Two decades later, the ground shifts under the former Soviet strongmen

Last summer, I went on a month-long return visit to the Caucasus and Central Asia, the oil-soaked former Soviet regions where I lived and worked for 11 years as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and early 2000s. What did I find in Almaty, in Tbilisi, Baku and Bishkek, cities that were so animated, mystified ...

Yuri Kadobnov  AFP/Getty Images
Yuri Kadobnov AFP/Getty Images
Yuri Kadobnov AFP/Getty Images

Last summer, I went on a month-long return visit to the Caucasus and Central Asia, the oil-soaked former Soviet regions where I lived and worked for 11 years as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and early 2000s. What did I find in Almaty, in Tbilisi, Baku and Bishkek, cities that were so animated, mystified and not a little bit proud by their new nationhood, produced by the Soviet dissolution Dec. 26, 1991, but also variously rent with war, falsified elections and trouble with Russia? I observed Georgians, Kazakhs, Azeris and Kyrgyz who are vital and generally better off -- some of them ostentatiously so -- but who are also still living under the yoke. When the trip ended, I went home with the familiar sense of eternity that saturates this part of the world -- what always has been, it seemed, always will be.

But now I wonder. When I arrived two decades ago, I observed the continuity of the region's main historical thread -- a stretch of central Eurasia ruled for several hundred years by a succession of strongmen united by a single belief set: We know what is best. Yet for the last couple of weeks, competing narratives have stared us in the face.

In Moscow, Alexei Navalny stood before a Moscow crowd numbering in the tens of thousands (pictured above) on Saturday, and described a public force capable of storming the Kremlin. Scanning the same scene, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to picture the usual rabble merely requiring an occasion to vent.

Last summer, I went on a month-long return visit to the Caucasus and Central Asia, the oil-soaked former Soviet regions where I lived and worked for 11 years as a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and early 2000s. What did I find in Almaty, in Tbilisi, Baku and Bishkek, cities that were so animated, mystified and not a little bit proud by their new nationhood, produced by the Soviet dissolution Dec. 26, 1991, but also variously rent with war, falsified elections and trouble with Russia? I observed Georgians, Kazakhs, Azeris and Kyrgyz who are vital and generally better off — some of them ostentatiously so — but who are also still living under the yoke. When the trip ended, I went home with the familiar sense of eternity that saturates this part of the world — what always has been, it seemed, always will be.

But now I wonder. When I arrived two decades ago, I observed the continuity of the region’s main historical thread — a stretch of central Eurasia ruled for several hundred years by a succession of strongmen united by a single belief set: We know what is best. Yet for the last couple of weeks, competing narratives have stared us in the face.

In Moscow, Alexei Navalny stood before a Moscow crowd numbering in the tens of thousands (pictured above) on Saturday, and described a public force capable of storming the Kremlin. Scanning the same scene, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appeared to picture the usual rabble merely requiring an occasion to vent.

In Kazakhstan, western oil workers are restive after the shooting deaths of at least 15 of their striking co-workers on Dec. 16.  President Nursultan Nazarbayev is attempting to tamp down the protests through time-tested means — firing senior underlings including his powerful son-in-law, and claiming ignorance of their aberrant behavior. But meanwhile oil workers are under arrest, reports RFE-RL.

In both cases, we find leaders keeping up a good face, but also taking unusual steps — Putin permitting gigantic public demonstrations against his rule, and Nazarbayev, shaken by the deeds of local security forces, flying out to personally inspect the protest site. Regardless of the dismissive language they use, their actions tell us they perceive a kind of challenge not easily shrugged off.

One should not get carried away — Eurasia’s long autocratic history, while perhaps fraying, remains intact. At the New York Times, Bill Keller writes that change takes time — "you can take people out of the system, but it’s not so easy to take the system out of the people," he says.

Yet I sense something different in these events. Autocrats usually do not have to pay for overplaying their hand — they are able to hang on to power because they hold most of the cards. That was the case two decades ago today, when the Soviet Union collapsed but most of the region’s strongmen confounded the widely held belief that there would be governance by fair electoral consent. Today, these strongmen are acting against a very distinct backdrop, which is the Arab Spring.  

Some observers inaptly believe that, because every detail is not identical in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, one cannot draw a straight line between the two. To understand why this is the wrong lens, consider the Enlightenment, which influenced everything in the West, but in different ways in differing countries. Change does not have to be identical to have the same root. In fact, it rarely is.

When I revisited the Georgians, the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz and Azeris last summer, I found people who still by and large went along with the relegation of political rights to their betters up high. That may have been because the flow of events over borders is not even. Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus will still have their feeling of eternity. But we may be witnessing the start of a shift in what that continuity precisely looks like.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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