The Changing Face of Eurasia

Since the collapse of the USSR, there have been many achievements in the twelve states of Eurasia that were once Soviet republics (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, the three South Caucasus, and the five Central Asian states). Parliaments and political parties have been created and elections held. Economic reforms have been initiated, a degree of macroeconomic stabilization has been achieved and regional economies have attracted some foreign investment. The region has been integrated into a range of international institutions. A new cadre of technocrats and future young leaders is emerging, many seeking training in the U.S. and Europe. And a range of new non-governmental organizations and small businesses have sprung up in place of outdated and inadequate government entities and antiquated, loss-making enterprises.

But this list of achievements remains just that, a list of achievements. Although over the last decade, the formal institutions and mechanisms of democratic politics and free market economies have been created, they have yet to be endowed with real content. To a greater or lesser degree the twelve states of Eurasia are virtual or false democracies, and virtual or even collapsing economies.

They still have a long way to go.

On the political front, ten years out from the dissolution of the USSR, although Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and other Eurasian states have successfully undergone changes in executive power, in Central Asia, former Soviet party secretaries have been preserved as “new democratic presidents” and have effectively privatized their states. Uzbekistan’s and Kazakhstan’s Presidents have suppressed political opposition. In Turkmenistan, an insular political regime has been established with an extreme Soviet-style personality cult around the President, Saparmurad Niyazov—the self-styled “Father of the Turkmen” (Turkmenbashi) and recently declared “President for Life”—that brooks no other contender for power.

In the South Caucasus, Gorbachev-era Politburo members were returned to power after brief and disastrous flirtations with untested post-Soviet presidents and catastrophic civil wars. In Azerbaijan, the current President’s choice of successor appears to be his son, and other serious figures have been marginalized or hounded abroad. In Georgia, although the parliament has emerged as a serious institution, President Shevardnadze still dominates political life and a tendency to extreme violence in resolving political questions manifests itself during every election. And in Armenia, a similar propensity for violence was underscored by the assassination of its Prime Minister and key members of parliament in October 1999.

In Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenka has cracked down on the opposition in a manner that has resulted in the deaths and disappearances of leading opposition figures, and the arrest and beating of demonstrators even at independence day and Chernobyl rallies. The Lukashenka regime has imposed direct state control over the judiciary and the media, and shunned political and economic reform. Belarus has been excluded from membership in international institutions and has become politically isolated from all but Russia within the region. September 2001 presidential elections in Belarus will be critical in determining how far Lukashenka needs to and is prepared to go in order to stay in power.

Even in relatively enlightened states, such as Kyrgyzstan, which was once touted by the U.S. government as a bastion of democracy in Central Asia, the President has cracked down on opposition groups and attempted to ban domestic monitors from observing elections. While in Ukraine, which seemed to have firmly embraced integration with Europe in the early 1990s, the President is implicated in the disappearance and death of a journalist investigating corruption in his inner circle. And, in Russia, even as he pushes forward with an impressive set of economic reforms, President Vladimir Putin appears to be reversing some of the democratic achievements of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, by clamping down on press freedoms and sanctioning the harassment of NGOs and environmental and human rights activists — not to mention pursuing a second round of war in Chechnya, which has brutalized the region’s civilian population.

Across Eurasia, governments are distinguished by strong executives and weak legislatures. Politics are focused on elections and on the struggle between presidents and parliaments over respective authorities. Presidents routinely manipulate elections and rule by decree to bypass parliament, and opposition political parties have experienced difficulties in presenting themselves as viable alternatives to the ruling regime. There are few intermediaries between high politics and the people, and the press that might play that role relies on the patronage of the state or powerful business cliques with their own agendas.

Networks of elites based on geographical association, common educational background, and extended family ties have replaced or simply evolved from the old Communist Party nomenclature. Flawed privatization programs have served to transfer state assets into the hands of these same cliques, who cluster around the presidents. In Kazakhstan, for example, President Nazarbayev and his immediate family and associates directly control most media outlets as well as the bulk of the economy.

