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Children of the revolution

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- This year, 2006, marks two significant anniversaries in the history of the former Soviet Union, anniversaries that in a sense bookend the disintegration of the once-formidable communist superpower.

Fifty years ago today, on Monday, October 23 1956, the people of Hungary revolted against Soviet rule, demanding political freedom and an end to the brand of repressive authoritarian communism that had been imposed on their country by Moscow.

The uprising marked one of the first, and certainly the most symbolically important attempts by a nation within the Soviet sphere of influence to break free of that influence and go its own way.

Although it was short-lived and ended in failure and bloodshed -- the suppression of the revolt saw the worst violence in Europe since World War II -- it can nonetheless be viewed as an early faltering step on a road that, three decades later, was to culminate in the domino-like tumble of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact regimes and subsequent dissolution of the USSR itself (a dissolution that was officially rubber stamped by the Belavezha Accords of December 8, 1991, the fifteenth anniversary of which will also be celebrated this year.)

In terms of anniversaries 2006 thus recalls both one of the first great internal challenges to Soviet hegemony, and the final collapse of that hegemony. On which basis it would seem like an appropriate time to ask how those countries that once made up the Soviet world have fared in the post-Soviet era, and whether, over the past decade and a half, independence from Moscow has proved to be a blessing or a curse.

Success in the west

As well as Russia, the overall controlling nation, the Soviet Union consisted of 14 other states, generally divided into four geographical groupings: The Baltic (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania); Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan); the Transcaucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia); and Eastern Europe (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine.)

Ostensibly independent, but in fact as tightly controlled by Moscow as the member-nations of the USSR itself, were the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, The German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania (Albania formerly left the pact in 1968.)

Twenty-one nations, therefore, made up the Soviet world prior to its fragmentation in 1989-91.

Of those it is the states at the western end of the former Soviet sphere of influence that have, by and large, adapted best to the new world order, and reaped the greatest benefits from the fall of communism.

Independence has brought these nations both newfound economic prosperity and political stability, as well as social freedoms that were unthinkable during the Soviet era.

The degree of change and improvement clearly varies from state to state, with countries such as Bulgaria and Romania still lagging some way behind more successful neighbors (or near neighbors) such as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

Even for ostensibly "successful" former communist states such as Hungary and Poland the transition from totalitarian rule to open democracy and a free market economy has not been an easy one.

Recent demonstrations against Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, for example -- sparked by the latter's admission that he lied about the state of the country's economy in order to win a second term in office -- sparked Hungary's worst violence since 1956.

The former East Germany, likewise, even 15 years after re-unification, remains relatively economically impoverished compared to its more prosperous western twin.

If the road has been, and remains, a rocky one, however, it is indisputable that those countries in the west have made far more progress since the end of communism than their eastern former comrades.

"There are vast differences between the western former Soviet Bloc countries and the eastern ones in terms of economic development, democratization and the degree to which a civil society exists," says Margot Light, Professor Emeritus in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

"The success stories speak for themselves because they are now members of the European Union: The three Baltic countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovakia and Slovenia.

"As members of the EU they have had to fulfil very strident political as well as economic criteria, and that is an indicator of the advances they have made.

"Even Romania and Bulgaria can be considered relatively successful since they are due to accede to the EU next year.

"All these countries are very much looking to the west now. They see themselves as European."

Many commentators, including Light, believe that the break-up of the Soviet Union, far from heralding the end of east-west divide, has simply moved that divide further to the east.

"What essentially separates east from west now is the Schengen Agreement," she explains.

"By dissolving borders within the EU and allowing free movement of people, labor, goods and money, Schengen binds the EU countries very tightly together while excluding those on the Eastern side of the divide and making it far harder for their populations to travel or work in Europe."

Churchill's "iron curtain" would thus seem to have been replaced by a "paper curtain", with money, and trade and diplomatic agreements, rather than military might, now acting as the great divider.

East of the paper curtain

And what of those on the other side of this curtain?

