After the Fall

The 15 countries of the former Soviet Union have taken radically different political paths over the last two decades.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (L), Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (2nd L) and WW II veterans watch a military parade during the nation's Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2011 in commemoration of the end of WWII. Russia was due Monday to march 20,000 soldiers and its most advanced missiles across Red Square in a parade marking victory in World War II and reinforcing the country's belief in its Soviet-era might. AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA (Photo credit should read NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

Current leader: President Dmitry Medvedev

Freedom: Not free (ranked by Freedom House)

History: For the heart of the former Soviet empire, the decade following the fall of communism was the best of times and the worst of times: a period of unprecedented political liberty, economic chaos, rampant corruption, the rise of a new class of oligarchs, and a brutal war in the North Caucasus.

When President Boris Yeltsin appointed prime minister and KGB veteran Vladimir Putin as his replacement in 1999, the conventional wisdom was that he would keep the country on the roughly the same path. Instead, Putin reined in the oligarchs — jailing oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky when he began to exhibit political ambitions — to consolidate power during a period of explosive, oil-driven economic growth. At the same time, he dramatically rolled back freedoms for the political opposition and independent media. Putin gave way to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2008, but has continued to pull the strings from the prime minister’s office.

Under the Putin-Medvedev tandem, Russia has pushed back against NATO expansion and the deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe, joined with China to form a counterweight against U.S. and European interventionism on the U.N. Security Council, fought a successful war against Georgia in 2008, and continued its brutal campaign against the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

Current state: The future of Russia’s tandem remains murky. Putin would be constitutionally eligible to return to the presidency in 2012, but neither he nor Medvedev has yet made his intentions clear. The world economic crisis has taken its toll on the Russian oil boom, along with the government’s popularity, but with most of the country’s democratic opposition either fractured or co-opted by the ruling United Russia party, it’s highly likely that Putin’s star will remain ascendant, whichever office he holds.



Current leader: President Viktor Yanukovych

Freedom: Partly free

History: The 1990s were not kind to newly independent Ukraine. The country’s GDP contracted by around 60 percent between 1991 and 1998; corruption was rampant in the government of President Leonid Kuchma; and nationalist divisions between the country’s Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west continued to widen.

A new spirit of optimism appeared to arrive in late 2004 and early 2005 with the Orange Revolution, a nonviolent uprising in response to a fraudulent presidential election. The Orange Revolution succeeded in putting the pro-Western and rightfully elected Viktor Yushchenko in power over Kuchma’s handpicked successor, Viktor Yanukovych. But the country’s economic prospects did not brighten under Yushchenko’s gridlocked government, which in 2009 had only a 4 percent approval rating. Yushchenko’s promises to put the country on the path to EU and NATO membership went nowhere. Yanukovych finally made it to the presidency when voters elected him in 2010.

Current state: Yanukovych’s presidency has seen improved ties with Moscow, resulting in a new basing agreement for Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea. There have also been disturbing reports of attacks on civil society and the press. Freedom House lowered the country’s rating from “free” to “partly free” in 2011.



Current leader: President Islam Karimov

Freedom: Not free

History: Since independence, Uzbekistan has been ruled by its former Communist leader, Islam Karimov. The regime is routinely ranked by international NGOs as one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. Under Karimov’s rule, opposition parties are prosecuted, torture of political prisoners is commonplace, and the country’s vast energy wealth has been appropriated to enrich the president’s family.

Uzbekistan’s proximity to Afghanistan has made Uzbekistan an erstwhile ally in the U.S. war on terrorism — the Uzbek government has fought its own battles with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for decades. Following the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which hundreds of anti-government protesters were killed in the country’s east by government troops, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration strongly criticized Karimov, leading to the expulsion of U.S. troops from the country. Tensions have cooled somewhat since then, and the country is again being used as a transshipment point for Afghanistan-bound troops and materiel.

Current state: With his massive energy wealth, with ties to regional powers like China and India that are less concerned about his human rights record, and with little in the way of political opposition, Karimov faces few threats to his hold on power other than age — he’ll be 75 when his current term ends in 2013.


