Monday, August 29, 2016

Targeted Protests, Even without Spreading, Already a Challenge for Moscow, Schulmann Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Many dismiss protests in the Russian regions as irrelevant to what is happening in the capital, but Yekaterina Schulmann says that these actions, even if they are unlikely to become massive, as already having an impact on the Russian government because the regime has been forced to respond.

            In some cases, she said on an Ekho Moskvy broadcast, the powers that be try to talk their way out of the problem. In others, they use pressure or even repression. And in most, they use their control of the media to distort the situation and blur what is really going on (

            This combination of “carrots and sticks” is one that the regime has applied “more or less successfully over recent years,” she notes. “But if these cases become too numerous, there won’t be enough resources to address them.” In that event, even if the protests are specific rather than general, the system would face a crisis.

            The way the authorities respond, Schulmann continues, also reflects the personality and biography of the governors. If the governor is from the force structures, “he will be accustomed to act one way; if he is from the onetime elected governors, he will be accustomed to act in quite another.” Governors will also vary depending on whether they are locals or from the outside.

            Other factors are involved as well, the analyst says, including but not limited to the state of the elite in the particular region, relations between that elite and the force structures, and the past experience both governors and governed have had. One can even speak of regional patterns: Schulmann calls the crackdown on the tractor march “the North Caucasus” variant. 

            But she insists that it is incorrect to call these various protests “economic” as many do in derision.  “The demands are essentially political. People want to be heard. Peope want to take part in decision making. To decide on things that concern them, such as taxes, bankruptcies, land distribution, construction, and tearing down of property.”

Orthodox Church in Belarus May Become Autocephalous before Its Counterpart in Ukraine, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – In what may be an irony of fate, Maksim Gatsak says, the Orthodox Church in Belarus could gain autocephalous, that is, independent status, even sooner than its counterpart in Ukraine, precisely because such a move may come more quickly in an authoritarian state than in a more democratic one.

            But if the Orthodox Church in Belarus, now part of and subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, does achieve such status, that will have the effect not only of making Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly more likely but also making Belarus more independent from the Kremlin and its “Russian world.”

            At the same time, Gatsak says, the role that the Belarusian state would play in promoting such autocephaly, a role that would involve increasing still further the power of the government over religious organizations, could in the end have the effect of leading to the loss by such a church of that independent status were there to be regime change in Minsk

            In a commentary on the religious affairs website,, Gatsak argues that a major factor holding back the achievement of autocephaly in Ukraine is precisely its “democratic regime with a more or less developed division of powers, regional self-administration,” and the existence of competitive elections (

            As a result, Kyiv doesn’t have the power to “force the various Orthodox Churches to unity via the establishment of a single national Church that would be recognized by the Orthodox world.”  Instead, it is likely to continue for some time to have three independent Orthodox Churches – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

            The first and third are not in union with world Orthodoxy, and the second is subordinate to Moscow, a situation which creates problems for Ukrainians and Ukraine, Gatsak says.  “But even under conditions of the conflict with Russia, the Kyiv authorities are not capable of ignoring democratic procedures” and pushing toward unity.

            Belarus would appear to have another advantage over Ukraine in that it is far from clear what would be the organizational basis of a united autocephalous Orthodox church there, while in Belarus, there is no question that it would consist in the first instance of the hierarchs of the existing Orthodox Church in Belarus now subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate.

            Indeed, the expert on church affairs says, the way in which Minsk has dealt with the alternative Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church since the 1990s shows that the country’s political regime is not prepared to tolerate the emergence of any second Orthodox denomination in the country.

            It is likely, however, Gatsak continues, that there are people in the Belarusian regime who would like to have an autocephalous church, “to weaken Russian control over events in Belarus, to reduce the ideological influence of Moscow and also to increase its own control and ideological influence.”

            If Lukashenka and his regime decide to pursue autocephaly, it would not be difficult to find some hierarchs within the Orthodox church in Belarus, assemble a synod or assembly of the Belarusian church and declare themselves to be autocephalous. The Russian church would not like that, but it probably couldn’t block it without severe damage to itself.

            According to Gatsak, “the establishment of an autocephalous church independent from Moscow would very likely receive the support of many opposition organizations and mass media outlets.” And it would not be opposed by rank and file Belarusians most of whom, the analyst says, feel themselves far removed from such church questions.

            And such “an integral and united Belarusian Orthodox church would have a simpler time than would Ukraine of obtaining recognition from the Orthodox world and from Constantinople in particular.”

