Maidan lessons for Caucasus, Central Asia…

Re-posting my March, 2013 interview with Russian-American journalist, analyst David Satter on Maidan lessons for Caucasus, Central Asia. This content was originally published by RFERL/Radio Azadliq.

For many western analysts, no matter whether conditions in the Caucasus and Central Asia are similar to those in Ukraine, a repetition of Maidan here remains unclear; the crisis in the Black Sea country must keep the region’s other authoritarian leaders, including its architect, President Vladimir Putin up at night.
American journalist, writer David Satter

American journalist, writer David Satter

David Satter, a senior fellow of the Washington, DC-based Hudson Institute. He is the first US correspondent to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.  Speaking to RFERL’s Azerbaijani Service, Radio Azadliq, he said, the fact that Putin is sending troops into Ukraine, is not to protect Russian interests abroad, but to protect his regime at home…

“Everything that Russia does in foreign policy is basically to protect Putin and his entourage directly or indirectly… It’s like a gang with foreign policy. It’s not based on any kind of geopolitical calculations or any consideration of what is in the interest of the country. It’s simply a matter of what is in the interest of a small group of people who have seized power,” he said, adding that there is a similar situation in other parts of former Soviet Union too…

When a single person dominates the political system…

A.Raufoglu: How Ukraine arrived at this point and why is Russia so interested in the events there?

D.Satter:  Russia is a lawless country. And in fact most of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union are lawless…  And they have to be lawless, because in order for a single person or a group of people to steal the country’s wealth and to dominate the political system totally it is necessary that there be no reliable law that other people, who are not in power, can use to defend their rights.
Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk in formation near Ukrainian military base

Uniformed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk in formation near Ukrainian military base

The Ukraine under Yanukovich and Russia under Putin were actually very similar. They are both basically dominated by small groups of people who enriched themselves without any real regard for the rule of law, and who want to rule to a life.  When Yanukovich was driven out in a popular anti-criminal revolution, this was very threatening to the regime in Russia because of the example that it provided.

People in Russia are aware to certain extend that they live under the same conditions that drove the Ukrainians to revolt. If that revolt proves to be successful in a sense that it establishes a decent democratic system, this will be a very powerful argument for Russians to get rid of their chriptocracy. And therefore, in the view of Putin, this example has to be discredited. This is what we are seeing now: Everything is done to pressure, to create chaos, to disorganize, to disorder, to do everything possible so that the Ukraine doesn’t appear to be an acceptable model for Russians.

Putin’s agenda

A.Raufoglu: Putin has mentioned last year that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster. Is he trying to reassemble it?

D. Satter: No, I don’t think it means that… It just means that he doesn’t understand the moral issue. Russians love to use the word “geopolitical”; everything is geopolitical to them. Because if they start talking about geopolitics, then they don’t have to talk about moral issues, they love to do that. But the very fact is to say that it’s the greatest disaster. What does that mean? For whom, really? And the very phrase is peculiar; because it’s like saying that the destruction of a dangerous chemical wartime plant was a disaster for local economy.

But that’s not the point; the point is that this isn’t something important. This is a completely distorted way of looking at historical events. The breakup of the Soviet Union offered the opportunity for millions of people, that is what is important…  Also in terms of the geopolitical interests of the democratic countries of the world it was a good thing. So when Putin says it is in geopolitical interests of Russia, in terms of Russian expansion, in terms of Russian domination of other countries, in terms of Russia’s position to be able to threaten the rest of the world and deny freedoms to its own people. In that respect the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a disaster, because it worked against all of those things.

Is Maidan a Tahrir?

protestA.Raufoglu: To understand the Ukrainian uprising much better, how would you compare Euromaidan with the Orange revolution that happened a decade ago?

D. Satter: In terms of the Orange revolution, it was a protest over a falsified election. It was corrected; it came to an end when there was a new election, and a new president was elected. But basically nothing else changed. In the case of the present Ukrainian situation, basically they overthrow the president as a result of a mass popular movement.