Here the picture is a far less happy one. Some countries, such as the Ukraine, have made a degree of progress towards democracy and economic stability, although it is faltering progress at best.

"Ukraine certainly has European aspirations," says Margot Light. "Its economy was doing reasonably until a couple of years ago, and it had a 'color' revolution that removed its old leaders and ushered in democratic elections.

"It has recently returned to a state of political strife, however, and is suffering such turmoil that very little progress is being made."

Elsewhere things seem even bleaker.

Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and Moldova have all been weakened by internal and inter-state conflict, with Moldova now effectively split into two countries along the Nistru River; Armenia and Azerbaijan in a state of damaging ethnic confrontation over the Nogorno-Karabakh region; and Georgia hamstrung by two violent secessionist conflicts (involving the northern regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.)

Resource-rich states such as the 'Stans' -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan -- are doing relatively well financially on account of their vast oil and gas reserves, which are attracting significant outside investment.

Against this, however, must be set an alarming lack of political reform.

"You have to separate out progress on the economic front and progress on the political front," says Light.

"Economically the 'Stans' are doing extremely well right at the moment because of their oil and gas. Politically, however, they have reverted to an almost feudal type of rule.

"Turkmenistan is by far the worst, with Uzbekistan not far behind. These countries are even less democratic now than they were under Soviet rule. The exception is Kyrgyzstan which is slightly better than the others although even that still has a very long way to go."

The situation is similar in Belarus, where relative economic stability has to be weighed against a distinct lack of political freedom and transparency (President Alexander Lukashenko openly acknowledges that his ruling style is "authoritarian.")

"Belarus still has a controlled, centralized economy," explains Light. "Which according to the World Bank doesn't actually perform too badly.

"Politically, however, the country is still very repressive."

Russia -- both strong and weak

And what of Russia itself, the master of the former Soviet Empire?

"Russia, of all the non-EU countries of the former Soviet Union, has done by far the best," says Light. "Or at least it has economically-speaking.

"It's economy has benefited hugely from oil and gas revenues, and it is gradually re-establishing its sphere of influence in Caucasus and Central Asia, where it has a lot of 'soft' power on account of its economic influence."

Just as the western former Soviet States have gravitated towards the European grouping, there appears to be a similar drawing together of the southern and eastern states of the former USSR, this time with Russia as the hub.

According to Dr. Yuri Federov, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), Russia is once again dreaming of empire.

"The dominant trend in Russian political thinking at the moment is the restoration of its former status," he says.

At the same time, however, there appear to be inherent weaknesses in Russia's renewed economic, and by extension political bullishness.

"Russia is both strong and weak economically," says Federov. "Its economic strength critically depends on oil and gas earnings. It is thus far more dependent on world markets than it was in the days of the former Soviet Union, and could suffer from a drop in the international energy market.

"Also, Russia has not been able to create or develop solid sources of economic growth beside oil and gas exports.

"For instance, it still very much depends on the West for "high" technologies such as information, communication and bio technologies. It is only strong so long as oil and gas remain strong."

Federov also points out that politically Russia remains an authoritarian regime, and one in which many of the democratic gains of the Yeltsin years are now being rolled back.

"Politically there has been a backward development in the last few years after the very chaotic and premature democracy of the Yeltsin days.

"We now have a soft authoritarian regime in which 99 percent of the mass media is under governmental control, bureaucracy is omnipotent and the State is all important."

Brave new world?

Fifty years after the Hungarian revolution, and 15 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the overall picture thus remains one of east-west division, a separation that is today defined less by military confrontation than by economics and political systems.

And while the Soviet straightjacket has been removed, all the states that once formed the Soviet world have gravitated not towards individuality, but rather into new political and economic groupings, whether it be the EU in the west, or one of the various alliances that have sprung up in the east and south of the former USSR: The Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Co-Operation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

In many ways, it seems, the break-up of the Soviet Union has ushered in not so much a brave new world as a new and more complex variation on an old theme.

Passers-by look at a Russian tank in Budapest.

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