            At the same time, pro-Russian organizations, including “’the Cossacks’ and military patriotic clubs” together with the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia would oppose such a move and might use it as an occasion to dispatch to Belarus “’little green men’” in a reprise of what it did in Crimea.

            In sum, Gatsak says, “the existence of an authoritarian regime in Belarus to a significant degree makes the possibility of creating and gaining recognition for an autocephalous Belarusian Orthodox Church, but the active and directing role of the powers that be in this issue could lead to major negative consequences.”


When Dictators Depart – The Karimov Case and the Future of the Post-Soviet Space

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – The apparent heart attack on Saturday and at least temporary incapacitation of 78-year-old Uzbek strongman Islam Karimov has not only sparked concerns in that key Central Asian country about who will come in his place but also reopens the larger issue of political transitions in those parts of the former Soviet space governed by dictators.

            Twenty-five years ago when the USSR collapsed, activists in many of these countries and their Western supporters argued that democracy was the best form of government because it allowed the people a voice in decisions about their own lives. Far less attention was paid to the fact that democracies, unlike dictatorships, breed new elites and have regular successions.

            One result of that stress on popular rule rather than new elites and succession has been that in many cases, many post-Soviet dictators have hijacked democratic phraseology to cloak what are inherently undemocratic regimes and by design created situations in which no one can point to an obvious successor generation or even imagine the departure of the incumbent ruler.

            But even if such leaders are not replaced by coups or revolutions, they will eventually pass from the scene because of illness or age. No one lives forever, and if there are no new elites waiting in the wings or procedures for their regular rotation, transitions will inevitably be bumpy or even disastrous – a certainty that many dictators invoke to maintain support for themselves.

            Not surprisingly, following the announcement of Karimov’s hospitalization, his regime and many observers fell back on the nostrums that everything was under control, that he would be back, and that his policies would continue (

            Other outlets have reproduced earlier discussions, many extremely useful, about what the passing of Karimov would mean for Uzbekistan and for other countries involved in Central Asia given the central role Tashkent plays as the capital of the most populous and arguably most powerful country there (

            In the coming days, there are likely to be more of both, but they may soon give way to broader discussions about the ways in which the reliance of Uzbekistan and some other post-Soviet states on dictatorial regimes has put delayed action mines under each of them and of the region as a whole.

            Perhaps the first of these has been offered by Marat Tolibayev, a Kazakh economist and blogger, who argues today that “when an authoritarian leader of a state leaves unexpectedly, his country does not experience happiness and well-being, in any cases, not immediately afterwards” (

            In most cases, he writes, the old dictator is replaced by someone in his entourage or even his family or alternatively “by an accidental figure who turns out to be in the right place at the right time.”  And he points out that one does not have to look far in distance or time to see examples of both.

            An individual who comes to power out of the entourage of the old dictator will first proclaim his commitment to democratic values and criticize “’the cult of personality’” of his predecessor. But within a short time, he will decide that he and his regime are irreplaceable and that everything must be done to keep him and it in place, with force if need be.

            As a result, Tolibayev continues, the regime will remain authoritarian in the extreme and corruption will flourish: “A narrow stratum of people will become incredibly rich while the country will remain poor or even become poorer still.”  Then, the new leader “will age and depart and the scenario will be repeated again.”

            Alternatively, he argues, the death or departure of a dictator can provoke a revolution which more often than not will bring to power either populists without experience in politics or administration or those who are simply greedy and see political power as a means to increase their personal wealth.

            Neither of these scenarios is “desirable,” the Kazakh commentator says.  And that raises the question: is there another which avoids the problems of the first and the second. According to Tolibayev, there is; but it requires some conditions which are only rarely to be found. The most important of these is a willingness of the old leader to start the process before he dies.

            Indeed, he suggests, the very best thing a dictator can do is to announce that he is leaving office in five years, thus opening the way for “a thaw” and for the emergence of alternative political leaders who will focus on policy issues rather than concentrate itself only on the replacement of the leader.

            Even better, the dictator anticipating his departure should move away from a presidentialist system, which only encourages the concentration of power, to a parliamentary one in which politicians will have to compete over programs more than over personalities.  In it, “the interests of clans will move into the background.”

            If a dictator president can think about the future – and that is no easy thing for him to do -- his taking those two steps, Tolibayev says, will ensure that his time in office was not wasted, that a new dictatorship or a revolutionary situation will not occur.  And he will be remembered not for his misdeeds but for his contribution to the development of his country.