Foreign Policy Blogs

Russian Electioneering in Central Asia and Eastern Europe

In the early 90s, I used to listen to a Radiohead song called "Electioneering" from their groundbreaking album, OK Computer.  The song bitterly bemoans the UK/US electoral process and vote getting tactics by politicians and parties.  Though the song brilliantly and rather accurately portrays some of the unfortunate truths of our electoral system, it is a protest song that could only come from a stable, free state, and many of the items criticized by the lead singer Thom Yorke, would be welcomed in many of the worlds more autocratic states.

This thought came to me after reading Clifford J. Levy's excellent article detailing the Russian election monitoring process in former Soviet states, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.  In the report, Levy details how the Kremlin is countering Western efforts to judge and monitor elections in the world to see how they measure up, that is how free and fair are they.  This is mainly done by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Moscow now sends their own election observers, who Levy showcases as just there to put a legitimate stamp on otherwise corrupt and unfair elections.

Why would Moscow want to spend the money and time with their own monitors?  For one thing it gives a countering voice to the OSCE, an organization which called Russia's own election in 2004, "far from fair.' The process also protects the authoritarian regimes still loyal and dependent on Moscow, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.  The Kremlin will create an illusionary vision of a fair and free election process to legitimize the process and government in the eyes of the nation's citizens and its own.

Another reason I believe Moscow makes the attempt to legitimize these corrupt election processes is because of democratic norms that have started to pervade the international system.  Levy discusses how these former Soviet dictators, Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Lukashenko in Belarus, desire to be seen as "democratic' to the world.  Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been brutal dictatorships, but their leaders still hold elections where they receive nearly 90% or greater of the vote.  Why?  They want their the world to see them as legitimate and they think any election process, any at all, will give them more political weight at home and abroad.  Of course there are strategic reasons, such as building closer relations with the democratic West, which helps these leaders diversify their economic portfolio, but that can't be the only reason.
Back to Russia's role in these former Soviet states: Moscow desires stability and influence in their "near abroad' and the war in Georgia and recent gas cutoffs to Ukraine have shown that they will push their neighbors around if this is challenged.  Scholar Stephen Blank's "Military Rivalry in Central Asia" in great detail describes Russia's domineering attitude and policies to the countries to their south.  Blank calls them "neocolonial' and basically "domestic stability operations', meaning that Moscow considers these former Soviet states basically just that, Russian states.  All of "Stans of Central Asia are authoritarian governments strongly connected to Putin's government, with one small and important exception, Kyrgyzstan, which had a democratic orientated "Tulip Revolution' in 2005, that scared the bejeebies out of Moscow.  Since that incident, Moscow, with a little help and competition from China, has tried to even further cement its military and political presence in the region in a desperate move to make sure this does not happen again.

After a lot of bellicose statements regarding confronting Moscow after the Georgian invasion, many have called for restraint and asked the question, "what does this have to do with us?'  Though I largely agreed that the US must have a realist viewpoint of the situation and not go overboard with rhetoric or antagonizing of the Kremlin, these stories of Moscow's domineering attempts to keep pliable dictators in charge clearly shows that the West and United States need to take the great power seriously.  The growth of democracy and liberal ideals is not set in stone and aggressive autocratic powers such as Russia can have a tremendous impact as to how the world is shaped.



Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO

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