Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Tyrants, the new cold war and opportunities lost

December 20, 2016

In a Wall Street Journal opinion (December 17-18, pg. A13), former chess champion Garry Kasparov describes his experiences as a citizen of the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan during the period of Soviet Union disintegration in the early 1990’s. The fall occurred a series of events that included the resignation of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev on December 25, 1991. Kasparov saw Gorbachev’s resignation as the result of “a final attempt to keep the Communist state alive.” Kasparov was optimistic that “the Soviet Union would be forced to liberalize socially and economically to survive.” Kasparov was filled with optimism that change would bring a better future for people of Russia and the former Republics.


Writing 25 years later, Kasparov laments the lost opportunity with the rise of the new dictator, Vladimir Putin and his intentional erosion of democracy and freedoms in Russia and the former republics. He see an attitude change where “citizens of the free world don’t much care about dictatorships anymore, or about the 2.7 billion people who still live in them.” That attitude change contrasts with John F. Kennedy observation in Berlin in 1963: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” He argues that Ronald Reagan’s warning that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction” might be an understatement in view of recent changes in Western democracies.

Kasparov argues that “Bill Clinton was making jokes with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and it was time to party, not press the advantage. . . . . Yet instead of using it to shape a new global framework to protect and project the values of democracy and human rights—as Truman had done immediately to put Stalin in check—the free world acted as though the fight had been won once and for all. Even worse, we made the same mistake in Russia and in many other newly independent states. We were so eager to embrace the bright future that we failed to address our dark past. There were no truth commissions, no lustration—the shining of light on past crimes and their perpetrators—no accountability for decades of repression. Elections did nothing to uproot the siloviki, the powerful network of security and military officials. The offices and titles of the ruling nomenklatura changed, but the Soviet bureaucratic caste remained as power brokers with no accountability or transparency.”

As Kasparov sees it, “the reforms in Russia enacted by a dream team of national and foreign economists were piecemeal and easily exploited by those with access to the levers of power. Instead of turning into a free market, the Russian economy became a rigged auction that created an elite of appointed billionaires and a population of resentful and confused citizens who wondered why nothing had improved for them.”

That somewhat sounds similar to the opinion that many Americans have about their own democracy (as discussed before).

In 2000, Putin took power with few “obstacles capable of resisting his instinct to remake Russia in his own KGB image. He also found a Russian public that felt betrayed by the promises of democracy and afraid of the violence and corruption we saw all around us. Mr. Putin’s vulgar rhetoric of security and national pride would have worn thin quickly had the price of oil not begun to skyrocket in the new millennium. A rising cash flow enabled him to negotiate a Faustian bargain with the Russian people: your freedoms in return for stability. . . . . Outside Russia, at every turn, Europe and the U.S. failed to provide the leadership the historic moment required.”

Compared to right-wing dictatorships transitioning to democracy, Kasparov criticizes socialism and communism. “Left-wing regimes have had a far harder time, as if socialism were an autoimmune virus that destroys a society’s ability to defend itself from tyrants and demagogues.” 


Given the state of politics in America and Western liberal democracies, the autoimmune virus seems to have established an infection there as well. How it plays out in liberal democracy hosts remains to be seen. Support for tyrants and demagogues is on the rise. Regardless of how it plays out, the opportunity the West had after the U.S.S.R.’s fall was squandered and is irretrievably lost. Any new opportunity for peace and freedom in Russia and other countries ruled by kleptocratic tyrants and demagogues looks to be at least two generations in the future, assuming another opportunity ever comes along.

The West blew it’s chance. We are beginning to see the ramifications of the failure of short sighted, distracted Western political institutions and thinking.

Questions: Is Kasparov right to argue the West should have played a bigger role and therefore failed in what they did do after the Soviet Union collapsed?

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