The Former Soviet Unions Next Wave of Democratization
Over the last year and a half, three "people-power" revolutions - in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have shaken the existing order in the Caucasus and Central Asia, causing some to wonder whether an irreversible trend toward democratization has taken hold in the former Soviet Union. It may be that the real tests for democratization in the region are yet to come.
After years of consolidation of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes in the former Soviet states, citizens are pushing back against their rulers, in some cases roundly turning them out.
So what exactly is afoot in the former Soviet Union? And given the potential for political ferment in other repressed and impoverished lands there, what are the prospects that future cases will follow the course of those of the recent past?
In Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan popular pushback against corrupt and unresponsive political leadership enabled a rotation of power, and with it an unprecedented opportunity for democratically oriented reform. In these three cases seriously flawed elections served as the catalyst for political turn-over.
A substantial number of elections have been held in the countries of the former Soviet Union over the past year; no fewer than a dozen presidential and parliamentary elections and referenda were held in 2004. Over the course of 2005 and 2006 another 10 are scheduled. Among the most noteworthy in the near term are the parliamentary elections scheduled for November 2005 in Azerbaijan and presidential elections in Kazakhstan, which may be held as early as December 2005.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, hopes for the institutionalization of democratic systems in the region -- in which free-and-fair elections would enable peaceful transfers of political power have faded. Instead, an authoritarian trend has taken hold. Incumbents have tried to rig their respective political systems to defend their positions of political supremacy, engineering sham elections in an attempt to give their authority a stamp of popular approval.
To a certain extent, the heavy-handed governing methods found in most former Soviet states are backfiring. Corruption and a lack of political accountability, combined with dreadful social conditions and limited economic opportunities, have fostered an atmosphere ripe for change.
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in many ways represent the region's "low hanging fruit" for political change. Each featured a comparatively open political environment, in which opposition parties could build popular support and agitate against the respective governments. In comparison, other states in the region -- most notably Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have stifled all forms of domestic dissent -- present far stiffer challenges for those seeking change.
In Georgia, fraudulent parliamentary elections in November 2003 led to a peaceful popular uprising labeled the "Rose Revolution" that dislodged former President Eduard Shevardnadze. The revolution's leader, the charismatic Mikhail Saakashvili, opened the door for a new brand of democratic politics in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ukraine's Orange Revolution was likewise driven by a reform-minded, charismatic opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, who oversaw a peaceful, mass movement that outmaneuvered the handpicked successor of then-president Leonid Kuchma. Yushchenko survived an assassination attempt, weathered a grueling campaign and overcame a blatant attempt at election manipulation. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Kyrgyzstan enjoyed a more open political environment relative to its Central Asian neighbors. Nevertheless, politics tended to be dominated by former president Askar Akaev. Protests in Kyrgyzstan emerged on the heels of marred parliamentary elections in February 2005. Unlike the peaceful uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, the response to marred Kyrgyz elections resulted in several days of rioting and violence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It should not come as a surprise that the Kyrgyz political transition has proven more complicated than in Georgia or Ukraine. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The country's civil society and supporting institutions were not as mature or as organized as those in Ukraine and Georgia. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan at the time of its revolution did not have an opposition leader or opposition force that could distinguish itself, presenting a clear democratic alternative around which the public could rally.
Kurmanbek Bakiyev's victory in Kyrgyzstan's recent special presidential election could mark a first step in that country's effort to normalize its politics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Important tests in the near-to-mid-term will include whether key institutions that represent the building blocks of a democratic system are able to mature and assert their independence. This includes the development of a vibrant news media, and enabling the independence and impartiality of the country's judicial and legislative branches of government.
The discontent that led to political change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan is present in other FSU countries. In many states, citizens are tired of confronting rampant corruption, repression and economic stagnation on a daily basis, and are becoming more restive. At the same time, political leaders appear to be increasingly reliant on authoritarian methods as they respond to signs of discontent.
In Uzbekistan, where there is virtually no space for dissent, the socio-political environment is explosive, as the Andijan events in May underscored. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's reliance on force to contain opposition is precisely the wrong response in such a febrile environment and is bound to generate far more alarming problems.
The upcoming elections in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are attracting considerable attention, as these ballots will test the authorities' assertions that the elections in the respective countries will be free, fair and otherwise meet international standards. In these cases, the burden for holding genuinely competitive elections falls on the shoulders of the regimes that currently dominate political life, and whose track records concerning democratization have been generally poor.
For the upcoming elections in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, the signs are not promising. In recent months, Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has advanced measures that reduce political competition, including the imposition of restrictions on rights to assembly. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Azerbaijan, where past elections have been marred by serious irregularities and fraud, President Ilham Aliyev's administration has done little that would suggest that it is prepared to allow a freely and fairly contested election process for the country's planned parliamentary ballot in November. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
It is crucial that the United States and European Union [along with other interested states] continue their investments in the future success of democratization initiatives in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But they must also prepare for the more complex challenges presented by other static and unreformed FSU states. Given the high level of frustration that already exists among the population in so many of these countries, this suggests that far more unpredictable and potentially volatile transitions are in the offing.
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