Current leader: President Nursultan Nazarbayev

Freedom: Not free

History: The world’s ninth-largest country by area is also one of the world’s most energy-rich, with vast deposits of oil, natural gas, and uranium. Under Nursultan Nazarbayev’s 21 years of rule, it has seen rapid economic growth — at times more than 8 percent per year — and a higher GDP per capita than Russia. Encouragingly, Kazakhstan was one of the world’s first countries to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons and has been a strong proponent of global disarmament.

Unfortunately, however, political freedom has not kept pace with economic growth. There’s little credible opposition to Nazarbayev’s rule, and there are disturbing reports of crackdowns on independent media.

Kazakhstan has maintained friendly relations with Russia while also encouraging the growth of Central Asia’s regional trade group, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to take advantage of its proximity to China.

Current state: In 2011, Nazarbayev rejected a plan that would have extended his term until 2020, instead calling an early election that caught the opposition off guard and saw him reelected with 95 percent of the vote. While the president remains legitimately popular, the plan for what comes after the 70-year-old Nazarbayev leaves office remains unclear. He has not designated a successor either from within his family or among his supporters in government, and there’s no obvious candidate to carry on his political legacy.


Current leader: President Aleksandr Lukashenko

Freedom: Not free

History: Often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus is an outlier — a country bordering the European Union where the state retains control over most of the economy and the KGB continues to operate in name and in practice. Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, having been reelected three times in votes that were widely deemed flawed by international organizations and were followed by the arrests of dozens of regime opponents. Belarus is under heavy economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union.

Lukashenko has maintained extremely close relations with Putin’s Russia to the extent that the possibility of reunification has been seriously discussed. A serious diplomatic row erupted between the countries in 2009, prompted by a dispute over gas pricing and Belarus’s refusal to recognize the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This led to a rare rebuke of Lukashenko by Medvedev in the run-up to the 2010 Belarusian presidential election.

Current state: Belarus-Russia relations appear to have recovered since then. But another brutal onslaught against opposition demonstrators after the 2010 vote disappointed those in Europe who hoped that Lukashenko might be coaxed into more political reform. The country was rocked this April by a bombing in the Minsk metro that killed more than 14 people. It’s still unclear who planted the bomb.


Current leader: President Mikheil Saakashvili

Freedom: Partly free

History: Georgia’s history since independence has been unpredictable and bloody. Its first post-Soviet leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in a military coup in 1992. Throughout the late 1990s, President Eduard Shevardnadze fought a brutal war against separatist movements in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, resulting in hundreds of casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

After a blatantly rigged election in late 2003, Shevardnadze’s government was overthrown in a nonviolent uprising that became known as the Rose Revolution. Young Western-educated Mikheil Saakashvili became president, attracting international praise for his free market economic reforms but also concern over his rapid consolidation of power. Georgia had long received copious economic and military aid from the United States, but it all proved for naught in August 2008, when Russia launched a major military offensive in response to Georgian efforts to consolidate control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Current state: Georgia effectively lost control over a fifth of its territory in 2008, though only Russia and a handful of other countries recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as international states. Georgia continues to enjoy billions of dollars per year in U.S. economic aid, though relations have cooled somewhat as a result of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia. While Saakashvili’s government remains democratic by regional standards, he has faced a growing number of street protests against what the opposition sees as growing authoritarian tendencies.


Current leader: President Roza Otunbayeva

Freedom: Partly free

History: Kyrgyzstan has struggled since independence with government corruption, ethnic conflict, and the fallout from great-power competition between Russia and the United States. The country’s first post-communist leader, Askar Akayev, ruled the country from 1990 to 2005, a period of corruption scandals and increasingly centralized government.

