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Is Russia Leading a Regional Authoritarian Trend?

Russian opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, right, and Eduard Limonov, face the media in Moscow after they were released from detention, Jan 17, 2011
Russian opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, right, and Eduard Limonov, face the media in Moscow after they were released from detention, Jan 17, 2011

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James Brooke

Police have arrested leading opposition politicians in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Some analysts would say there's a chilly political wind blowing this winter across the Slavic core of the old Soviet Union.

In Ukraine, one former minister is in jail, another is enjoying political asylum in the Czech Republic, and the former prime minister is fighting legal charges of misspending state money.

Next door in Belarus, the harshest political crackdown seen in Europe in years, has landed four presidential candidates in prison.

And in Russia, judges working blocks from the Kremlin sentenced two charismatic opposition leaders, Mikhail Khordokovsky and Boris Nemtsov, to jail.

In response, Amnesty International charged Russia with "strangling" the rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest.

Is there a coordinated clampdown on freedoms in these three nations, the Slavic core of the old Soviet Union?

From New York, émigré Russian scientist Yuri Mayarshak says yes. "A few days ago we had simultaneous, almost simultaneous persecution of opposition in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Of course, it could be a coincidence, but a chance of such a coincidence is not very likely, indeed."

But to analysts on the ground in Minsk, Moscow and Kyiv,  each government is following its own dynamic.

Russian analyst and editor Fyodor Lyukanov said, "To be frank, I do not see any connection between those trends." Lyukanov said the Kremlin’s top concern is to win parliamentary elections later this year and presidential elections the following March.

On the carrot side, social spending this year is to hit $100 billion, double military spending. On the stick side, the Kremlin will not allow street protests to grow into national movements.

While police sweep up liberal, pro-Western demonstrators, the street force the Kremlin really fears are the nationalists.

Chanting  "Russia for Russians" and "Moscow for Moscovites,"  the nationalists draw young Russians who say the Islamic immigration is changing the Slavic Christian face of Russian cities. Saying what many Russians believe, the nationalists advocate separating Russia from the violence-torn Islamic areas of the Northern Caucasus.

Eugeniusz Smolar watches this movement from Warsaw where he directs the Center for International Relations. "Much more dangerous to Russia at the moment is the instability in the Caucasus, in the Northern Caucasus. Actually, we are facing kind of a very small level civil war. People are dying. There are a lot of terrorist attacks. This is the reason for the traditional way of seeking stability in Russia."

Smolar said that the rising price of oil, Russia’s top export, allows Russia to buy peace and to ignore outside advice to open up the economy and the political system. Oil is now trading at $92 a barrel, a two-year high. Many forecasters say it will soon top $100 a barrel.

Smolar further makes a link between oil prices and the power of the Kremlin. "Putin (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) is feeling much stronger at the moment because of the quite drastic rise of the price of oil. So the money is pouring into the state coffer. They will have the money to pay for social needs, and social means in their way, is how they perceive power, is nothing more than crowd control measure, stability, to keep peace in the country."

South of the border, in Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych became President last February. Since then, critics say, he has degraded press freedom, rigged local elections and threatened non-governmental organizations. After the prosecutions of ministers of the prior government, U.S. and European Union officials warned him against using the justice system to selectively target his political opponents.

But the opposition’s mismanagement of Ukraine over the previous five years partly opened the door to President Yanukovych’s power grab.

Lukyanov believes that a new opposition will emerge in Ukraine, a country that is a patchwork of linguistic, regional and historical loyalties. "Probably the new opposition should emerge sooner or later, but not the old one," said the Russian analyst.

The director of the Razumkov Center in Kyiv, Valeriy Chaliy, said Ukraine leaders have to balance their nation between Russia and the European Union. A  move too far in the authoritarian direction would threaten relations with the European Union.

"Ukraine will remain taking steps to the European-style democracy," said Chaliy. "And I cannot imagine that Ukraine will go the way of Russia. It is a completely different situation."

Chaliy and others say that the Slavic world’s wild card is Belarus.

At a time when Belarus has bad relations with Russia, President Alexander Lukashenko deeply alienated the European Union by ordering arrests of opposition politicians, journalists and activists. The crackdown has been so intense that people in Poland compare it to 1981 when the communist government declared martial law against the Solidarity movement.

Lukyanov, who edits Russia in Global Affairs  magazine, said he was baffled by Belarus.

"It is very difficult to understand the logic of Lukashenko because it looks like he is a a little bit crazy," said Lukyanov. "To have fights at the same time against Europe and against Russia, by such a tiny country as Belarus, sandwiched between two major geopolitical and geo-economic entities, that is very bold move, I would say."

From a distance, it may seem that the leaders of Russia and Belarus are authoritarian pals.

In reality, Russia cut off all oil supplies to Belarus on January 1 of this year. With winter oil supplies dwindling, the Prime Minister of Belarus flies Thursday  to Moscow to meet with Prime Minister Putin. He is expected to agree to a new supply price that will deprive Belarus of billions of dollars of subsidies from its former patron, Russia.

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