Winds of Change: 28 Years of Post-Soviet Independence

Natalie Sherman
Staff Writer

The 1990s were a time of radical change in Russia that saw a failed coup, a brutal war, and economic despair. In the greater former Soviet sphere, however, change has been much slower. Many of these states stayed under the same Soviet-era leadership for decades after its collapse. As of 2020, many Central Asian and Eastern European states are still led by demagogues and united by the common threads of conflict, cronyism, and dubious elections.

The three states of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine are in various stages of change. While Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has done his best to ensure as little changes in his country as possible, Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus is currently attempting to hold onto his power and hinder change within the country but is facing massive backlash and resistance from his people. Meanwhile, Ukraine has gone through political upheaval and come out on the other side, but now faces the challenge of rooting out corruption and maintaining stability in the face of external threats.

Dubious election results and demagogues are a constant across much of Central Asia. The resignation of Kazakhstan’s former President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019, who was reelected with 97 percent of the vote in the 2015 presidential election, was unprecedented for the region, according to Reuters.

Nazarbayev was the political leader of Kazakhstan for thirty years, having transitioned from Party Boss of the Kazakh SSR to the President of an independent Kazakhstan. Such a long political tenure is normal in Central Asia. Many of Nazarbayev’s contemporaries, including Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, have died in power.

Nazarbayev’s resignation allowed him to name his successor and avoid political uncertainty if he were to die unexpectedly. This was a forward-thinking decision, especially in light of Nazarbayev’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis –  he retains much of his political power, including remaining the leader of his political party, Nur Otan, and his title as “father of the nation,” reports Eurasianet. He may no longer be President, but he has by no means relinquished control.

Nazarbayev’s successor, the career politician Jomart Tokayev, has eased laws criminalizing protesting and slander. During Nazarbayev’s tenure, it was illegal to speak against the president and protests were illegal unless approved by a difficult-to-obtain permit. Tokayev has decriminalized slander and changed the law to grant greater freedom of speech, but the changes are not as drastic as many expected from Tokayev.

In contrast to the relatively minuscule changes in Kazakhstan, political tensions in Belarus have reached a critical point, driven by President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s political clashes with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his unparalleled mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lukashenko has been the leader of Belarus for over 25 years, but his political dominance is being challenged both internally and externally.

Belarus has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in Europe. Belarus has a population of nine million and, according to Radio Free Europe, over 65,000 cases. Despite these alarming statistics, Lukashenko has spent much of this year publicly dismissing the virus as “psychosis” and saying that it could be prevented with, “a tractor ride, vodka, or a visit to a sauna.” He has not closed Belarus’ borders or imposed any social distancing regulations.

This rhetoric has drawn heavy criticism in Belarus, where the idea of an invisible enemy is not new. Yaraslav Ramanchuk, a former Belarussian presidential candidate, told Radio Free Europe, “Quite rightly, many are comparing the situation today with the situation in 1986, when Chernobyl exploded, when we really don’t know now how many were sick, how many died, what the real situation in the country is.”

The crisis also comes on the heels of rising political tension between Belarus and Russia. Aleksandr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin have what Al Jazeera describes as a “love-hate relationship.” They have often had political disagreements about oil and gas pipelines that run from Russia through Belarus, and the former has retaliated against the latter on more than one occasion when they failed to come to an agreement. On January 3, 2020, Russia shut off Belarus’ natural gas during the New Year’s holiday, the most important holiday in the Russian-speaking world.

On May 24, an opposition rally in the Belorussian capital of Minsk drew hundreds of protestors who brandished slippers to squash “the cockroach” President. This moniker for Lukashenko was created by vocal critic and political opponent Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who runs a popular YouTube channel where he calls out corruption in Eastern Europe. He has been compared to the face of Russia’s political opposition, Alexey Navalny.

On May 29, Tsikhanouski was arrested and barred from running in Belarus’ upcoming presidential election. According to Amnesty International, he is facing up to three years in jail for the “organization and preparation for a grave breach of public order.”

Viktar Babaryka, who was considered by many to be a promising candidate, was also arrested in connection to protests and has been barred from the election. Radio Free Europe reports that protests broke out in Minsk on July 14th in response to Babaryka’s name not being listed on the ballot. Thousands came out to protest across the country and close to 130 protestors were detained.

