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Communist Party

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Central Asia: One Down

25 March 2005

Central Asia: One Down, Four to Go?

By Gwynne Dyer

Askar Akayev was the nicest of the Central Asian strongmen. Dissidents did not get immersed in boiling water in Kyrgyzstan; statues of Akayev and his family did not litter Bishkek and the country’s other cities; he hadn’t been the local Communist Party leader in Soviet times, as most other Central Asian leaders were. During the 90s, Akayev was even seen as a man with a commitment to democracy and civil rights. Maybe that’s why he got overthrown.

He deserved to be overthrown. By the time the crowds in Bishkek invaded his presidential palace on Thursday, he was well on the way to turning Kyrgyzstan into just another Central Asian autocracy. Last month’s parliamentary election was so shamelessly rigged that Akayev’s supporters won 69 out of 75 seats while key opposition leaders were banned from running — and Akayev’s son and daughter were elected to the parliament.

Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe condemned the election, and most Kyrgyz suspected that Akayev was packing the parliament so he could push through a constitutional amendment granting him yet another term as president. Even the United States, which has a large military base in the country, was beginning to take its distance from his regime. (Russia, which also has a base in Kyrgyzstan, backed Akayev down to the end.)

In style, the almost bloodless revolution that overthrew Akayev was close to the non-violent popular uprisings that have brought democracy to two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, in the past year and a half. There was the same revolt against a rigged election, the same crowds in the street, even the same use of a symbolic colour to unite all the various strands of protest. And inevitably, the same claims are being made about it.

The Bush administration has not yet officially claimed that it is a result of the beacon of liberty that the US invasion has lit in Iraq, but you know that it’s going to. The Russian government, seeing yet another part of the former Soviet “near abroad” slide out of Moscow’s sphere of influence, mutters darkly about illegitimate American influence behind the revolution. And not much attention is paid to the reality of Kyrgyzstan.

The reason all five Central Asian republics ended up being run by tyrants of greater or lesser nastiness after the fall of the Soviet Union was that the same or very similar tyrants, in four cases out of five, were running them before it fell. Tyrants ran every part of the Soviet Union, of course, but whereas in most places the Communist Party provided the structure, in Central Asia it just wrapped itself around more enduring realities of clan, tribe and language.

The bizarre geography of the Central Asian republics, which interpenetrate and wrap themselves around one another, reflects Stalin’s policy of redrawing the borders to ensure that each major ethnic group was split between several different republics, and only had a bare majority in the republic that actually bore its name. Then the Communist Party recruited heavily from the leading clans of the majority nationality in each republic, who were generally willing to cooperate in order to secure their social position among their own people and their ethnic group’s political domination over the others.

It was a classic colonial policy of divide-and-rule, designed to hold down the Muslim provinces of the old Russian empire that had all rebelled against Moscow during the civil war after the October Revolution of 1917. It worked well for seventy years under the Soviet Union, and it has largely continued to work in the post-Soviet era, both in the sense that the same people stayed in power and that they stayed close to Moscow.

Freed from the discipline of the Communist Party since 1991, many of the leaders have grown deeply corrupt and a few (like Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who has taken to renaming the months and the days of the week after members of his family) have turned downright megalomaniacal. They deal with democratic opposition by the same secret police methods that worked in Soviet times, and claim that anybody who opposes their rule is an Islamist terrorist.

And not one of them faces imminent overthrow. Kyrgyzstan was different from the start because Askar Akayev was not a lifelong apparatchik, but a physicist who was chosen president by the first freely elected Kyrgyz parliament in 1991. Kyrgyzstan is also extremely poor, without oil, gas or valuable minerals (apart from a single gold mine that provides 40 percent of the country’s exports), so it has not attracted the same influx of foreign money and is significantly less corrupt.

Kyrgyzstan’s revolution may succeed, although the conflict that underlies it is partly based on clan and region and could tumble into something quite ugly. But it has virtually nothing to do with events far to the west in Georgia and Ukraine, let alone far to the south in Iraq — and the likelihood that it will spread to the other Stans is very, very low.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Observers…end”; “It was…Moscow”)

Last Communist

29 January 2005

Memorial for the Last Communist

by Gwynne Dyer

After two weeks of dithering and delay, the Chinese Communist Party permitted a low-key memorial ceremony for disgraced former premier Zhao Ziyang at Beijing’s Babaoshan cemetery for Communist heroes on Saturday (30 January). He was often portrayed as China’s lost Gorbachev, the reformer who might have democratised China if he had not been ousted from power at the time of the Tienanmen Square crisis in 1989.

