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How is Tunisia Perceived in Russia? The Dangers of Modernization

Protest in Egypt With Some Protesters Atop a Tank

Did the plight of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaderships teach the Russian leadership a lesson or two? Or was the lesson learned by governments of some of the former Soviet republics, which resemble the Arab dictatorships much more than Russia? The question is not going to have a direct answer. There is a certain code of behavior in the milieu of authoritarian rulers of developing countries which prohibits direct comparisons with the recently deposed leaders. The official reaction is that "there is no way anything similar can happen here." This was the tune we heard in the last few weeks not only from Syria and Morocco, but also from Baku, where another hereditary presidency has long been in the making...

The story is not as simple as it appears in the mainstream American and West European media. The road to democracy is wrought with dangers and sometimes enlightened authoritarianism is indeed a better temporary solution than prolonged instability. The truth is, most of the authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and Russia are not brainless bullies, but educated people forced to make a risky balancing act between anarchy and despotism.

Yes, the embattled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak publicly advised Putin to shed the constitutional niceties and run for the third term in 2007. He may be trying his own medicine at the moment. Yes, in the minds of the people brought up on the Enlightenment ideas of equality before the law hereditary regimes look like medieval anachronisms. But who said that the spread of satellite television and Internet networks, coupled with the collapse of Euro-centric empires, will lead to the victory of Enlightenment ideas? Quite the contrary is often the case.

"Azerbaijanis would simply refuse to understand if the aging Heydar Aliyev passed power to a person who was not his relative," explains Sanobar Shermatova, a member of the Expert Council on CIS under the RIA Novosti. "The fact that he passed power to his son enraged the intelligentsia and a few local Russian-speakers who feel left out of public life and underprivileged under the clan-based regime. But to the majority of Azerbaijanis it was a normal phenomenon. Or, at least, more understandable than a democratic election. At the end of the Soviet period, chances for an acceptance of a democratic process by the general public were much greater, since then people were used to periodic rotation of communist rulers."

The young Twitter addicts who toppled the former Tunisian president Ben Ali are a common occurrence also in the former Soviet republics in the Caucuses and Central Asia. They are even more widespread in Russia. But does using Twitter make you a democrat? Can't Twitter users ransack public buildings, as it happened in Kishinev last year, or be extremely violent, intolerant and prone to Islamic radicalism, as we have seen it happening in Egypt?

The Western enthusiasts of "color revolutions" keep falling into the same trap for more than 100 years ­ mixing superficial (often technical) education with ingrained democratic ideals. After all, the early twentieth century Bolsheviks had some European-educated people among them ­ but it did not prevent the Bolshevik regime from being barbarian in its attitude to the vanquished "exploiting classes." The same was true about the students who made the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979. In fact, the Shah partially fell victim to his own policy of mass education. The economy was already getting globalized at the time, and a lot of young people trained to work for the "self-sustained" old economy under the Shah's "white revolution," simply could not find jobs, since the globalized Iranian economy stopped being self-sustained. As a result, these young people filled the ranks of the protesters. The number of royal victims of democratizations in countries with undemocratic populace is astounding, with the Russian czar Nicholas II and the Iranian shah being just the most notorious examples.

In this situation one can not help sympathizing with some of the authoritarian rulers now watching wearily the developments in Tunisia and Egypt. The treacherous attitude of the West, which quickly turned its back to its erstwhile allies Ben Ali and Mubarak won't add many points to the ratings of the US and the EU among the proponents of "authoritarian modernizations." From a human point of view, one can understand this.

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