” (kremlin.ru, February 22).
Leading their own ideological offensive, Putin and the leaders of the other CIS countries have asserted that democratic principles and institutions should be adapted to domestic realities and historical traditions. As Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov famously put it, democracy is not potato and cannot be readily transplanted from one field to the other.
Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov eagerly agrees. “Each [people] has its own path [of democratic development],” he said in a rare interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta. “Being guided by the fundamental principles of people’s power, we at the same time have to correlate our actions with the people’s mentality and their thousand-year-old way of life”(Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 14).
Kyrgyzstan’s President Askar Akayev, who accuses the West of encouraging the opposition ahead of his country’s parliamentary elections on February 27 and presidential polls in October, warned there was little chance for a peaceful revolution in Central Asia. “Such schemes of seizing power would simply lead to civil war here,” he contends (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 28).
Most Kremlin strategists share this concern and argue that the “export of revolutionary technologies” into Central Asia would likely lead to the serious destabilization of the region (Kommersant, February 24). As Center for Political Technologies analyst Alexei Makarkin pointed out, the Putinists who are suspicious of any possible “revolutionary interference” in Russia’s domestic politics by Western-backed forces “would in fact be compelled to defend the principle of sovereignty” in any Central Asian country should a “color revolution” take place there (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 18).
The big question, however, is whether Russia is capable of mediating or managing any future political crisis in what it still considers its strategic backyard. There is no denying that Moscow is dramatically losing its influence in the post-Soviet space. Its attempts to create more viable cooperation structures inside the loosely organized and amorphous CIS have failed miserably. The Ukrainian election demonstrated that the Putin administration cannot boast of more sophisticated means of leverage than force. Thus, some political pundits argue, if we see an increase in Western activities in post-Soviet territories, they would indicate an increase in doubts that Russia can handle the role of regional powerbroker (Rossiya v globalnoi politike, January/February 2005).
It is no wonder, then, that influential commentators such as Sergei Karaganov, the head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, believe that Moscow and Washington “will fail to agree on anything regarding the CIS or rather will agree to continue our rivalry there” (kreml.org, February 21). Other respected foreign-policy analysts share the pessimistic view on the possibility of Russian-U.S. accommodation in the post-Soviet space or, in fact, in other spheres. There is much more dividing the two countries than there is bringing them closer, they say, adding that it remains to be seen how long the good personal relations between the two presidents can survive a direct collision of national interests (TV-Tsentr, February 18).