A focus on Georgia and Belarus today. For the one-time poster boy for liberal reforms in the Former Soviet Union (FSU), like Mendal’s peas, things have been going backwards rapidly recently as the country reverts to the post-Soviet SNAFU mean.
Things have got so bad that the Baltic states have reportedly denied Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili official visits that were planned for the coming week.
The ex-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution was inspiring, as all colour revolutions are inspiring, but as we have reported, the track record for colour revolutions is actually very poor.
All the countries in the patch that have not joined the EU face two extremely difficult problems. The first is the entrenched oligarchs that actively work to undermine the political system so they can lock in the rent-extracting schemes that have made them fabulously wealthy. This problem affects everyone but is particularly bad in both Russia and Ukraine, as bne IntelliNews described in “The Oligarch Problem.”
The second problem is the abundance of snollygosters. This is a brilliant word that was central to US politics shortly after its republic was founded but has fallen out of use since. It means a person that enters politics solely for the purpose of personal enrichment. America set up its system of checks and balances specifically to counter the snollygoster problem.
In Georgia you have the nightmare combination where the kingmaker in Georgian politics Bidzina Ivanishvili is both an oligarch and a snollygoster. The same was true in Ukraine under former President Petro Poroshenko.
The problems in Belarus and Russia are simpler, as both Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin are simply traditional authoritarian leaders, but the only way of getting those two out of office seems to be to have a coloured revolution. However, the people that react fastest to the political vacuum that follows a coloured revolution are the snollygosters and the oligarchs, who pour resources into taking control of the political process in the aftermath, as I described in an opinion piece in 2017 “Where did all the colour revolutions go?” that I repost today in case you are interested.
That is why coloured revolutions keep failing, in my opinion. Ukraine has already had two colour revolutions and look at Kyrgyzstan: it has had three colour revolutions now and the new president is not just an oligarch but it is claimed that he is the head of an organised crime syndicate.
Looking at the actual results of a coloured revolution, rather than the inspiring stories of the little man in the street throwing out the corrupt bigwigs in office that fill the newspapers during the uprising, and it is maybe no wonder the Russian people are so reluctant to revolt. They of all the peoples of the FSU have the most to lose from a violent overthrow of the government. And they know exactly what a revolution means, as everyone in Russia has friends and family in Ukraine and so get first-hand accounts of what life is like afterwards, rather than relying on uplifting reports in the NYT or BuzzFeed.
Of course it’s all a bit more complicated than that. Poroshenko was not entirely a snollygoster and genuinely tried to improve the country (although he was the only oligarch to see his wealth increase while president). And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and especially Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan are neither oligarchs or snollygosters, but face daunting opposition from both.
It seems that the only way out of this trap is to join the EU, as membership comes with fully formed institutions and those checks and balances the US built to curb the avarice of both the oligarchs and snollygosters. But the cases of Poland and Hungary clearly show that even this is not enough to solve these problems.
We are following this story closely and I also post a comment from our friends at Eurasia Democratic Security Network, who are specialists on Georgia, where Mariam Takaishvili looks at the breakdown in communications between the government and the people.
Belarus on trial
Having said all that, the revolutions are truly inspiring – and as a journalist the stories they produce are irresistible. This week Maria Kolesnikova, one of the three women that campaigned last summer against Alexander Lukashenko in the disputed August 9 presidential elections, is on trial. She has been accused of attempting a coup d'état and faces 12 years in prison if convicted. (She will be.) She was offered a bargain: if she appealed for a pardon she was promised release. She refused. “I’m not going to ask for a pardon as I am not guilty of anything.”
Not only is Kolesnikova defiant and brave; she seems to be irrepressible and willing to go to jail for years for her beliefs. But if all this doesn't move you then check out the video in our write-up of the news story of her dancing and smiling and making her trademark heart hand sign in her cage in the Minsk courtroom on the first day of her trial.
Unfortunately the Belarusian political crisis is locked in a stalemate and there is little that the West can do. There is little the opposition can do despite Svetlana Tikhanovskaya's tireless touring of western leaders. There are only two routes to end this showdown. One is via Moscow that is getting increasingly tired of Lukashenko, who is a loose cannon and screwing up the Kremlin’s plans to walk back its showdown with the White House. The other is a colour revolution.
The first will take time, but the Belarusian economy is on the verge of collapse and the Kremlin has shown that it is unwilling to spend any serious money on it at all. The second remains highly unlikely, as the people and the opposition leaders have rejected a violent solution that would almost certainly lead to bloodshed and could end in the annexation of Belarus by Russia.
Kolesnikova is a lion that cannot help but command respect but the reality is that despite its protestations, as I have said many times, the West has a horribly conflicted position on all the troublemakers in the east, as they are both important supplies of key inputs like energy and also huge untapped consumer markets. I have run another story on Belarus that shows the West’s biggest FMCG companies have continued to fund Lukashenko’s state-owned media, which is openly calling for the execution of leading opposition leaders, as the main advertisers. Two thirds of all ads on state TV are by western companies. It seems we, the West, care more about selling washing powder than the bravery of Kolesnikova and her right to liberty, justice and normal life. Unfortunately money trumps human rights every time.
This article first appeared as the blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S PICKS, a daily email digest of the best articles from the last 24 hours delivered free to your inbox. Click here to see the back issues and to sign up.