While U.S. voters grumble about Congressional deadlock and lack of presidential alternatives, we often forget how good we have it. A slow thaw from autocracy in former Soviet states since 1991 has uncovered various national specimens, from reformer to recidivist. Observers have watched with increasing pessimism as jailed and beaten opposition candidates, single-party access to TV and radio, and the (recently innovative) prime minister / president switcheroo have characterized campaigns from Kiev to Kazakhstan. In comparison, if the Super PAC debate is the worst of American politics, we might say, we’ll take it.
Many will remember 2011 as the year Arab civil society trumped their dictators and moved to the ballot box, so making history. Most former (non-Baltic) Soviet republics however have both a steep Communist legacy to evade and unease with pluralism. Below are snapshots of progress for those nations with elections in 2012.
Russian Federation: Presidential election in March. In the face of disputed parliamentary elections last December and the biggest public outcry since the 1990s, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appears destined to once again be president, even with the expected second round. Protesters gathering publicly are less muzzled these days and some radio outlets offer surprisingly open criticism of this “managed democracy,” but Putin controls the TV stations (where most Russian get their news), the country’s corporate-industrial players, and the security services. The president also nominates regional representatives and governors, who just happen to be members of his United Russia party. The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, co-owner of the New Jersey Nets, entered the contest last fall, so far speaking tamely about electoral reform, yet some suspect him a vote splitter who will only assure Putin’s victory.
Ukraine: Parliamentary election in October. In winter 2004, crowds braved December snows in Kiev and spent several dramatic weeks protesting an unfair presidential vote, rallying around the reform candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, eventually elected in a re-run. Pulled between a Russia-oriented eastern part of the country and an EU-leaning western half, Yuschenko made little progress, and in 2010 the less-reformist Viktor Yanukovych took the head office. And take over he has. In 2011, the state prosecutor’s office both jailed former prime minister (and opponent) Yulia Tymoshenko, and then last month threw out a court case accusing former president Leonid Kuchma, a one-time Yanukovych backer, of murdering an investigative journalist.
Belarus: Parliamentary election in September. Head of state since 1995, President Aleksandr Lukashenka overturned his own term limit to stay in office. His election again in 2010 cued mass protest of the vote and international condemnation of police violence during the turnout, including over 600 arrests and first-hand accounts of beatings of candidates and joumalists. There are new jailings almost monthly of opposition activists and anyone who deigns to challenge or criticize Lukashenka. This “last dictatorship in Europe” shows little sign of thawing. Russia changed the name of its security service, while Belarus still refers to its own as the KGB. Parliamentary elections in 2008 yielded not a single seat out of 110 for the opposition, all going to Lukashenka loyalists.
Moldova: Constitutional referendum in April. While we can predict who will rule in Russia and Belarus in the near future, in Moldova we cannot. A patchwork of ethnicities, Moldova has for 20 years been a low-intensity face-off between its dominant Romanian speakers and Russian speakers supported by Moscow. Even borders are debated: some advocate national union with Romania, while residents of the eastern Transdniester region desire complete autonomy. The difficulty of forming party coalitions, and re-runs of parliamentary elections upon failure to elect a head of state, has meant a topsy-turvy journey for its governments. After nine years of Communist president Vladimir Voronin, violent riots in the spring of 2009 indicated less an ethno-linguistic division than simple rejection of corruption and lack of economic opportunity. With no party majority in parliament to determine head of state, Moldova has had three acting presidents since July 2009.
Georgia: Parliamentary election in October. Since Mikheil Saakashvili stormed parliament in 2003 and ceremoniously drank from then-president Shevardnadze’s tea glass, young Misha’s reform movement has fallen noticeably short. Several achievements are notable, including reduced police corruption, a liberalized economic sector, and broad Western support. While authoritarian tendencies have eroded Saakashvili’s once manic fanbase, unsatisfied citizens have been unable to rally a unified opposition, and Misha’s party in 2008 won 119 out of 150 parliamentary seats. Multi-party politics is alive and well – the question is how much the current administration allows them to participate. A new protagonist is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire with Russian industrial interests, who recently declared himself a 2013 presidential candidate. Whether Saakashvili steps down after two terms will be a strong comment on the country’s pluralistic hopes.
Armenia: Parliamentary election in May. With its third president, Serzh Sargsyan, now in office, Armenia may appear relatively democratic, yet dispute of his election victory in 2008 resulted in violence with security forces, 10 deaths, and jailing of opposition leaders. At the time Sargsyan had beaten by a wide margin Levon Ter-Petrosian, the first president of post-Soviet Armenia, who continues an active opposition. Astonishment at the strong-arm tactics continues to haunt Sargsyan, who is looking to shore up support for his re-election in 2013. There are also rumors that Robert Kocharian, who served as president 1998-2008, may re-enter party politics, which would threaten Sargsyan’s parliamentary majority. To watch between now and May: opposition leaders want to amend the election code, so that parliamentary seats are decided by proportional representation, which would curtail individually elected candidates who tend to be administration cronies.
Kazakhstan: Parliamentary election in January. Re-elected four times, President Nursultan Nazarbaev can now legally stand for election as often as he likes. Many, however, consider this term his last, as the rumor mill spins about his anointed successor, a drama which could be its own reality show since everyone expects power to stay within the family. After a 2007 lower-house election in which all seats were given to Nazarbaev’s party, the elections on January 15 were a faint harbinger of pluralism, as opposition parties crept in with 15 out of 98 seats. Regardless, the president’s party and family control the major industrial and financial interests, and with the help of western PR firms and steady Caspian oil revenue, stage manage media outlets and governance. Investigative journalists and opposition candidates have suffered the same fate as those in Russia and Belarus.
Turkmenistan: Presidential election in February. When the self-proclaimed “Father of All Turkmen,” Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2006 there was an international reaction similar to Kim Jong Il’s passing: that is, will the lunacy continue or will there finally be common-sense government. One of the biggest megalomaniacs in history, Niyazov allowed zero opposition, built golden statues to himself, and renamed the Turkmen month of April after his mother. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, is relatively cult-free yet governs just as strictly, while the would-be opposition is either jailed or abroad. Seven other candidates, presumably alive and in the country, reportedly ran against the incumbent on February 12. The OSCE, which routinely sends observers to post-Soviet elections, again refused to send anyone. Parliament is little more than a rubber stamp for the president.
Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, while not in a cycle this year, do hold parliamentary and presidential elections, though their autocratic leaders brook scant opposition. Political “stability,” if it could be termed as such, can be ascribed to de facto acceptance of the status quo by Western powers due to Caspian oil interests in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and with the anti-terror support role Uzbekistan plays for the US. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan exiled two presidents over corruption in the last six years, and in 2010 made history by reducing presidential powers.
Moscow, unsurprisingly, has sought to limit political reform in its own backyard. When Russia invaded and occupied it briefly in 2008, regardless of how the conflict began, Georgia was the most reformist and US-friendly of the republics. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004/05, Ukraine’s reformists have been methodically dismantled. And when Kyrgyzstan began its experiment with a parliamentary (rather than presidential) democracy last November, Russian officials were outspokenly critical. Yet with its autocrat neighbors, Russia has few political complaints.