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Democracy in the CIS

WASHINGTON – In the last year, a political earthquake has struck the countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and the ongoing Orange Revolution in Ukraine are a direct challenge to ruling elites in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. They also threaten to derail Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy of retaining as much control as possible over the former Soviet empire.

Throughout this region, ex-communist rulers allied with oligarchic groups have, to varying degrees, seized control of their countries’ economies and political arenas. While claiming to observe the democracy commitments voluntarily accepted when their countries joined the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1992, these leaders have remained in power by rigging elections and excluding potential rivals, sometimes using any means necessary. Executive control of the legislative and judicial branches of power, as well as the state’s coercive apparatus, has made it possible to largely intimidate the public out of politics, which has remained an “insider’s-only” game.

This arrangement has served the Kremlin well. Building alliances with leaders of dubious legitimacy seemed an ideal way to stem the “invasion of Western influence” and its annoying imperative of free and fair elections. Since the late 1990s, Russian-led observer delegations from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) routinely approved of elections in CIS countries which OSCE monitors criticized or damned with faint praise. In this way and others, Moscow showed other CIS capitals that, unlike the United States, Russia would not question their right to rule by hook or by crook and was a reliable bulwark, unlike the preachy West.

Consequently, the democratic revolution which swept Georgia last year horrified the leaders of other former Soviet republics. For the first time in ex-Soviet space, opposition leaders united to mobilize a broad-based protest movement that overturned the results of a rigged election. The emergence of Mikheil Saakashvili, who led Georgia’s Rose Revolution and was subsequently elected president in a landslide, signaled more than the end of Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt, moribund regime: Mr. Saakashvili symbolized the first popular revolt against the system of pseudo-democracy prevalent on post-Soviet soil. What is now transpiring in Ukraine is the logical continuation of what began last year in the Caucasus. And every successful precedent emboldens opposition movements in other CIS countries and gives hope to impoverished, frustrated and seemingly apathetic publics, proving that real change is possible.

The picture of a victorious Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili ushering in a New Year in Kiev’s Independence Square no doubt causes angst in other CIS leaders, even as it inspires those living under repressive regimes elsewhere in the region. In a telling twist, CIS election observers for the first time criticized an election held in the former Soviet Union, decrying the conduct of Ukraine’s Dec. 26 repeat runoff and questioning the legitimacy of the poll.

For the Kremlin, Georgia’s Rose Revolution was bad enough; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is a nightmare. Apart from the stunning loss of face suffered by Mr. Putin, who openly campaigned for pro-Russian candidateViktor Yanukovich, “People power” can no longer be dismissed as an anomaly or a deviation possible only in small, unstable, atypical Georgia in the wild Caucasus. Now, “fraternal” Slavs in large, European Ukraine also insisted that elections be fair and reflect the voters’ will. The handwriting on the Kremlin wall is clear: Peaceful popular protests backed by OSCE standards on elections can bring down entrenched corrupt regimes that rely on vote fraud to remain in power.

Where will this contagion stop? A worried Moscow has responded by attacking the OSCE. Russia, the other former Soviet states and all OSCE countries have formally agreed that democracy, based on the will of the people expressed regularly through free and fair elections, is the only acceptable form of government for our nations. But with its alliance system in jeopardy, Russia last July orchestrated a CIS assault on OSCE’s “imbalanced” stress on democracy and human rights, followed by a broadside in September against, among other things, allegedly skewed OSCE standards on elections. (In response, 106 human-rights advocates, mostly from CIS countries, issued a sharp rebuttal to these attacks at the OSCE’s main human- rights meeting of the year held in October.) Moscow is now threatening to paralyze the consensus-based OSCE if the organization does not effectively revisit and dilute longstanding election commitments, under the pretext of setting “minimum standards” by which to judge whether elections are indeed free and fair. The Russians are also pushing to de-emphasize human rights and democracy in the work of OSCE’s field missions in CIS states. Recognizing the power of the ideals behind OSCE commitments that it signed up to, Russia appears determined to dilute the democracy commitments that are at the very heart of the OSCE.

It is essential that the United States respond resolutely to this challenge, insisting that there be no retreat from OSCE commitments and principles to placate Mr. Putin, the patron saint of post-Soviet “managed” democracy. Moscow may be intent on precipitating a crisis in the OSCE, or even threatening its very existence. Nevertheless, having stood firm against rigged elections in Ukraine, the United States and its democratic OSCE partners should not be bullied into concessions. Watering down the democracy content of the OSCE would not only undermine the organization’s raison d’etre, but undercut the very people struggling to be free.

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