When Akayev refused to step down at the end of his final term in 2005, opposition supporters stormed his palace, forcing him into exile in what came to be known as the Tulip Revolution — the third and least peaceful of the “color revolutions.” Under new President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan engaged in a high-stakes game of brinkmanship with the United States over the U.S. air base at Manas, a major transshipment point for the war in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, reportedly under Russian pressure, initially threatened to shutter the base, but then agreed to allow it for a substantially raised rent, angering the Kremlin.

Bakiyev was himself overthrown in a popular uprising in 2010, though Moscow’s involvement was suspected.

Current state: A widespread campaign of ethnic violence directed at Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek and Tajik minorities followed the uprising, killing more than 2,000 and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee into exile.

Kyrgyzstan is now ruled by Roza Otunbayeva. A parliamentary election in 2010 was hailed by international observers as relatively fair and transparent.


Current leader: President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov

Freedom: Not free

History: Under Soviet-era leader turned President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan rivaled North Korea in terms of isolation, political repression, and the personality cult surrounding its leader. Niyazov, who called himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen, forced citizens to study his book as a religious text, renamed the months of the year after himself and his family, and appropriated billions of dollars in energy wealth for himself and his allies.

Former dentist Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov assumed the presidency following Niyazov’s death in 2006. Berdimuhamedov has taken steps to dismantle the personality cult surrounding his predecessor and has opened the country’s rich natural gas sector up to foreign investment, but Turkmenistan has seen little in the way of political liberalization.

Current state: With the world’s fifth-largest reserves of natural gas, Turkmenistan is perfectly situated to take advantage of the fierce international competition for Central Asia’s energy resources. The government has already signed a $4 billion gas deal with China, and Turkmenistan would be a keystone of the planned Nabucco pipeline project to bring gas into Southern Europe through Turkey. How much of this wealth Turkmenistan’s citizens will actually receive remains to be seen.


Current leader: President Emomali Rahmon

Freedom: Not free

History: Almost immediately after independence, Tajikistan fell into a bloody five-year civil war, pitting the Moscow-backed government against an Islamist opposition movement. The war killed more than 50,000 and forced more than a tenth of the country to flee.

The country’s economy has still not really recovered, and more than half of its GDP is supplied by migrants living abroad. Since the outbreak of the war in neighboring Afghanistan, Tajikistan has become a major shipping route for narcotics heading north through Central Asia, causing major problems with drug addiction along the way.

Emomali Rahmon has ruled the country since 1992, reelected twice in votes that were criticized as unfree by the international community. His party controls virtually all the seats in parliament.

Current state: The country’s economic distress has led to a resurgence of interest in radical Islam. There have been reports of fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan moving across Afghanistan into Tajikistan. The group’s fighters were implicated in a violent jailbreak that left six prison guards dead in the capital, Dushanbe, last year.


Current leader: Acting President Marian Lupu

Freedom: Partly Free

History: Moldova did not have long to enjoy its new independence before it was engaged in a military conflict with the breakaway region of Transnistria in 1992. Ethnically Ukrainian and Russian, Transnistria had declared its own independence in 1990. The military conflict ended after only a few months, but the region’s status remains unresolved. Transnistria is currently governing itself as a de facto independent state with a heavy Russian military presence.

The pace of economic and political reforms in Moldova was slow throughout the 1990s, leading to the surprise election of a Communist government led by President Vladimir Voronin in 2001. When the Communists were returned to power in 2009 by elections considered fraudulent by the opposition, Internet-mobilized youth activists took to the streets in a preview of the “Twitter revolutions” that were soon to sweep the Middle East.

Current state: Moldova and Transnistria continue to debate the final status of the region in talks moderated by Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and the United States. The country’s government continues to push for eventual membership in the European Union, though Brussels has made clear that a wide range of political and economic reforms are still required.

Moldova has been in political deadlock since last November, when parliamentary elections failed to produce a majority. Marian Lupu, the parliamentary speaker, has been acting as president in the interim.



Current leader: President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

Freedom: Free

History: Sometimes nicknamed “E-stonia” for its thriving high-tech sector — it’s the home of pioneering telecom firm Skype — Estonia is one of the great economic success stories of the post-communist era. It joined the European Union in 2004 after six years of negotiations.

