KUALA LUMPUR: It is admittedly difficult to run a country, especially one with diverse ethnicities, religions, sociopolitical groups or just plain armed interests. As the exercise of power over one another has proven over time to be crucial to the survival or existence of various such entities, they would often not hesitate to go at each other’s throats if left unchecked or, more mildly speaking, unregulated. It’s just a harsh fact of life in an often cruel world.
So, at some point in time, there arose in these countries the notion of at least authoritarian, if not outright dictatorial, rule by, well, dictators, either individually, as in the case of despots, or as a collective as in military juntas. These dictatorial regimes often exercise cold-blooded control over their countries with any insurrection against the regime or even just chicaneries among the various groupings above often being ruthlessly suppressed, sometimes even resulting in bloody massacres. The otherwise ferocious confrontations among the various groupings are ironically and perversely kept at bay by the dictatorial regimes which are themselves equally if not more ferocious.
Then there is the equally innate human yearning for freedom and democracy, or more fundamentally human rights. Most people would not like to live under dictatorial regimes, as they restrict and constrict human expression and thereby artistic creativity and scientific innovations. So, there is often a common desire, even among groupings within in a country which are otherwise plotting against each other, to try to topple the oppressive regimes.
And sometimes the dictatorial regimes, iron-fisted that they are, also become beleaguered because of having to deal with and, yes, occasionally placate the various interest groups in a country. More precisely, the leaders or members of such regimes at some point would find that the benefits of enriching themselves and their close associates are outweighed by the costs of having to constantly put out the various provocative fires put up by the various interest groups.
Such regimes may then grow careless or distracted in their handling of national or foreign affairs. Or, the economy may deteriorate to such an extent that their henchmen are reluctant to do their bidding in mercilessly suppressing the increasingly volatile insurrection. And indeed, they may be accidentally toppled by a combination of (un)lucky circumstances.
What ensues is typically a period of what can perhaps only be described as anarchic chaos or chaotic anarchy as a power vacuum is engendered, and the various interest groups above would of course rush in to fill the void, forcefully elbowing competing groups along the way. The contestations often turn bloody, with bloody civil wars ensuing if the inter-grouping hostilities could still be contained within national borders. But more often than not, the armed conflicts would spill over across artificial borders, and regional wars involving two or more countries would take place.
So, the international community in the abstract and the parties involved on the ground are often faced with a conundrum. Dictatorial regimes are reprehensible from the standpoint of a liberal, democratic modern world, and should perhaps be rightly toppled so that powers could be handed back to the people concerned. But the people, who are diverse in their cultural, ethnic or sociopolitical outlooks, may not seamlessly and immediately transition into a vibrant, functioning democracy with respect and tolerance for each other. Instead, they are more likely to descend into a bloodbath in pursuit of supremacy over one another. The unenviable consequences for the dictatorial and the anarchic scenarios could be equally harsh and grim. And therein lies the dilemma for the fates of many modern nations, and especially developing ones.
I started to realize this sort of sad dilemma in the late 1980s during the waning days of the former Soviet Union. By then, in my early teens, I grew more and more immersed in observing international affairs, a passion which persists to this day. It was obvious then that the Soviet regime, despite its enormous military might, would perhaps not survive for long. It was precisely the regime’s longstanding obsession with military development at all cost that was chiefly responsible for the imminent collapse of its social economy. There were long lines for buying bread and other most basic daily items even in downtown Moscow, testifying to the appalling paucity of the Soviet economy. The then new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, tried to introduce his famous “perestroika” (reform) and “glasnost” (open) policies, but they proved too late to rescue the terminally ailing Soviet economy.
The Soviet Union, as some readers may recall, was, besides its communistic feature, a most peculiar confederalistic construct. It consisted of more than a dozen socialist republics, with vastly different sociocultural backgrounds, having been forcibly unified to form a centralized country. The single unifying factor for the various republics of the Soviet Union, the world’s largest country by territorial size, was its communist party, drawing the elites of all its republics to supposedly serve the unified country. The notorious iron-fisted Soviet leader, Josef Stalin, for example, was not from Russia, the largest among all the Soviet republics, but from Georgia. When the Soviet regime was strongly centralized, as it was during Stalin’s time, all the Soviet republics toed the line and were cooperative with one another.
Two such Soviet republics were Armenia and Azerbaijan. Apparently, the Armenians and the Azeris were historical rivals, but as constituent parts of the mighty Soviet Union, they had to follow Moscow’s marching orders and work with each other. However, once Moscow’s central power and prestige receded as in those last days of the Soviet Union, the two neighboring Soviet republics started to heckle each other, supposedly over territorial disputes, as they had mutual exclaves in each other’s overall boundaries. They soon started to shell each other and to move troops into each other to fight, as the Soviet Union at least technically still existed. When the Soviet Union collapsed shortly after, Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to engage in low-intensity wars over the last three decades, with the latest round of conflicts concluded just a few months ago. Such was but one part of the astonishing consequences of the collapse of one of the most repressive regimes in history. More examples will follow in future articles.