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Twenty years ago, in July 1991, I was poised to start a job researching human rights violations in the Soviet Union. A month later, the failed coup to unseat Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev precipitated rapid political changes that would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25. Watching these events, my family told me I would no longer have a job. Like many others, they assumed that the end of communism would usher in a new era of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in the Soviet Union’s successor states. I started my new job as planned and it only took five minutes to see that those assumptions were wrong.

With the events of the Arab Spring, now is a good time to take stock of some lessons learned from 20 years of efforts to bring better human rights protections to former Soviet Union countries. Were our assumptions faulty? What could be done better, or differently, to promote human rights during tectonic societal shifts? Does the exercise have relevance beyond the region, particularly given the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa?

The differences between 1991 and the 2011 Arab uprisings are vast, of course. But my 20 years at Human Rights Watch have given me a few ideas about what has to happen after the revolution to make change stick.

1. There is Nothing Inevitable about Transitions to Democracy

Soviet Union watchers have seen how the collapse of a repressive, authoritarian regime in no way guarantees the arrival of a government committed to human rights. As the dust settles, the historical forces that have shaped the society for decades come again to the fore and, absent deep institutional change, authoritarian rule may re-emerge.

To be sure, the end of communism ushered in freedoms unthinkable during the Soviet era. While circumstances varied widely across the former Soviet Union in the early years after the breakup, people could worship more freely, travel abroad, own property, and express their ethnic identity in ways they could not under communism.

But in many parts of the region, government human rights records have been poor even as other parts of Eastern and Central Europe that had been under Soviet influence made more far-reaching reforms. The reasons vary, but in several Central Asian countries, for example, the leaders and political classes in 1991 had no interest whatsoever in relinquishing power. They worked to neuter alternative political forces demanding change. As a result, the institutional reforms necessary for accountable government, pluralism, and effective protection of human rights never happened.

A focus on political elites also helps, albeit only partially, to explain why reforms were much more far-reaching elsewhere in Eastern Europe. For the most part,Soviet-era political elites in those states, as well as in the Baltic states, were swept aside. This left more space for new political actors who were more serious about building strong institutions, instituting checks and balances, and carrying out legislative reforms for due process and human rights. But there were certainly other critical factors, such as a legacy of pre-World War II democratic government in many cases and a real prospect of EU membership for most.

The Soviet successor states, on the other hand, run the gamut in levels and styles of repression.  Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are among the most repressive authoritarian states in the world. Turkmenistan is a one-party state that allows no independent civic activism, arbitrarily limits citizens’ ability to travel abroad, and blocks virtually all independent human rights monitoring. There is no freedom of the press,, and authorities have even imprisoned contract reporters for foreign news outlets.

In Uzbekistan the government barely tolerates a handful of independent human rights activists, routinely sentences them to long prison terms on trumped up charges, and heavily censors the press. Police torture is endemic.

Russia itself is no role model. Under the “soft authoritarianism” perfected during eight years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, independent civil society is tolerated, but whistleblowers have been killed and threatened and very little is left of the media freedoms that blossomed during glasnost, a period in the 1980s when the Soviet Union allowed greater political candor. There is no genuine political competition or public accountability. Putin’s announcement that he will again run for president, conceivably putting him in power for a total of 24 years, prompted comparisons to Brezhnev’s 18-year reign of stagnation, and after electoral fraud in the December Duma vote  and brought tens of thousands of Russians onto the streets in historic, peaceful protests.

In much of the region, entrenched post-Soviet authoritarian leaders allowed for some openings, but held onto power, resulting in political and social stagnation. In scenes not dissimilar from the Arab world in 2011, people in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan took to the streets demanding fair elections and political reform. But the experience of the so-called color revolutions of 2003 to 2005 is a sobering reminder that popular uprisings do not automatically or necessarily lead to good human rights outcomes.

Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip Revolution” in 2005 ousted President Askar Akaev, but hopes for reform under his successor, Kurmanbek  Bakiev, were quickly dashed. Bakiev proved far more interested in enriching his family and patronage networks, and within a year his government started harassing human rights activists and independent journalists. His record deteriorated, and he was ousted violently in April 2010.

In Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution” thousands of people peacefully protested the government’s manipulation of the presidential election in favor of Viktor Yanukovich. Subsequently, the pro-reform, pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, defeated Yanukovich in repeat elections. But Yushchenko’s government found itself mired in serial political crises and unable to deliver on social and economic reform.Yushchenko left office after losing badly at the polls in 2010. Yanukovich is now in power and has jailed his major political rival.

Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” brought Mikheil Saakashvili to the presidency with aspirations of judicial, police, and economic reform. Reforms brought some positive results, but the government’s use of excessive force against demonstrators in 2007 suggested the fragility of its commitment to the rule of law. The Rose Revolution paved the way for a leader who professed a commitment to rights, but it is not clear whether it succeeded in actually bringing in meaningful political change.

2. Guard against Misplaced Blame

In the aftermath of political upheaval, people become disillusioned as they cope with economic, political, and social instability. Many come to blame “democracy” for their suffering. Supporters of human rights and democracy need to counter this misplaced blame.

The end of the Soviet era brought about real and colossal privations for millions who lost their life savings, jobs, and sense of identity and dignity. In Russia, privatization programs under Yeltsin favored a handful of Kremlin cronies who bought up the most valuable state assets at bargain-basement prices in exchange for crucial political backing. It is not surprising that many of those who lost out blamed their struggles not on the deeply rooted flaws of the ancien regime, but on “democracy” and human rights movements, seeing them as the handmaiden of chaos.

Putin exploited this anger and a growing sense of public nostalgia for the Soviet era. His team willfully conflated chaos and democracy to justify changes in 2004 that restricted political opposition and centralized power in Moscow. After the color revolutions, the Kremlin accused nongovernmental organizations of being fronts for foreign governments that sought to interfere with Russia's internal affairs and started a campaign of bureaucratic harassment against them. The overall result was the weakening of the checks and balances in an accountable political system.

A lesson here is that Western policymakers who care about human rights need to support institutions rather than individual leaders. The enthusiastic support the West at times showed Yeltsin during the chaotic 1990s or Saakashvili during the early days after the Rose Revolution, backfired in the long run. As popular opinion about the democratic credentials of each soured, so too did popular backing for more far-reaching democratic and human rights reforms.

3. Institutionalize Strong Minority Rights Protections

Both during and after the shattering of the Soviet Union, many parts of the region succumbed to armed conflicts whose roots, for the most part, lay deep in the Soviet past. New governments—in some cases buoyed by national reawakening—clashed with minority or marginalized populations, who felt strongly that the new leadership should recognize the rights and opportunities that the previous regime had long denied them. Toward the end of the Soviet era and after, both the Kremlin and several Soviet successor states responded to new nationalist demands and movements with force. There were secessionist wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and Transistria, devastating communal violence in places like Osh and Ingushetia, and a civil war in Tajikistan.

The lasting harm of these conflicts, most of which remain frozen, should serve as an important warning about the need to respect minority rights and build tolerance among minority and majority populations. New governments need to address past minority grievances, ensure language and confessional rights, give minorities a place in law enforcement and security agencies, act swiftly to protect minorities from violence, and initiate public discussions that emphasize tangible common interests that transcend ethnic and confessional differences. They also need to act quickly to disarm both separatist and pro-state militias, pursue accountability for war crimes, and reform security agencies.

4. International Institutions Matter

Another lesson is the importance of motivating states in transition to join international institutions and processes that champion human rights. The international system includes a panoply of institutions dedicated to human rights protection like the European Union and the Council of Europe. However, these institutions should not take ratification of human rights treaties at face value. They need to become actively involved in supporting democratic and human rights reform in countries “in transition.”

As prospective EU member states, many Eastern European countries were motivated to reform their political and judicial systems. EU membership was not in the cards for former Soviet countries, apart from the Baltic states. But some—including Russia, Ukraine, and the South Caucasus states—were offered membership in the Council of Europe. They were expected to undertake significant institutional reforms as part of the accession and membership process. The importance of the reform implemented cannot be overstated.  

These countries were invited to join prematurely, though, before government practices had come close enough to meeting Council of Europe standards. Accession proponents contended it was better to bring them in sooner rather than later. Ten years later, however, many of the same human rights problems remain or have worsened and the organization’s monitoring procedure has struggled to secure compliance. Azerbaijan, for example, was admitted in 2000, days after a blatantly manipulated parliamentary vote. Elections since then have been largely empty exercises and sparked political violence in 2003 and 2005.

