Jan 8, 2005 | 01:05 GMT

12 mins read

The Next Wave of 'Velvet Revolutions' (Free Access)

By Peter Zeihan Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yushchenko — both leaders who rose to power via popular movements backed by the West, which challenged electoral results in which their opponents were declared "official" victors — shared a New Year's Eve party and a ski vacation in the Ukrainian Carpathians, which ended Jan. 5. Just before heading their separate ways, the two issued a joint "Carpathian Declaration" that hailed recent political changes in their countries as "a new wave of liberation of Europe, which will lead to the final victory of freedom and democracy on the European continent." The declaration is a warning to Moscow that it can look forward to losing even more influence throughout its former empire. The Kremlin backed — in some cases rather ham-fistedly — Saakashvili's and Yushchenko's opponents and rightly has perceived the newcomers' victories as a palpable blow to Russian influence in its near abroad. Anti-Russian sentiment is never far below the surface in much of the former Soviet Union (FSU), but considering that none of the Commonwealth of Independent States is exactly a democracy where personal safety is the norm, opposition tended to be shrill but limited to some very well-connected — and protected — personalities. Ukrainian oligarchs are, if anything, more active in Ukrainian politics than Russian oligarchs are in Russia — and that, too, is a pattern replicated throughout the region. Breaking that mold requires one very important thing: the threat of popular uprisings that government forces are not bold enough to put down violently. Such uprisings, however, do not come naturally to people in Russia's sphere of influence. The vast distances involved in many FSU states make communication difficult and concentrated government force effective at turning protests into bloodbaths. The result is a polity that normally can be relied upon to suffer quietly. Where else can coal miners and teachers solider on with wages six months or more in arrears? (Do not expect that passivity — or the arrears — to change anytime soon in countries which have experienced revolutions, by the way.) Some examples of the worst government irresponsibility can be laid at the feet of FSU rulers. Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashi (formerly known as President Saparmurat Niyazov) has turned his country into a personal amusement park with hundreds of golden statues — one that rotates with the sun — glorifying his status. Protests are unheard of. Uzbekistan held a presidential election in 2000, in which the challenger voted for the incumbent, President Islam Karimov. Apparently the race was too close — some 10 percent of the electorate voted for the "challenger" — so in 2004 parliamentary elections, opposition parties were simply banned. When former Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to fire upon the rebellious Duma — before the heady optimism of the post-Soviet era had evaporated — Moscow slept. Protests — much less revolutions — just do not happen often in this part of the world. Ukraine's and Central Asia's first taste of indigenous government only came with the Soviet collapse, and — we are bracing ourselves for the onslaught of e-mail — the Caucasian states' claim to long independent traditions of governance are dubious at best. While we do not necessarily believe everything our sources within the Kremlin communicate to us — for some of them every cloudy day is a CIA plot to keep Russia dependent on Midwestern cereals — there is more than a grain of truth to their assertions that the West orchestrated the social/political movements in Georgia and Ukraine. After all, Saakashvili and U.S. President George W. Bush explicitly discussed this strategy on the phone Dec. 7. Overcoming the built-in passivity of the FSU psyche takes real effort, real organization and real money. No offense to those who participated in the protests, but money does not grow on trees — even in Tbilisi and Kiev. And historically these country's polities while certainly not zombiesque, have not ever been what one could call rambunctious. To understand where the trend of velvet revolutions is going, one must first see where it came from. It did not begin in Georgia. Back during Saakashvili's rise to power, STRATFOR noticed that a few representatives of a little-known (in the United States) group called Otpor played a limited coordinating and planning role in the "Rose Revolution." Otpor is a student/youth movement in Serbia that helped unseat former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. While the U.S. Institute for Peace played a part in funding Otpor, it struck us as odd that a handful of Serb youths would find themselves running around downtown Tbilisi shouting "Down with Milosev-, err, Shevardnadze!" We watched with fascination when, after Saakashvili assumed the trappings of power, he was not only able to (so far) consolidate control and rein in the pro-Russian (near) separatist region of Ajara, but he also began intensive talks with the Ukrainian opposition. The Orange Revolution was born. Imagine our interest — if lack of surprise — when Yushchenko's and Saakashvili's "Carpathian Declaration" became publicized. We do not expect the West as a whole, much less the United States, to let up the pressure or give the Russians any breathing room, but the trend of anti-government protests and regime changes has now taken on a life of its own. And it will spread. The first location to see a repeat of the revolution model will be Moldova, where legislative elections will be held in February. Here, anti-Russian feelings run strong due to Moscow's tacit backing of the separatist republic of Transdniestria, a sliver of land between the east bank of the Dniester River and Ukraine. Supplying the Russian military force in Transdniestria will become impossible when — not if — Ukraine begins to deny Russia transit rights. The current Moldovan president, Vladimir Voronin, after being elected in 2002 originally sought closer relations with Russia in the hopes of prodding Moscow into removing its troops from Transdniestria — a step most Moldavians consider the first to reasserting sovereignty. When the expected payoff did not materialize, Voronin changed from Russophilic to Russophobic, and the legislative campaign now seems almost to be a contest as to who can make the most anti-Russian statements. Mere anti-Russian feelings do not make one immune to regime change. Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was famous for his antipathy for Russia, yet that did not save him from the Rose Revolution; and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, by most measures, attempts to balance the East and West, yet he is now about to be gone. The point is to sever links to the past, and that means very soon Voronin will fall away as well. So will Armenian President Robert Kocharian. Unlike the relative newcomer Voronin, Kocharian has ruled his tiny Caucasian state either as prime minister or president since 1997 and has seen his state through the thick and thin of a cold war with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. While Georgia might be more important to the Russian psyche since it is quite literally the last line of territory between Russia and historical rival Turkey, it is Armenia that has long been a loyal ally. Armenia almost is completely surrounded by traditional Russian foes. Russia and Armenia — both Orthodox Christians — also enjoy close cultural ties. But more to the point, as in Moldova, Russia maintains a troop presence in Armenia. Kocharian might be considered a moderate in the Russia-West tussle, but he, too, will be targeted for replacement. Unlike many of the former Soviet states, Armenia has a lively political opposition. Complicating matters for Russia is that the most pro-Russian opposition faction was slaughtered in a paramilitary raid on the Parliament in 1999; the faction never recovered, and the perpetrators of the plot were never uncovered. Simultaneous to all this are developments in Georgia. Saakashvili might have won the presidency, but he has yet to win the country. Two separatist regions — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — maintain de facto independence largely because of Russian largesse. Two Russian military bases — in Batumi and Akhalkalaki — also grace Georgia's territory. Within the next year STRATFOR fully expects Saakashvili to force the Russians out of both bases — he already is denying Russia the ability to resupply and rotate troops through of Akhalkalaki — and regain control of South Ossetia, perhaps by military means. STRATFOR fully expects a "popular movement" to be used to encourage Russian base evacuations, and perhaps even as a means of forcing the South Ossetians to stand down and be reincorporated into Georgia proper. These three countries will almost assuredly shift beyond Russia's grasp before the end of 2005. However, they will not be the only places where pro-Western forces move — just the only places where the moves are successful. Many in the Ukrainian, Georgian and Western press have opined about how the Orange Revolution could be repeated in Russia. They clearly have not been paying attention to Russian President Vladimir Putin's CV. This is a former KGB agent who, as one of his first acts as prime minister, launched the Chechnya war. Then, four years later while enjoying rock solid public support, made sure that the country's feeble opposition was trounced in an election campaign that could not be called exactly open. No, Putin is safe. Not forever, but certainly for now. So is Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka. Lukashenka is widely despised throughout Europe for his erratic and authoritarian tendencies. He also has rubbed Putin the wrong way. At issue is the Russian-Belarus Union which Lukashenka was instrumental in forming during Boris Yeltsin's administration. Lukashenka's thinking was that he would be the union's vice president, and when Yeltsin's penchant for alcohol outstripped Russia's heart surgeons' ability to resuscitate him, Lukashenka would become leader of the Russian sphere of influence. The sober and black-belt-possessing Putin, to put it bluntly, thinks Lukashenka is less than intellectually capable and has put the Russian-Belarus Union idea on ice. During the past two years, he has even gone so far as to edge Moscow away from the embarrassingly ambitious Belarusian leader. But the recent onslaught of anti-Russian movements — particularly in Ukraine — has forced a reconsideration. Russia has very few allies, and none are as reflexively pro-Russian as Lukashenka. At the first of the year the Kremlin swallowed hard and extended agreements to provide Belarus with natural gas at less than half the European rate. Belarus maintains a relatively high standard of living on the back of Russian energy subsides. So long as the subsidies continue, Lukashenka will continue ruling and being Russia's best (paid) friend. This makes him a prime target for another Western-aided revolution. But STRATFOR expects Lukashenka to stay. The Belarusian opposition is fragmented and under extremely close observation by Belarusian security forces. Lukashenka's popularity also is relatively high because Russia has chosen to purchase support for him with ongoing subsidies. There also are no elections — such as they are in Belarus — scheduled in 2005, so Lukashenka is almost certain to rule for another year. So, too, is the case in the Central Asian republics. All five Central Asian presidents have ruled since the Soviet breakup, and most probably will continue to do so until the day they — or their selected offspring or cronies — die. There is an opposition of sorts in the region — a transnational movement by the name of Hizb al Tahrir — but the movement is Islamist in character and seeks the reformation of the Caliphate. It certainly is not the type of organization that most Western governments are going to funnel money to. Opposition movements are only marginal in Kyrgyzstan, making it the only place in the region where an Orange Revolution might occur, and even there the political environment has darkened considerably during the past two years. President Askar Akayev also publicly mused Dec. 6 about how supporters of such "velvet revolutions" should not count upon the state tolerating their activities. He was not kidding. Meanwhile, the Kazakh and Uzbek governments are family affairs. Given time, Uzbekistan's Karimov regime likely will collapse under its own weight as a decade of mismanagement gives way to chaos. Revolution will come to Uzbekistan, but it will be one triggered by the state's collapse — and it certainly will not be colored orange. For now, Kazakhstan's oil wealth will keep President Nursultan Nazarbayev and family in riches for years. In either case, popular uprisings would not work anytime soon. These are regimes with few qualms about visiting creative solutions upon who would elevate their opposition past rhetoric. In the meantime, Turkmenistan's citizens are too busy extolling the Turkmenbashi and memorizing the Rukhnama — their leader's sequel to Quran — to consider forming political parties. And as all of the states in this region — and dare we say, Russia — have discovered, a vibrant state security network does not hurt either.

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