by Flora Kwong
The Soviet Union did not have a strong reputation for liberal democracy or political freedom. Structured upon a foundation of socialism, the government was centrally-controlled by the Communist Party and exercised its will through political repression. The Gulag administered forced labor camps, where political dissidents were often sent. At the fall of the Iron Curtain, people were more than ready for democracy, hoping to improve their societies.
The Former Soviet Union (FSU) states entered the ‘Third Wave’ of democratization as the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. With a step towards democracy, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions was established in former Soviet republics to commemorate the politically repressed of the Soviet regime. Yet, more than two decades later, there are concerns about democracy in the FSU. Masha Gessen writes in her 2012 book, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, that Putin has managed to “transform the narrative: ‘emerging democracy’ slowly gave way to ‘authoritarian tendencies’.”
Some political dissidents are again repressed. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot, is a well-known example. Her family recently told Al-Jazeera that she has disappeared into a “Soviet-style Gulag system,” and at the time of writing, had not heard from her for more than 20 days. Pussy Riot, its families, its supporters and many other Russians alike feel that Russia has taken steps backwards from democracy and they are losing confidence in their government.
However, Russia is not archetypal of all former Soviet republics. Each state embarked on a separate path to democracy. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and Freedom House (whose definition of “free” can be associated with the notion of “democratic”), FSU nations are showing varying degrees of democratic progress. (See page 6) Regardless of the country’s progress, however, public perception in the FSU of the effectiveness of democracies has steadily worsened.
Pro-democracy elements were already strong months before the dissolution of the USSR, according to a report published in 1993 by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Many post-Soviet states subsequently formed republics, based on a technically democratic governmental framework. Yet, according to the EIU and Freedom House, Russia, the largest post-Soviet state, has proven to be a consistently unsuccessful democracy, showing pronounced deterioration in the last few years. Georgia and Ukraine on the other hand, have wavered in their democratic transitions. Georgia has shown signs of recovery in recent years, while Ukraine is still an uncertainty. But in all three countries, their citizens have lost confidence in their democratic governmental framework.
Georgia did not have the most promising start as a democracy. Soon after its first elections, a bloody coup d’état led the country into a civil war. Eduard Shevardnadze became the second President of the newly independent Republic of Georgia. “There was this feeling that Shevardnadze might not be a big democrat, but […] he would play according to the new rules of the game,” said part-time journalist Mr. Ramishvili in a 2003 interview with the Wall Street Journal. Shevardnadze represented a return to law and order for Georgians. Yet they became more disenchanted with Shevardnadze and the fraudulent election in 2003 was the last straw. Adopting the symbol of the red rose, peaceful demonstrators successfully forced Eduard Shevardnadze to resign.
Georgia has made considerable progress since the Rose Revolution in 2003. Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the revolution, became the elected president. By 2007, Georgia had become one of the fastest growing economies in Eastern Europe following its economic collapse in the early 1990s. More recently, Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected president through free and fair elections this past October. It was the first time the country had seen such peaceful elections.
With all of Georgia’s triumphs and improvement in democracy ratings, its people are still less confident in its institutions. After the Rose Revolution, some Georgians were still skeptical of Saakashvili’s government, especially with respect to its will to fight corruption. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2004, a small Georgian trader named Giorgi Bagriashvili said, “I’m standing with him, but at the same time I’m afraid. Because what if this doesn’t work out?”
In 2008, Gallup World Poll reported that although 78 percent of Georgians thought democracy was important for the development of the country, less than 15 percent were somewhat or very satisfied with the way democracy works in the country. In 2011, the Caucasus Research Resource Centre found that only 34 percent of Georgians partially or fully trusted the government.
Ukraine also had a rough start as an independent republic, as it had difficulties grasping a sense of Ukrainian nationality. The New York Times interviewed Boris M. Zhebrovsky, deputy chairman of the Board of Education in 1992, and he confessed that he was “not yet entirely sure what it means to be Ukrainian.” Ukraine also experienced an economic slowdown between 1991 and 1999, with the International Monetary Fund reporting that its GDP had declined by 60 percent.
Impatient for economic and political change, Ukrainians saw the fraudulent election of 2004 as the nail in the coffin. The Orange Revolution of 2004, through massive peaceful protests, managed to overturn the election results that had declared Viktor Yanukovych the winner. A re-vote resulted in Viktor Yushchenko being elected president.
However, the Orange Revolution may not have been as enduringly successful as Georgia’s Rose Revolution in shaping a stable democracy. Viktor Yanukovych was again elected president in 2010, with Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister, losing by less than four percent of the votes. Since then, Tymoshenko has been sentenced to seven years in prison on various criminal charges. Clashes still occur over Tymoshenko’s imprisonment, representing a wider call for an end to government corruption.
Consequently, Ukrainians have also lost confidence in a Ukrainian democracy. Similar to Georgia in 2008, Gallup World Poll found that 75 percent of Ukrainians thought democracy was important for the development of the country. However, only approximately 15 percent were somewhat or very satisfied with the way democracy works in Ukraine. In 2011, Pew Global reported that there was a decreasing preference in Ukraine for a democratic form of government over a leader with a strong hand, at 30 percent of the population as opposed to 57 percent in 1991.
Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union, has perhaps the most heavily-scrutinized democratic record of the FSU. At the time of Soviet dissolution, the Russian public was just as eager as, if not more than, other post-Soviet states. the eastern edition of the Wall Street Journal reported in 1991 that the Russian public, “tired of years of half-measures that have merely reduced their already low living standards, clearly rejected the idea of yet more caution.”
However, after Russia’s first elected president, Boris Yeltsin, led the country through a multitude of armed conflicts against other post-Soviet states and into a financial crisis. Russians were ready for Vladimir Putin to take control of matters by 1998, whether by democratic or authoritarian means, such as the elimination of Russian oligarchs. As the BBC reported in 2004, “To those schooled in Western democratic traditions, figures giving Mr. Putin 80 percent approval are staggering. And when they look at Mr Putin’s democratic credentials, they find it even more puzzling.”
From the point of a view of a Russian entrepreneur, Irina V. Veniaminova told the New York Times in 1999, that she hoped for a “young, energetic leader.” Since Vladimir Putin returned to presidency in 2012, new laws reminiscent of the Cold War suppression have been passed, including an expanded “treason law” and anti-gay legislation. Most notably, three members of the controversial Russian punk-rock group, Pussy Riot received a sentence of seven years in jail.
Pew Global research reported in 2011 that Russians’ preference of a democratic form of government over a leader with a strong hand has decreased by 19 percent since 1991 to 32 percent of the population. The general trend in public opinion in the FSU shows the popularity of democracy fading, regardless of their democratic developments. In Georgia for example, progress in recent years is seen to be more positive than other former Soviet republics. However, where the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe described its pre-election environment in October as “calm” and “transparent,” many Georgians described it as “boring” according to Al Jazeera, they were unimpressed with their country’s democratic progress. Ukraine’s progress according to democracy ratings remains a question mark. Still, the public is less confident in Ukrainian democracy, as is the Russian public. Russian democracy is fading under Putin, as he assumes the role of a “strong leader” that Russians seem to prefer. With emerging discourse on a global crisis in democracy, it is unclear whether public confidence in democracy will ever recover.