While elites have enriched themselves, the gains in living standards that the rest of Eurasia’s population experienced in the final post-World War II decades of the USSR have been eroded. Millions of people have fallen below their country’s poverty line: ranging from around 30% of the population in Russia to a staggering 80% or more in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In terms of democratic development, we could now group the twelve states of Eurasia according to four rough (and slightly tongue-in cheek) categories:

Democracy Gained/Democracy Imperiled?

Russia—basic civil liberties enshrined, critical institutions created and functioning, but progress set back by “soft authoritarianism” of President Vladimir Putin, with recent restrictions on press freedoms, political parties and NGOs, increasing harassment of political activists, independent researchers, and foreign scholars, and continued fall-out from the war in Chechnya.

Ukraine—as in Russia, basic civil liberties enshrined,critical institutions created and functioning, but opportunities to move forward squandered by a corrupt political leadership, an inability to push forward with economic reforms, and an increasingly bankrupt President Kuchma.

Moldova—perhaps one of the unluckiest countries in Eurasia, with democratization set back by an amputated territory, collapsed economy, and devastating natural disasters——all crowned by the recent election of a Communist government.


Virtual Democracies

The South Caucasus states—all three have created democratic institutions and passed the legislation pressed upon them by international institutions such as the Council of Europe. But, in a similar manner to Ukraine, their reform opportunities have been squandered and international commitments have not been lived up to.

Azerbaijan is almost an opportunistic dictatorship but with President Aliyev’s grip on power waning as he fails in health and with no real institutional mechanism for succession in place.

Georgia is teetering on the brink of political and economic collapse. Corruption has undermined almost all functions of the state and the government seems powerless to tackle it.

Armenia may be slightly less virtual than the rest thanks to the continued influence of its overseas diaspora in the U.S. and Europe, but the persistence of the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has engendered a rigid siege mentality that holds back reform.



The Central Asian states—little pretense at creating democratic institutions. The states have made minimal internal adjustments to facilitate a low level of interaction with the West.

Turkmenistan is the ultimate khanate with its president presenting himself as the personification of the state.

Kazakhstan is a milder version, but with would-be reformers kept in close check by Nazarbayev and his family.

Uzbekistan has become a closed society and economy in an attempt to stave off what its leadership perceives to be inevitable political and economic collapse if reforms are enacted.

Kyrgyzstan tried to become a democracy, became a virtual democracy, and is now a virtual khanate. Its fate has been sealed by a dynastic marriage with Kazakhstan, whose ruling family now has significant political and economic influence over its southern neighbor.

Tajikistan is falling apart at the seams, and is beset by the regionalization and communalization of the state. The government’s influence is confined to Dushanbe, precluding attempts at comprehensive reform (as well as authoritarian rule).


Back in the USSR

Belarus—frozen in Soviet aspic at the top but with a churning civil society below, biding its time.


Clearly these developments were not anticipated when Western policymakers and would-be donors initially confronted the collapse of the USSR. Contrary to assumptions in the West, as well as in the region, transition in Eurasia has now proven to be a protracted process, not a ten-year experiment.

Why were initial assumptions so flawed?

First, it was wrong to assume that, once the USSR and its ideological underpinnings had been removed, economic reform and political liberalization would be swift, and that the states emerging from the Soviet Union would become “normal countries” overnight. Even in Western European countries where either radical economic (Great Britain in the 1980s) or political change (Spain, post-Franco) has been attempted, the process was stretched out over many years, serious problems were encountered and reforms were often left incomplete.

Second, the bar for the former Soviet states’ success was raised high — too high, if the goal was the level of political and economic development attained in the U.S. or in Western Europe. In 1991-1992, the Eurasian states were very far from those lofty heights. The states were also far removed even from the levels of economic and political development achieved by most of their socialist neighbors (with the most obvious exceptions of Albania and Romania). Comparisons made with the leading countries of Central and Eastern Europe — Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary — over the last decade neglect the historical facts that the Russian Empire was far from being a democracy or developed economy in 1917 when the Bolsheviks sent it on the path to a command economy and authoritarian political system.

