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Anti-government protesters clash with police on Independence Square in Ukraine's capital Kiev early Wednesday. The protests have been going on for three months, and Tuesday was the deadliest day yet, with at least 25 reported killed. (AFP/Getty Images)

Why Can't The Former Soviet Republics Figure Out Democracy?

by Greg Myre
Feb 19, 2014

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Anti-government protesters were wounded in clashes with the police Tuesday in Kiev. Ukraine is one of the many former Soviet republics still struggling to build a stable democratic system.

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Greg Myre

The Soviet Union collapsed more than 20 years ago, yet genuine democracy is still a stranger in most of the 15 former republics. Ukraine, where at least 25 people were killed on Tuesday, is just the latest bloody example.

From President Vladimir Putin's hard-line rule in Russia to the 20-year reign of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus to the assorted strongmen of Central Asia, many post-Soviet rulers consistently display a fondness for the old days, when opposition was something to be squashed, not tolerated.

There are exceptions, but they're rare. The three tiny Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia stand out as countries that regularly hold fair elections, change leaders at the ballot box and have developed strong democratic institutions. They also belong to NATO.

Notably, these states were in the westernmost part of the Soviet Union and had centuries of close contact with Europe. However, they account for just a tiny fraction of the more than 300 million people in the former Soviet lands.

For the vast majority who live in less-than-democratic countries, there have been several recurring themes since the 1991 Soviet breakup. Here are a few key ones:

Moscow's Long Reach: Russia still views the former republics as part of its orbit and has repeatedly intervened when they've made moves to go their own way.

The Ukrainian crisis erupted in November when President Viktor Yanukovych was weighing a trade deal with the European Union. That would have reoriented his country toward Western Europe and away from Russia.

This is exactly the sort of development that sets off alarm bells in Moscow. Putin promptly stepped in and offered Ukraine $15 billion in subsidies and other sweeteners, including reduced prices on Russian natural gas.

Yanukovych accepted Moscow's offer and walked away from the EU deal. This set off the Ukrainian protesters, who've been camped in the streets of the capital Kiev for the past three months, demanding his ouster.

This scenario is familiar. The leaders of former Soviet republics are often caught between the wishes of their people, who are looking to carve a more independent path, and the risk of incurring Moscow's wrath.

"There is simply a very substantial element in Ukrainian politics and society that demands a shift closer to Europe and the European Union," Robert Kaplan writes on the foreign policy website Stratfor. "Putin has various tools to undermine Ukraine, such as erecting trade barriers and rationing deliveries of natural gas. But it is hard work, and he probably can never achieve an outright victory."

He can, however, make life difficult for Ukraine.

Divided Countries. The boundaries of the Soviet republics did not follow clean, crisp lines. When the empire fractured into 15 countries overnight, long-suppressed grievances among rival groups burst into the open.

Again, Ukraine serves as a prime example. The western part of the country has historic links to Europe, while the eastern part is much more aligned with Russia when it comes to language, culture and religion.

Describing Ukraine's tormented history in National Geographic, journalist Eve Conant writes:

"Western Ukraine spent centuries under the shifting control of European powers like Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The western third of Ukraine was even part of Poland for several years leading up to World War II. That, to some degree, helps explain why people in the West have tended to support more Western-leaning politicians. The east tends to be more Russian-speaking and Orthodox."

The Ukrainians tend to be evenly divided on many important issues. Polls show a 50-50 split on whether to support the EU trade deal. Recent Ukrainian elections have produced sharply polarized voting patterns based on geography.

The Long, Rocky Road: The Soviet Union collapsed with virtually no violence. Many Soviet citizens were educated. The West was interested in helping. It seemed the ingredients were present for democracy and civil society to develop relatively quickly.

When that didn't happen, some thought it was just a matter of extending the time frame by a few years.

The West cheered Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004, when protesters clogged the streets following a presidential election marred by fraud. But the pro-Western government that came to power soon became bogged down with infighting, corruption and economic woes.

In the former Soviet republics, and much of the world, countries without a democratic tradition have rarely gone from autocratic rule to a stable democracy in one giant leap.

The ex-Soviet republics do hold elections, but in many cases they seem to resemble the old Soviet ones more than Western norms. In Azerbaijan's presidential election in October, incumbent Ilham Aliyev, the son of a former longtime ruler, won 85 percent of the vote. His closest challenger got 5 percent.

When the West raises these issues, Putin and other leaders are quick to claim foreign meddling.

"Here's what Putin really isn't happy about: internal interference in Russian politics by American, pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations," Kaplan writes. "What the United States considers human rights activity, he considers foreign subversion. And that goes for what American NGOs are doing in Ukraine."

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