On July 30th, approximately 60,000 people gathered in Minsk to show their support for Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of Syarhey Tsikhanouski. NPR reports that after her husband’s arrest, she decided to become a candidate herself. In a rousing speech, she said, “I don’t need power, but my husband is behind bars. I’ve had to hide my children. I’m tired of putting up with it. I’m tired of being silent. I’m tired of being afraid.”

Belarus’ presidential election in August will be a moment of truth for the country. At this point, it seems that the election will be neither free nor fair, given that two popular opposition candidates have been arrested and struck from the ballot. Despite this, Belarusians are coming out in droves to voice their discontent and support candidates like Tsikhanouskaya. Change may be on the horizon, though Lukashenko has insisted that there will be no revolution in Belarus.

In contrast to Belarus, Ukraine reached a critical mass for discontent six years ago and overthrew its pro-Russia leader, Viktor Yanukovych. Ever since, uncertainty and instability hang over the country. In the past year alone, Ukraine has gained a fresh-faced new president while potentially losing its greatest ally.

In 2013, the citizens of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, took to the streets demanding that the country join the European Union in a series of protests that would later be dubbed Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity. Euromaidan ended with the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, the massively unpopular pro-Russian president.

Ukrainians then put their faith in their new president, Petro Poroshenko, a man who Forbes once dubbed “The Willy Wonka of Ukraine” in reference to the fortune he has amassed from his chocolate company, Roshen. The excitement many Ukrainians felt about this new chapter for their country disappeared almost as quickly as it came when civil war broke out and Poroshenko was caught up in a corruption scandal.

Tension between Ukraine and Russia reached a breaking point on February 20, 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Since then, Ukraine has been at war against Russian soldiers – who officially do not exist – and rebels contesting regions that do not wish to remain part of the country. This event stirred both Ukrainian and Russian nationalism in Ukraine, ultimately resulting in the appearance of the soldiers who have been called “little green men.”

According to the Brookings Institute, these mercenaries wearing nondescript green uniforms are recognized by most as Russian insurgents attempting to claim both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for Russia. Much like Crimea, these two regions have a majority Russian-speaking population, many of whom feel more loyalty towards Russia than Ukraine and believe their rights will be infringed on by an anti-Russian government. This conflict is still ongoing and has claimed approximately 13,000 lives, according to the United Nations. The BBC reports that Ukraine currently ranks third for land-mine related casualties, the first and second rankings being held by Afghanistan and Syria, respectively.

Current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was an actor and comedian by trade who previously played a fictional teacher-turned-President of Ukraine on the popular Ukrainian Netflix series Servant of the People, which his political party is named after. He won the 2019 election against incumbent President Poroshenko by a startling 73.22% despite the ongoing conflict in Luhansk and Donetsk and Zelensky’s lack of experience. The Atlantic Council reports that Zelensky’s victory has largely been attributed to Poroshenko’s perpetuation of cronyism viewed by many in Ukraine as more of the same. Zelensky’s status as an outsider was perhaps his greatest political strength while running for office in a country that has grown disillusioned of politics, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Zelensky’s first year in office has been anything but uneventful. On July 21, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump requested the halting of $141 million in aid to Ukraine. The Center for Public Integrity characterizes this decision as punishment for Ukraine’s unwillingness to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic rival Joe Biden, and his business ties to a Ukrainian company. This back-and-forth carried on for months until Ukraine finally received the State Department aid in September. Zelensky has also had to lead his country through the COVID-19 pandemic, during which his wife tested positive for the virus according to TIME.

Even so, Zelensky has retained his image of being a man at war against systemic corruption – his politics have drawn comparisons to France’s Emmanuel Macron. He has brought much change to Ukraine’s governance in just one short year and helped pass many pieces of legislation in the Ukrainian parliament, leading some, including the Brookings Institute, to dub the administration a “turbo regime.”

Change did not come quickly for former Soviet states when the Berlin Wall fell or even when the Clintons drank Coca-Cola in Moscow. In the nearly three decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some Post-Soviet States have preserved the status quo while others have fought for their country to emulate western democracies. Recently, however, some states are struggling to hold onto the old ways while others try and adapt to sweeping changes and reform. Only one thing is certain; change is not easy, and it does not happen from one day to the next.

The past thirty years have seen many former Soviet states struggle to carve out their place on the world stage. Illiberalism is a deep-seated issue in these regions. Dissent is often suppressed, and elections are rarely fair. Still, in a region where most have lived through uncertain times, stability may seem attractive even if it involves some sacrifice.

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