That was why the country’s current rulers were so nervous about publicly acknowledging Zhao’s death, and why even now the regime’s police are beating up citizens who appear in public wearing white mourning flowers in his memory. But he was actually one of the last of the ancient breed of Communist true believers. They will not be missed.

Zhao’s passing, almost sixteen years after he was fired from all his posts and placed under permanent house arrest for his alleged support for the students on Tienanmen Square, raises two questions. One is whether the pro-democracy demonstrators could ever have succeeded in the face of a Communist Party that was then still run by true believers. The other is whether China would have been better off if the Communists had never gained power at all.

Zhao was born at a time when fanatical ideologies were sweeping Europe and Asia, and he never deviated from his loyalty to the Communist Party whose youth wing he joined at thirteen. He did not even object when his own father was murdered by Communists as a “rich peasant” in 1948.

When collectivisation led to famine in Guangdong province in 1958-61, he enthusiastically led the campaign to torture peasants whom Mao accused of causing the famine by hiding their (imaginary) grain reserves. His subservience to the Party was not even shaken when his elderly mother died after being denounced by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

By the late 70s Zhao had become one of Deng Xiaoping’s allies in opening up the Chinese economy to capitalist ideas, and by the late 80s he was even dabbling in notions of political reform. When university students occupied Tienanmen Square in 1989 and demanded political change, he sympathised with them — but when the Party elders insisted that the protests must be suppressed, he submitted to Party discipline yet again.

Much has been made of Zhao’s tearful visit to the students on the square the night before martial law was declared — “I’m sorry; I have come too late,” he said — but he didn’t actually stay with them. Nor did he protest aloud when the army massacred them two weeks later on 4 June, 1989: he lived and died a loyal son of the Party.

Zhao spent the laszt sixteen years of his life in a comfortable courtyard house in central Beijing, emerging only to play golf and writing occasional letters containing mild requests that the Party “reverse the verdict of Tienanmen Square.” If this was a hero of democracy, heaven preserve China from its enemies.

But the last of the Communist true believers are dying off in China now. What has taken their place, in a Party as riddled with cynicism and corruption as the Soviet Communist Party was in Gorbachev’s time, is a band of careerists whose mutual loyalty mainly depends on the fact that they must hang together lest they hang separately.

Their only claim to popular support is the economic miracle that they have allegedly wrought in modern China — but the real question is whether China would be better off if their genuinely Communist predecessors had never seized power at all.

In the dying days of the old Soviet Union it became popular to calculate how much better off Russia would have been if the Communists had not seized power in late 1917. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Russia had reached about the same level of urbanisation and

industrialisation as Italy, and was growing about as fast. Despite two world wars and the Great Depression, by 1989 Italians were about three times richer than Russians, and the gap remains as wide even today.

It is harder to make the same argument for China, which was still scarcely industrialised at all when the Communists seized power in 1949. But Communist rule merely redistributed misery and produced very little net growth during their first thirty years in power — and they caused the deaths of about forty million Chinese through murder and starvation.

The subsequent twenty-five years have seen rapid economic growth, but it’s hard to believe that even the most corrupt and incompetent Nationalist regime would have delivered less net growth since 1949. In fact, if you consider Taiwan, which started out under exactly that sort of regime in 1949 and today enjoys three or four times China’s per capita income, it is quite impossible to believe.

Zhao changed as he aged, becoming less fanatical and abandoning his old enthusiasm for murder and torture as useful political tools, and he always meant to do good for China. But if he is the last of the ancient breed, good riddance.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8 (“Zhao’s passing…atall”; and “Zhao spent…its enemies”)

Georgian Revolution

23 November 2003

Transaucasia: Two Down and One To Go

By Gwynne Dyer

“By his resignation, he avoided spilling blood in the country,” said Mikhail Saakashvili, the opposition leader who finally ended President Eduard Shevardnadze’s 30-year career as the boss of Georgia on Sunday. Twelve years after the death of the old Soviet Union, the westernmost of the three Transcaucasian republics has at last shaken off the grip of the old Communist mafia. With Armenia already well into its post-Communist era, this leaves only Azerbaijan to go. That may be trickier, however, for Azerbaijan is where the oil is.

