Putin's copycats

Whether in pro-western or pro-Moscow states, repression and corruption are flourishing among Russia'

A post-Soviet president makes a highly publicised visit to a patriotic youth camp where he denounces the international community for being "amoral" in its stance towards his fight with separatists. Later he moves to clamp down on the opposition and has its main television station pulled off the air. He blames most of his troubles on a London-based oligarch. The president behaves in this slightly paranoid and aggressive manner even though his party dominates parliament and he has marginalised his critics.

This is not Vladimir Putin, but the Georgian president for almost four years who was until recently a darling of the west - Mikhail Saakashvili.

Call it the Putin effect. The three Baltic states long ago moved out of the Soviet shadow and are now members of the EU. Elsewhere, with the partial exception of Ukraine - which though poor and deeply corrupt has at least learned the habit of free elections - the 12 post-Soviet members of the Commonwealth of Independent States are mired in a condition that ranges from outright dictatorship to semi-democracy.

Sixteen years after the end of perestroika, this is a depressing picture. In 1991 western opinion was much too utopian about these newly independent states. The favoured image used to be one of "transition" and even the smallest Anglo-Saxon news story used to refer to countries from Armenia to Tajikistan as being "in transition to democracy and a market economy".

This deterministic image assumed that once the Soviet Union withered away, these societies would naturally blossom into democracies. A very different, quasi-feudal dynamic was actually at play. The nomenklatura, the self-sustaining bureaucratic class that ran the Soviet Union, was very much alive and old party bosses smoothly made the transition to being elected nationalist politicians. Nursultan Nazarbayev, once regarded as a reformist ally of Mikhail Gorbachev, has slowly transformed himself into president-for-life in Kazakhstan, with his family installed in key positions. In Azerbaijan, the communist-era boss Heydar Aliyev became leader and then handed over the presidency to his son.

The first priority was to retain power. When the Armenian opposition tried to dispute the outcome of the 1996 election, the then defence minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, famously put them in their place, saying: "Even if they win 100 per cent of the votes, neither the army nor the National Security Service, nor the ministry of the interior, would recognise these leaders." In the South Caucasus and central Asia, no presidential candidate from the ruling elite has lost an election since 1991. Increasingly, parliaments are stuffed with loyal servants or friendly businessmen.

If in the past it was done rather furtively, Putin has given this novel brand of pseudo-democracy respectability. Two of his advisers have even baptised the new style of government, Gleb Pavlov sky coining the term "managed democracy" and Vladislav Surkov talking about "sovereign democracy".

Putin's genius has been to hollow out the substance of democracy while keeping the shell intact. Russia still has elections, courts, a parliament, a few critical newspapers and a semblance of debate, but in fact the governing regime has established itself in perpetuity. And why give up power and all its benefits? As Stalin's foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov remarked, the trouble with free elections is that you stand a chance of losing them.

At the same time the Russian president has neutralised international criticism by proving a master of what Orhan Pamuk, referring to Turkish politicians' conversations about Europe, has called the "also" line of defence. If Russia's democratic record is criticised, some piece of evidence can always be adduced that western governments "also" do bad things. German police beat some demonstrators, the British police investigated Lord Levy for party donations, the French used to behave badly in Algeria.

Wishful thinking

Geography matters here. In the central Asian republics, where the EU exerts no pull and international condemnation means little, governments can get away with abominations such as the 2005 massacre of hundreds of civilians in the Uzbek town of Andijan. In the western and southern states, "the idea of Europe" means something. In the South Caucasian states of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the governments worry about their status in the Council of Europe and Nato, and behave better, but sharing power is not an option.

Georgia has followed this pattern while being the subject of too much western wishful thinking. Ironically, Saakashvili got into deep trouble because he spent too much time on foreign trips proselytising the successes of the Rose Revolution - many Georgians were growing angry with the cronyism and arrogance of the government that he was praising in foreign capitals.

It worked for a time. It sometimes seemed as though if the new Georgia - pro-western, anti-Russian, economically reformist, with a government of thirty-odd ministers - did not exist it would have to be invented. Saakashvili was received at the Oval Office by George W Bush, who two months earlier had paid a special visit to Tbilisi and made a speech eulogising the Rose Revolution on Freedom Square. This April Saakashvili was received in high style in London by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who called Georgia "a beacon of democracy". Nicolas Sarkozy has declared himself a fan.

A year ago I heard a British MP defend Saa kashvili's increasingly undemocratic behaviour by saying: "We must give him time. He is still dealing with the legacy of his authoritarian predecessor." And recall conversations in the mid-1990s about the need to support that predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, who still enjoyed being given many benefits of the doubt he had earned as Mikhail Gorbachev's foreign minister.

In reality, Saakashvili is a reformer, but no democrat. Georgia's state budget has quadrupled, corruption in the security forces has been reduced, government has been restructured. But the judiciary, media and regional governors are all weaker and more subservient than they were under Shevardnadze. Saakashvili's critics call his style of government "democracy for export".

On 7 November, the other Saakashvili revealed himself when he sent in riot police with truncheons, tear gas and water cannon to break up opposition rallies in the centre of Tbilisi. Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, was one of those beaten up. Imedi Tele vision, now co-managed by Rupert Murdoch, which is the main mouthpiece for the opposition, was pulled off air.

The Georgian crisis has at least opened some eyes in Europe. The issue of how to deal with its eastern neighbourhood is surely becoming the EU's biggest foreign policy challenge. How do you exert positive influence in countries where a progressive minority still has an "idea of Europe" when you are unable to offer the one prospect with the power to transform - the hope of eventual EU membership?

Where Georgia leads, others may follow. Weak states with self-serving elites are prone to in stability. We can be certain of two things: that Putin's copycats will not give up power easily; and that if events do force them to come tumbling down, the collapse will bring an awful lot of rubble and chaos with it.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London

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