Relations with Russia have remained fraught. In 2007, controversy erupted after the relocation of a Soviet-era World War II monument from the Estonian capital Tallinn, prompting demonstrations in Moscow as well as a massive cyberattack against the country’s infrastructure. The 2008 financial crisis hit the country hard, with unemployment rising to nearly 20 percent by the beginning of 2010.

Current state: Estonia continues to be one of Europe’s most staunchly pro-EU countries. At a time when the future of the eurozone is in serious question, Estonia joined the monetary union in 2011. Despite the initial shock, Estonia shows signs of recovery from the economic crisis, and growth forecasts are strong.


Current leader:
President Dalia Grybauskaite

Freedom: Free

History: In March 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence, and it has been one of the most politically successful in the years since. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

The country has been adamant about erasing the legacy of the Soviet past. The display of communist symbols has been banned, and a national scandal erupted in 2005 when it was revealed that the foreign minister had once been an officer in the KGB. Like its neighbors, Lithuania was hit hard by the financial crisis and saw its GDP plunge 12.6 percent in the first quarter of 2009.

Current state: Despite the still lingering economic carnage, Lithuania is recovering quickly and saw the European Union’s second-highest growth rate in the first quarter of this year. It plans to join the eurozone in 2014.

Ragnar Singsaas/Getty Images


Current leader: President-elect Andris Berzins

Freedom: Free

History: Along with its neighbors, Latvia joined the European Union and NATO in 2004. It was also the first of the three Baltic states admitted to the World Trade Organization. Latvia introduced tough laws on citizenship in 2006, denying passports to those who fail a Latvian language test.

Free market reforms led to an economic boom through the 1990s and at the beginning of this decade, but the Great Recession crippled the country, forcing the government to go to the European Union for bailout loans. Tough austerity conditions tied to these loans led to a collapse of the government in 2009.

Current state: Former businessman Andris Berzins was elected as Latvia’s new president on June 2 and will take office in July. This year, the country declined to accept a fresh installment of EU-IMF aid that it had secured earlier, owing to its strong economic recovery.

Saeima via Flickr Creative Commons

Current leader: President Serzh Sargsyan

Freedom: Partly Free

History: The post-independence history of Armenia has been dominated largely by tensions with its neighbors. With Turkey, the issue is a historical dispute over the killing of thousands of ethnic Armenians during World War I; with Azerbaijan, the problem is Nagorno-Karabakh, a separatist Armenian-dominated enclave within Azerbaijan. Armenia supported Nargorno-Karabakh’s 1988-1994 war for independence, and tensions between the countries remain high.

Politics have been fractious within Armenia as well, including the 1999 assassination of the country’s prime minister during an attempted coup d’état. Nonetheless, current President Serzh Sargsyan’s election in 2008 was widely seen as free and fair. Economic growth has been generally slow, owing largely to the country’s isolation.

Current state: Tensions remain high between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both sides building up their militaries for the possibility of a new confrontation over the frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. But there has been some progress on the Turkish front — Armenia and Turkey normalized ties in 2009.


Current leader: President Ilham Aliyev

Freedom: Not free

History: Azerbaijan’s early years of independence were occupied by the Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ended with an uneasy cease-fire in 1994. That same year, Azerbaijan signed a contract with a consortium of international companies for the exploration of its offshore oil fields, which has led to a massive influx of wealth over the last decade.

Azerbaijani politics have been defined by a series of corruption scandals and two generations of the Aliyev family: Heydar, who ruled from 1993 to 2003 and presided over the privatization of the country’s economy, and Ilham, who was essentially appointed to follow him. Human rights groups have criticized the younger Aliyev for his attacks on opposition activists.

Current state: Ilham Aliyev fully consolidated his control in the 2010 national elections, which produced a parliament completely loyal to the president. Inspired by events in the Arab world, the opposition launched a series of street protests this year, but they were met with a swift crackdown by pro-government forces.


Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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