On the eve of the Revolution, Russia was only a limited and very partial constitutional democracy with restricted suffrage, and an experiment in parliamentary politics and economic reform that was only a decade old. Although the Russian Empire progressed steadily toward industrialization in the 1880s and 1890s, the abolition of serfdom only took place in 1861, and, in 1917, the Empire still had a largely rural population, a relatively small urban population, an even smaller middle class, and extremely low literacy rates. On the fringes of the Empire, there were great lags in development, which were only tackled in the Soviet period. Central Asia only embarked on urbanization after collectivization in the 1930s, and many of the Central Asian cities (outside the ancient centers of settlement in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva) were very much Soviet creations — built up most extensively after the Second World War.

In comparison, the Czech lands of Bohemia were one of the major industrial, intellectual and cultural centers of Europe before the First World War. Along with Poland and Hungary, Czechoslovakia made significant strides in political and economic development during two decades of independence between the wars — in a period when the Soviet Union was more isolated from economic and political ties with Europe than it had ever been under the Tsars.

The Soviet period saw great leaps in development for the lands of the old Russian Empire, but also great retardation vis à vis economic and political development elsewhere in Europe. In 1991, the Eurasian states embarked on reform from a much lower starting point than their East European neighbors. And, among the former Soviet states some were far “more equal than others.” Some states had much greater advantages than others in terms of economic and natural resource endowments, the political (as well as geographical) distance to be traveled to become part of Europe (the West), and in terms of their relationships with the West, as well as with their former Soviet and other neighbors. Even some of these advantages were more advantageous than others. For example, Georgia’s close links with the U.S. and Europe, through the “relational capital” of its President, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, still could not compensate for internal weakness and fragmentation. Nor could it compensate for extremely poor relational capital with its most important neighbor, Russia, or a lack of significant resources to stimulate economic recovery.

Third, transition may be the wrong term to apply to the post-Soviet states of Eurasia. Some of the twelve states will likely never match the achievements of Central and East European states, let alone “transition” to become European or Western states. Transition implies a beginning and an end point, but change is a dynamic not a static process and the states are evolving along their own trajectories. At present, the basic structures of the old Soviet economic and political system persist and attempts at reform in each country have caused adaptations and mutations in their own versions of this basic system. For example, Central Asian states did not suddenly become corrupt, clan-based, authoritarian states after 1991. They were already evolving in this direction during the Soviet period — especially in the Brezhnev era when the Central Asian party secretaries wielded significant power and often acted autonomously from Moscow. Indeed, the Soviet system itself in Central Asia was shaped by the traditional clan and regional networks that preceded it.

What does the future hold?

Over the course of the last decade, some of the twelve countries have fallen further behind their former Soviet neighbors, as well as further behind the West. They will continue to fall, as Soviet-era achievements in education, infrastructure, industrial development and health are lost. In parts of Eurasia, we can already see the “primitivization” of states, where the energies of the population are focused on household subsistence and shuttle trade and the government has retreated from many aspects of daily life — in particular from the provision of a social safety net. In fact, the end result may be that several of the twelve states will turn inward upon themselves, retreat from interactions with the outside world and reduce their dependence on it, rather than seeking direct engagement. This has already happened in Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan is on the same path.

In Central Asia, we are not likely to see democratic systems (as we generally understand them in the West) develop in our lifetimes. The states are vulnerable to outside pressures, but the pressures on them are not the strongest from the West — given distance and lack of interest on the part of the U.S. and European states. Instead, the states are more likely to be pulled by all their immediate neighbors (including Russia, China, Afghanistan, and Iran) and not necessarily in democratic directions. The strong impulse to conform to the exigencies of the neighborhood is clearly exemplified in the fate of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who genuinely pursued a Western democratic path in the early years of his presidency, but was unable and ultimately unwilling to sustain it given Kyrgyzstan’s political and economic isolation and its dependence on Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