A lot of the credit for the peaceful transition in Georgia must go to the disciplined crowds who protested in front of the parliament buildings in Tbilisi every day since the rigged elections on 2 November, and to the soldiers and police who made it clear that they would not open fire on the people to defend Shevardnadze’s position. But the United States is also due some credit for finally calling time on the old scoundrel, for its condemnation of Shevardnadze’s shameless manipulation of the parliamentary election was unusually blunt.

“The elections do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people,” said US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, “but instead reflect massive vote fraud in Ajaria and other Georgian regions. Specifically the parallel vote tally and exit polling conducted by reputable independent organisations differ significantly from the results released by the Central Election Committee and these discrepancies in our view reveal an extensive manipulation of the vote count.”

Shevardnadze had often rigged elections before without facing that sort of criticism from the US government. Washington was actually saying to the Georgians: we’re washing our hands of Shevardnadze – take him down if you can. Take him down they did, and it is safe to assume that the Bush administration had already decided that it can live happily with the man who is likely to end up as president instead, Mikhail Saakashvili. But that does not make Saakashvili a mere puppet, or invalidate the fact that there has been a genuine outbreak of democracy in Georgia.

For Washington, policy towards the Transcaucasian republics (and the other ex-Soviet republics east of the Caspian Sea) is driven by three considerations. Access to the vast new oil reserves in the region and ensuring that the vital pipelines pass through friendly countries is paramount. Enlisting the aid of these countries in the ‘war on terror’ is also a high priority. And democracy would be nice, other things being equal.

In Georgia, happily, other things are more or less equal. Indeed, Shevardnadze, far from being a guarantee of stability, had become a seriously destabilising influence, for under his rule Georgia, once the most prosperous of all the fifteen Soviet republics, has descended into desperate poverty and decay while a sleek minority grew rich amid the ruins. Georgians were furious at the corruption all around them, but Shevardnadze did nothing to curb it, for distributing favours and privileges to his supporters, and above all to his own clan, was how he kept himself in power.

It was how Shevardnadze originally rose to power as the head of the Georgian Communist Party in 1972. Indeed, it was how almost all of the Party potentates in the non-European parts of the old Soviet Union really secured their power: behind the facade of a modern totalitarian state, they built their local political machines on patronage and clan loyalties. The corruption did not reach such flagrant levels while the Party still ruled, but it is why the old Communist bosses survived to re-emerge as the new rulers in almost all the ex-Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

Shevardnadze was off in Moscow as Soviet foreign minister in 1985-90, and did some fine work in ensuring the peaceful end of the Cold War, but when he returned to Georgia as president in 1992 (thanks to a bloody coup) he reverted to his old methods and ruled Georgia with an iron hand for eleven more years. Now, at 75, he has been peacefully replaced by an American-educated democrat less than half his age. About time, too.

In 1992 all three Transcaucasian republics emerged from Soviet rule, but their old Communist Party bosses were soon back in power, now freed of the old Soviet-era restraints. All three countries went into social and economic free-fall, experiencing levels of corruption, poverty and violence that they could not have imagined in the old days. And now, perhaps, they are starting to recover.

Armenia was the first to dump its Soviet-era boss, replacing Karen Demirchan with Robert Kocharian in a free election in 1998. Now Georgia is doing the same: new parliamentary elections are due in 45 days, and a presidential election to choose Shevardnadze’s successor will follow soon after. Both countries are still desperately poor, but they may finally be on the mend.

That leaves only Azerbaijan, where Haydar Aliyev ruled as Communist Party boss and then as president from the 1970s until his death last August — and where his son Ilham Aliyev was duly elected president in his place in October. But then, Azerbaijan has oil, so the former Communist elite there has more money to bribe its collaborators with. It follows perfectly logically that Azerbaijan’s people are the poorest in the region despite the oil, and that its government is deeply repressive and corrupt. And that the US State Department keeps its views on the honesty of Azerbaijan’s elections to itself.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Shevardnadze…Georgia”; and “Shevardnadze…too”)