Although Russia was admitted in 1996 in the midst of its first horrific war in Chechnya, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had the political courage to suspend Russia’s voting rights for six months because of grave violations of humanitarian law during the second Chechnya conflict. However, it restored the voting rights without getting any guarantees that perpetrators of massacres, torture, and forced disappearances would be held accountable.

5. Establish Concrete Human Rights Benchmarks and Give Them Teeth

Experience in the former Soviet Union region, particularly in Central Asia, highlights the importance of setting out human rights benchmarks as a condition for international engagement and unrelentingly pursuing their implementation. 

One of the most disappointing developments in this regard was the EU’s failure to hold firm in demanding human rights improvements in Uzbekistan as a condition for dropping sanctions imposed on the government following the May 2005 killings by government forces of hundreds of civilian protesters in the city of Andijan. The sanctions were mild and targeted: a symbolic arms embargo and a visa ban on a handful of government officials. But almost as soon as the sanctions were adopted, several EU states set about openly undermining them, sending mixed messages that could not have been lost on the Uzbek government.

The EU had made the release of imprisoned human rights activists a condition for lifting the sanctions. But when it ended the sanctions regime in 2009, 12 still remained in prison. In a move that could only have encouraged Uzbek government intransigence, the EU justified lifting the sanctions by referring to “positive steps” taken by the Uzbek government, such as agreeing to hold human rights dialogues with the EU which, after two years, have had absolutely no bearing on the human rights situation in Uzbekistan.

The lesson here is not that sanctions can never work, but that they can work only if states are united in demanding rigorous implementation. Officials in these countries know when their interlocutors’ rhetoric will have real consequences and when it will not.

A related lesson is that assigning an abusive government exceptional status in light of its strategic importance sabotages efforts to get it to improve its human rights record. Western policymakers like to point to Kazakhstan as a regional leader in a rough neighborhood. Led by Germany and France, the EU warmly supported Kazakhstan's bid to chair OSCE in 2010, though Kazakhstan's brand of soft authoritarianism made it an inappropriate choice for an organization with a mandate to promote democracy and human rights.

The gamble that the chairmanship would prod reform turned out to be misguided. In the year since the chairmanship ended, Kazakhstan's record has deteriorated. It adopted a new repressive law on religion in October, returned the prison system to the Internal Affairs Ministry and imprisoned one of the country’s top human rights activists.

International actors should also learn from the post-Soviet experience that viewing human rights and security interests as tradeoffs is exactly the false choice repressive leaders want them to make, and that bargaining with dictators over human rights concerns will not lead to a good outcome. Too often, Western actors ignore their leverage in relationships with abusive governments. Eager to secure alternative routes to Afghanistan to avoid less stable Pakistan, the U.S. has developed the so-called Northern Distribution Network—a transit corridor through Russia and Central Asia—to supply non-lethal cargo to Afghanistan. To sweeten its relationship with Uzbekistan, a pivotal state in the network, the U.S. is waiving restrictions on assistance, including military aid, that were established in 2004 over human rights concerns.

However, by dropping all restrictions without insisting on improvements, the U.S. is creating a huge windfall for an extremely repressive government and may ultimately create long-term instability in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. It also sends the detrimental message to ordinary Uzbeks that the U.S. is indifferent to their plight. Instead, the U.S. should be using the benefits it is giving to Uzbekistan to press it on human rights issues.

6. Support a Strong Civil Society

A resoundingly positive lesson of the last 20 years has been the importance of support for civil society in countries in and beyond transition. These are the organizations and media outlets that, in the absence of checks and balances in post-Soviet authoritarian regimes, are doing the most to hold their governments accountable, often providing services to help the public access their often opaque governments and exposing government corruption and wrongdoing.

In many countries these communities are now so deeply rooted and vibrant that it is easy to forget that they are in fact quite new. At the same time, no one should take their vitality for granted. Over the past 10 years, one government after another in the region has adopted laws restricting non-governmental organizations and has used an arsenal of bureaucratic tools to harass and overburden them, and, in some countries, imprison their leader. The creation of civil society throughout the region was one of the signal achievements of the glasnost era, and policymakers need to support them now more than ever.

The 20 years of post-Soviet experience should lead policymakers to embrace the opportunity for change in the Middle East. They should be guided, though, not by heady optimism, but by an enduring commitment to universal principles, far-reaching institutional reforms, and strong support for the people who continue to fight for both.

Rachel Denber is deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. 

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