In the South Caucasus, all three states are very much dependent on what happens in Russia. Their fates are inextricably tied to their neighbor to the north in multiple ways. A significant portion of the South Caucasus populations seek either permanent or temporary work in Russia — more than one million people have left Armenia alone for Russia over the last decade as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and economic collapse. Remittances from these diaspora and migrant populations are crucial to Caucasus economies. The annual income of Azerbaijani migrants in Russia ranges between $700 million and $1 billion according to different estimates and more than 500,000 Georgian workers in Russia produce about ¼ of the country’s GDP. But the Caucasus states also have other external contacts — such as ties with Turkey if the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is resolved, and with Iran, if relations between Iran and the U.S. improve — which may provide additional windows to the West as well as the Middle East. Linkages with the diaspora will also keep pulling Armenia west and will maintain the focus of U.S. policy on this state, while the development of Azerbaijan’s oil and gas resources will increasingly pull it into the world economy and provide leverage points for encouraging political reform as well as financial resources to tackle poverty.

Russia has the best long-term chance of democratic and economic success (in spite of seeming recent reversals) followed by Ukraine. Here, the Baltic States demonstrate that, if the European pulls are strong, major achievements can be made. Although the Baltics were always the most advanced region of USSR, have been blessed by small populations and an optimal geographic location, and have been able to capitalize on their experience of independence between the two world wars as well as on close contacts with an active diaspora in the U.S., they can still serve as a marker for other states.

For Russia and Ukraine, the Baltic States point forward to what can be achieved — if the current thrust of European economic and political engagement is continued, and if Russia, in particular, is not cut off from the West. In Belarus, Lukashenka can not hold on forever. As Europe expands East, Belarus will be surrounded by increasingly developed democracies. At this juncture, even Putin and Russia are embarrassed by him and may eventually apply pressure of their own for political change. For Ukraine, close links with Poland may also eventually help to propel the state forward if interactions are intensified.

In general, expectations are critical in promoting and encouraging reform in Eurasia. States need to have a sense of where they are going. Russia and Ukraine can reasonably expect to move toward Europe in its broader conception. At this juncture, the Central Asian states have very little expectation of doing so.

What adaptations should we expect in donor approaches given these changes in Eurasia?

In the early 1990s, international donors initially began with one program for the region. Every state was considered to be at an equal level and the same set of categories for reform were applied. Over the last decade, this “cookie cutter” approach has had to be abandoned and a different set of programs for each of the twelve states gradually developed based on assessments of needs on the ground. In looking forward, programs may need to be modified even further. And most of the major international, bilateral and private donor organizations are indeed reassessing their programs at this juncture.

In Central Asia, in particular, donors focusing on political and economic development may also have to join forces with advocacy groups like the Open Society Institute (OSI) and activists like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to pressure governments to stop the blatant abuses of human rights that are becoming increasingly common in states like Uzbekistan, to push for the restoration of press and other political freedoms, and to combat the most egregious authoritarian tendencies.

In Kazakhstan, the development of the country’s substantial oil and gas reserves will bring the state closer to the world market and generate resources for developing the private sector. Here donors could intensify their focus on promoting business advocacy organizations that may later become a basis for political change. Private sector development has begun to drive political reform in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Eurasia with the gradual emergence of a more active middle class and property-owing interest groups with a stake in broader progress.

In Turkmenistan, simply maintaining a presence on the ground and trying to act as a means of channeling outside influence into the state may be the only short-term option for donors. Here the focus will have to be on keeping hope alive by supporting small groups of people who seek change, and demonstrating that Turkmenistan can not remain a completely isolated “island,” even in Central Asia.

Overall, in Central Asia, vigorous cross-border activity may be in order. The goals here would be not only to forge contacts among groups in donor networks to pass on lessons learned from the last ten years of economic and political experiments, but also to push for the maintenance of open borders and the development of regional markets which will be the keys to Central Asia’s future development.

In the South Caucasus, the three countries have already made political commitments to Western norms in joining the Council of Europe and other international institutions, which they can be pressured to live up to. It is important to local governments how they are perceived on the outside, and they have shown genuine desire to join the broader European space. Pressure for political reforms from European institutions and the U.S. has certainly had more of an effect in the Caucasus than in Central Asia. Here, strengthening the capacity of local watchdog and advocacy organizations and supporting programs that will increase transparency and accountability in the public as well as the private sectors seem crucial. Individual U.S.-based donors can also aim for more cooperation with their counterparts and other organizations working on the ground, especially European partners, as well as supporting the most committed and assertive local NGOs.