The procedures in the case of the Orange revolution remained pretty much the same; they just went back and negotiated the way out of it. And Russians weren’t happy with that either.

But it wasn’t the case where the street was able to mobilize and result in an armed confrontation to overthrow the regime. After the Orange revolution there was no the opening up of the presidential residence, and having people see the extravagance of the previous ruler. It was a dramatic event, but it was just a question of a peaceful protest that led to a decision to hold the new elections.

In this case it was really a confrontation of force versus force, in which the winners were the people.

A.Raufoglu: So, does Maidan more remind us of Cairo’s Tahrir?

D. Satter:  Yes, it’s a popular uprising. And that’s more threatening to Putin and his entourage than what happened in the orange revolution. There is still a possibility of managing the elections and in fact the aftermath of the orange revolution was the new election, which in fact brought Yanukovich back. But the example of the population saying that, this is a criminal regime and that we are not going tolerate it is more radical. ukraine-map

 Maidan lessons for Caucasus, Central Asia

A.Raufoglu:  How would you highlight the similarities in Ukraine before Euromaidan and elsewhere in the region, such as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, etc.?

D. Satter:   I’m not very familiar with the situation in Azerbaijan; I do know though that the situation in Kyrgyzstan was very similar. The basic elements – to take over property, to use a political office to enrich oneself: these things are not restricted to Russia, or Ukraine, they exist everywhere…

I mean, Aliyevs always were one family, as it was in Kyrgyzstan, or as it was in the case of Yanukovich and his son. And it’s always the takeover of property, by using the instruments of government.

A.Raufoglu: So, do you see Maydan as an example for those other post-soviet societies?

D. Satter: It’s difficult, because for example, in Kyrgyzstan when they overthrew the Bakiyevs, it is just the kind of explosion of discontent, which by the way was provoked by the Russian media there.

In Azerbaijan, I’m pretty sure it’s pretty similar to have Aliyev and his family to dominate the country… I mean, he was a former KGB under the Soviets, and then his son becomes president of Azerbaijan.

The reason why the former communists rose to the top in the post-communist world is that they were the people who were the cleverest when it came to manipulating the system. And in this system they were able to manipulate, use connections; those are the qualities that made it possible for them to emerge even after the fall of the Soviet Union as the leaders. And then once they were there, they benefited from the moral vacuum that was left by the communism. And of course, it was expressed in their unlimited grid. They have no values, so nothing was enough.

Communism destroyed all the normal moral values, and people without that can’t think of anything to do with them except to accumulate. So it’s not enough just to be a billionaire, you have to be a multi-billionaire. And if you see someone who has a successful business, you simply have to take it, because you can take it.

How should the West respond?

PutinmapA.Raufoglu: Some analysts here in Washington claim that there are clear signs that Russian invention to Ukraine might be a disaster for Putin himself…

D. Satter:  It could… It’s hard to say though, as we don’t know how the west is going to react at this point: will it really put a financial pressure on wealthy people of Russia or not? If so, it could become very difficult for Russia. It’s already getting difficult as a result of Putin’s actions.  The fact is that Putin might think he is preserving his position, but, in fact, he could destabilize it.

A.Raufoglu: What are the other options that the West might consider for protecting democratic transitions in the region, rather than statements or sanctions?

D. Satter:  Economic pressure is the key factor here and I think it would be affective.  Besides we have a whole set of political decisions that have been taken in order to achieve good relations with Russia, such as Strategic Arm Treaty; the decision of not setting missiles in the Eastern Europe – these steps were taken by the current US administration in order to achieve good relation with Russia and I think there are ways of putting political pressures on Russia as well by excluding it from international organizations, increasing the isolation on Putin regime. So, It’s not clear that Putin will benefit long term from what he is doing… He may have overreached of course….

WATCH: Maidan Protest Song


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