As the tragic events around the breakaway region of South Ossetia in Georgia
continue to unravel, the image of an embattled pro-Western democracy resisting
an authoritarian Russian regime dominates American airwaves. Yet, as so many
popular beliefs, this image, which was accurate several years ago, has turned
into a stereotype which misinforms - rather than informs - policy.
To a large extent, conflict between the United States and Russia is caused by
opposite perceptions of Georgian democracy. According to the Russian
perception, Georgia's political system is similar to theirs, but vastly more
skillful in maintaining a democratic facade.
Things were different a few years ago, when a wave of what came
to be known as "colored" revolutions swept through the post-Soviet space. It
began with the "Orange" revolution in Ukraine, where mass demonstrations in
2004 and 2005 brought the pro-democracy "Orange" coalition into power. This had
followed the "Rose" revolution in Georgia in 2003, when a public uprising swept
out president Eduard Shevardnadze. Then there was the "Tulip" revolution in
Kyrgyzstan in 2005 ... Well, it did not quite work there, so the wave stopped
at two countries.
At that time, president Vladimir Putin, now premier, and his team were simply
scared. They feared the same scenario could be repeated in Russia as Putin was
approaching his second election. They classified "colored" revolutions as
American actions to install puppet governments in Russia's backyard and
prepared to resist by squeezing non-governmental organizations with Western
ties and funding.
Four years later, this is a non-issue. Nothing even close to a "colored"
revolution happened in Russia. More importantly, the regimes in Ukraine and
Georgia evolved and they barely resemble the teams of idealistic pro-democracy
leaders they used to be.
In Georgia, Russian leaders see a regime that controls the economy and public
life. It uses the image of an external enemy to consolidate power. When
President Mikheil Saakashvili subdued the only independent TV channel, Imedi,
he took a leaf from Putin's book of 2001-2003. Saakashvili went even further -
he used the army to disperse opposition rallies. The Kremlin was able to
prevent demonstrations from ever occurring. When Putin looks at Saakashvili, it
is like looking in a mirror - the image is the same, but younger, from the time
when Putin was just building his powerbase during his first term. This is
probably why he hates Saakashvili so much - the reflection is not very
Russian leaders are also profoundly irritated because in the West Saakashvili
gets away with things for which the Russians are chastised. They do not think
it is fair and put the blame on the West, and particularly on the Americans.
They also hate Saakashvili's skills in manipulating the West.
So, does Russia try to stifle the movement of some post-Soviet states toward
the West? Ukraine, the leader in the "colored" revolutions, provides an answer:
it all depends on which kind of the West we are talking about.
Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko, one of the leaders of the "Orange"
revolution, is a staunch supporter of Ukraine's national identity and he is
waging an uphill battle to bring Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) and he fights what he sees as Russian imperialism. He is
also isolated and increasingly marginalized. The entire coalition of several
parties that supports Yushchenko in parliament controls just 72 seats out of
His erstwhile "Orange" coalition ally Yulia Timoshenko (156 seats in
parliament) is confidently riding the wave toward the presidency in the next
election and has significantly cooled toward the goal of NATO membership. She
now says it would require a referendum. Since the vast majority of Ukrainians
do not approve of membership in NATO, this puts NATO many years into the
future, if ever. Timoshenko's position on NATO is now almost indistinguishable
from her former arch-rival, Viktor Yanukovich, who has been for years
classified in the United States as a Russian stooge. Interesting bedfellows
politics produce ...
Timoshenko has also become a favorite negotiating partner of Putin's. She does
not fight him - she bargains. The Kremlin feels so isolated that normal
bargaining seems friendly behavior.
Is Timoshenko still pro-Western? Without doubt. She simply emphasizes
integration into the European Union instead of NATO. Russia has no objections
to that - it is not necessarily supportive, but sees no danger to itself in
Ukraine's integration into Europe. It is only concerned about NATO.
Very soon, perhaps this year or the next, we will see a repetition of the image
of a valiant besieged democracy (this time Ukraine) defending its right to join
the West. It is worth keeping in mind that this image will be projected by an
embattled president fighting to stay in politics and that the pro-Western
choice is not limited to NATO.
Dr Nikolai Sokov is senior research associate at James Martin Center for
Non-proliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is
an expert on post-Soviet security politics.