In both the South Caucasus and Central Asia, donors will have to avoid supporting “GONGOs,” the government backed NGOs that are used increasingly to manipulate and control civil society in the regions. This will involve more prior due diligence and careful grant and assistance monitoring on the part of donor staff. In addition, given the detrimental impact of the continued (albeit frozen) conflicts in the Caucasus (Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) on regional political as well as economic development, donors should intensify cross border work and push for grantmaking to civil society groups within the conflict zones themselves. Both OSI and the Eurasia Foundation are currently attempting this in the South Caucasus, where OSI has grantmaking in Abkhazia, and the Eurasia Foundation has a region-wide initiative that promotes tripartite programs among Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri groups.

The most important issue for donors would seem to be to continue to plug the broader Eurasia region into global communications networks and to help the states develop new human capital. The experience of the Baltic States demonstrates that countries within the region can “learn” and develop relatively quickly. Access to new networks is key — including horizontal linkages with Western Europe and Central/Eastern Europe through which contacts can be developed and information and skills transmitted. Donor programs can play an active role in developing and utilizing networks for the benefit of grantees and partner organizations. Donors such as OSI and the Eurasia Foundation, which have substantial regional field offices, have already begun to move in this direction.

In terms of human capital, the human resources of the former Soviet states were developed for a specific political, social and economic system. Now, the most critical group is the cohort in their thirties who grew up and were educated in the USSR, but who have now gained significant exposure, education and training in the West and can thus bridge and build on both systems. Many of this group have joined the private sector or have left their countries to live and work abroad. Some are in government, only a comparative few are in the NGO sector. OSI, the Eurasia Foundation and other organizations operating on the ground are providing a vehicle for channeling the skills and energy of this group through employment in their field offices and the elevation of members of this group to senior positions. Other international donors could also target this group in project development and grantmaking in the public and non-profit sectors.

In Russia, although the Putin government has clearly committed itself to economic reform, the harassment of civil society actors is becoming more frequent. NGOs are increasingly coming under pressure from tax authorities, as are media outlets in both Moscow and the regions. Individual human rights and other activists and independent scholars who step over the (so far) invisible lines of propriety from the point of view of the government and security services are facing prosecution and jail time. Although, at this juncture, these individual cases do not point to a concerted, system-wide policy of repression, the risk is there. Donors operating in Russia may want to consider targeted support for more activist groups within their portfolio, as well as joining forces (as in Central Asia) with international advocacy organizations to push for the reversal of this nascent policy. U.S. donor partnerships with European organizations would be particularly important to these efforts given the Putin government’s espoused goal of close relations with Europe.

Throughout Eurasia, monitoring, ensuring transparency and demanding accountability of government and civil society actors should be given special emphasis in donor programs. And Russian programs should remain central to region-wide donor efforts. As the dominant country in Eurasia, Russia?s movement forward is critical. This is especially the case as the interactions between it and other Eurasian countries intensify (as will be the case given the Putin government?s emphasis on relations with the states of Eurasia in its foreign policy doctrine). As Russia evolves and progresses, so its immediate neighbors will have to adapt to deal with it. The success of Russia?s economic and democratic transformation, as well as its failure, will shape the transformation of others.

Throughout Eurasia, monitoring, ensuring transparency and demanding accountability of government and civil society actors should be given special emphasis in donor programs. And Russian programs should remain central to region-wide donor efforts. As the dominant country in Eurasia, Russia’s movement forward is critical. This is especially the case as the interactions between it and other Eurasian countries intensify (as will be the case given the Putin government’s emphasis on relations with the states of Eurasia in its foreign policy doctrine). As Russia evolves and progresses, so its immediate neighbors will have to adapt to deal with it. The success of Russia’s economic and democratic transformation, as well as its failure, will shape the transformation of others.