A Second Chance For Post-Soviet Democracy?

Levan Ramishvili and Giorgi Meladze

A EurasiaNet Commentary

The revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine underscore that the opening for genuine democratization -- an opportunity missed throughout parts of the former Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- has reappeared. There exists a great opportunity for the post-Soviet world to free itself finally from its totalitarian heritage.

Who might be the next dictator to fall? The answer to that question lies in all countries where citizens' rights have been neglected. Belarus is among them.

Giorgi Kandelaki and Luka Tsuladze, two members of the pro-democracy Georgian youth movement Kmara (Enough), were arrested by Belarussian police in Minsk on August 24, and incarcerated in a police station for nine days. [Giorgi Kandelaki formerly worked as an editorial assistant for and, later, as an occasional contributor to EurasiaNet]. They were charged with hooliganism and violation of border rules. In an August 25 television broadcast, a Belarussian security official claimed that the pair had "made contacts with representatives of radical, politicized, unregistered structures, such as Zubr, Youth Front, and Limon, and held a number of training seminars on organizing acts of civil disobedience, similar to those that occurred during the [2003] colored revolution in Georgia."

Responding to the announcement, Amnesty International declared Kandelaki and Tsuladze prisoners of conscience who should be immediately and unconditionally released. After an outcry from civil society groups, a court on September 2 finally ordered their release.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is no different from other dictators. The arrest of these two Georgian activists was a clear demonstration of the brute force that dictatorial regimes use to suppress civil society initiatives. By putting the Kmara activists in jail, Lukashenko tried to demonstrate his resolve. What he proved instead was his own weakness in the face of the values of freedom.

The fight for freedom can assume various forms. We have witnessed both successful, non-violent campaigns, like the ones in Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Lebanon. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. There have also been chaotic and bloody clashes like those in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The successful examples have had an impact on many countries where dictatorship and poor governance are still in place. They can play the role of a catalyst in initiating democratic changes.

The peaceful revolution in Serbia in 2000, resulting in the ouster of former President Slobodan Milosevic, set an inspiring precedent and drew international attention. Still, it was not enough to convince the international community that the method of non-violent resistance to dictatorial regimes was really working. The Georgian case, in November 2003, was next. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Even though various influential political figures from the US had visited Georgia prior to the Rose Revolution, and the international community had expressed interest in political developments there, it would be fair to say that this uprising was home grown. At the time, the international community believed that the parliamentary elections in Georgia in November 2003 would largely follow the precedent set by earlier presidential elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were both marred by international criticism over voting irregularities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But the non-violent revolutions in Tbilisi and, in 2004, the Georgian autonomous region of Ajara made the opposing argument. Hence, when Ukraine's campaign for democratic change bore fruit in December 2004, the country and its Orange Revolution received much more international attention and assistance.

Successful change is impossible without sharing experiences and learning about the process of democratic reform. Georgia's experience can thus serve as an example for other countries in the post-Soviet world.

In their struggle for democracy, civil society movements here met a battery of obstacles, from nihilistic attitudes to the lack of an established political and civic culture in society. The disengagement of youth from political life prompted many to doubt the vision of the Liberty Institute and others who advocated that young people should serve as agents of change. These were the barriers that Kmara had to overcome to be successful in its quest for democracy.

Civil society movements and the changes they strive to bring about are often associated with disturbances, anarchy, civil war and human loss. When the student movement Kmara first became active in Georgia, it was regarded as a destabilizing force, guided by external actors who hoped to unleash chaos in the country. Only the activists' hard work made it possible for Kmara to gain popularity and break these stereotypes.

Badly prepared action on the part of the civil society activists can be dangerous and cause failure, as happened in Azerbaijan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Non-violence is crucial for democratic change. We are firm believers in peaceful resistance and the practice shows that with proper preparation - strong opposition, mass mobilization, a strong and clear message with youth in the vanguard, and coordinated international support - a non-violent approach can be extremely effective.

Unfortunately, nowadays, the situation in the post-Soviet region remains unprepared for coordinated action, and the debate on the role of the international community is dominated by mixed messages. Some claim that changes are imposed by external forces and do not match the will of the people. According to this position, only citizens of Western countries are able to understand democracy and bring about peaceful change. We consider this position to be racist. These arguments do not even consider that people in those countries long for change and for protection of their rights.

Others support the position that external actors should not intervene in the affairs of another state. Many prefer to remain on the sidelines and simply observe those suffering under a given regime. Both of these arguments are dangerous and hinder the role of the international community.

A refusal to promote human rights by those who enjoy them, and who live their daily lives without thinking that many people are not given the same opportunities, is immoral. Such an isolationist position is also dangerous. This is the case in Belarus, where every day people become victims of their own government.

Overcoming these problems is sometimes impossible without international support. Practice shows that coordination is possible and can be very effective.

At the same time, the voices of civil society from different parts of the world are becoming louder. All people deserve the right to live in a democracy. If we are giving others hope and inspiration by our examples of successful change, we should also provide them with practical assistance. Successful examples can be followed not only by civil society groups, but also by oppressive regimes.

Without activists speaking out and providing these examples, such regimes will only become more violent and further endanger the dignity, safety and rights of their citizens. It should be the duty of the democratic part of the world to avoid such a scenario.

Editor's Note: Levan Ramishvili is the chairman of the Liberty Institute, a Georgian non-governmental organization that works to promote civil liberties, and has been instrumental in support for Kmara. Giorgi Meladze is a program director at the Liberty Institute.

Posted September 6, 2005 c Eurasianet