The findings of this publication show that there are clear similarities in the types of repressive practices being undertaken by countries across the former Soviet Union. First and foremost this is a function of the nature of their domestic political systems, whether they be authoritarian, semi-authoritarian or troubled democracies, they all feature ruling elites with at least some interest in extracting rents for themselves and their allies from their political dominance. Shared concerns from popular protest and current economic weakness to the age of the regime leaders are at the heart of encouraging similar legislation and forms of repression. All contributors to the publication agree that the current situation in the region is a mix of different influences: Russian and other neighbours’ encouragement to draft repressive legislation (either through bilateral diplomacy or supported by regional instructions), the autonomous emulation of worst practice (building on both regional and global trends) or self-generated bad practice (building on their Soviet legacy and current authoritarian systems). The balance differs in each country in the region depending on local circumstances and their strategic outlook.
Russia is not the author of all the repressive legislation in the region but it has significant direct influence and helps shape and promote an emerging conservative regional values agenda, alongside what David Lewis describes as the ‘Moscow Consensus’ of a strong commitment to state sovereignty, that is attractive to repressive regimes. Russia’s approach mimics Western structures and techniques but combines them with anti-Western discourse, deep media manipulation, management of civil society and a fusion of the political and economic elite, often through the families of the President or senior ministers. Russia promotes these ideas effectively through its significant regional Russian media penetration and through proxy groups, from NGOs to the Orthodox Church, promoting a conservative, traditional values agenda that it argues is more in keeping with the history and culture of the region, than Western alternatives.
Though there may be some encouragement for repressive action through regional institutions and bilateral diplomacy, regimes in the region will seek ideas for legislation and practice that help sustain their political and structural control, templates of which are willingly provided by Russia and other countries in the region. For example, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan need no direction from Russia or indeed China to clamp down on dissent but remain open to new methods of how to do so. For the most part regional institutions act to reinforce the status quo, promoting authoritarian cultural norms rather than developing rule based systems, echoing their domestic political environments where informal power structures have influence far in excess of codified law and formal procedures. Such structures reinforce and expand the primacy of national sovereignty narratives and frame challenges to a regime as a threat to the independence of the country.
So while there is some ‘sharing of worst practice’ amongst the countries of the former Soviet Union, both formally through regional institutions and through Russian diplomacy. However it is authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes informally collaborating and perhaps more importantly learning from each other, about methods that can help them consolidate their own power, that are primarily driving the spate of similar looking repressive legislation and practice that spreading across the region.
Recommendations for international policy makers and civil society
- Strengthen support for creative and flexible funding streams, through organisations such as the European Endowment for Democracy, given the pressures on NGO funding and traditional grant-making under new legislation in the region;
- Protect the future of Russian and local language broadcasting and web resources by the BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other credible outlets, whilst supporting diaspora media initiatives to facilitate access to independent information and an alternative world view to challenge the ‘Moscow Consensus’;
- Reach out to a wider pool of organisations, including trade unions in the region, tackling social welfare and migration issues to help build a wider support base for reform in former Soviet societies and to show that donors share local concerns;
- Incentivise further the compliance (and penalise non-compliance) with UN treaties and with the European Convention on Human Rights, supporting these alternative, pre-existing and more positive legal and values models. States in the region should be further encouraged to invite and facilitate access for UN and Council of Europe Special Rapporteurs and specialist bodies such as the OSCE-ODIHR Assembly Monitoring project. Where their recommendations are implemented this should be rewarded;
- Reassess and strengthen schemes providing legislative, legal and technical support to governments and institutions in the former Soviet Union. There may be potential for further dialogue at a technocratic level with the, somewhat limited, bureaucratic structures of regional organisations such as the CIS, SCO and the emerging EEU, albeit with little hope of short term success. This must be set in the context of recognising the limits of technical programmes in countries that lack a genuine will to reform. Therefore particular effort should be put into Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova where some political incentive exists to achieve change;
- Reverse the downgrade of human rights promotion in EU policy towards the former Soviet Union and look at ways to reinvigorate both ‘more for more’ and ‘less for less’ conditionality and the promotion of European soft-power. Ensure new agreements, such as the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Kazakhstan or a possible agreement with Azerbaijan are not ratified without improvements in their human rights situations. Without further compromising on principle, the EU should work to reduce the geo-politicisation of Eurasia’s politics, showing that engagement with the EU and ties with Russia need not be mutually exclusive;
- Reform European and US behaviour by avoiding complicity in torture and unlawful actions in the fight against terrorism and preventing abuse of shared international institutions. There is a particular need to tackle corruption, money laundering and tax evasion, including the use of Western capitals such as London by post-Soviet elites. Such efforts can help rebuild Western credibility as a positive role model for change and encouraging the sharing of best practice.