Nipping Orange Roses In The Bud -- Post-Soviet Elites Against Revolution
Central Asia has already witnessed a number of official actions apparently inspired by events in Ukraine. In Kazakhstan, for example, where the 19 September parliamentary elections took place amid opposition allegations of unfair practices, the authorities have dissolved a prominent opposition party, filed tax charges against the Soros Foundation-Kazakhstan, and initiated a defamation lawsuit against Zamanbek Nurkadilov, a former high-ranking official turned harsh critic of President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
The court ruling to dissolve Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), a prominent opposition party, is one of the clearest examples of a link between events in Ukraine and seemingly preemptive government action elsewhere. Top figures from DVK traveled to Kyiv in late November and party leader Asylbek Qojakhmetov even addressed demonstrators supporting presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, as Qojakhmetov recounted to "Navigator" in a 29 November interview.
Perhaps emboldened by this experience, the DVK adopted a strongly worded statement at a party conference on 11 December. It read, in part: "Not recognizing this president [Nursultan Nazarbaev] and this parliament as lawful, we thus deny the legitimacy of the entire power structure. In our actions, we will base ourselves not on the decisions of thieving governors and kangaroo courts, but on how human rights and freedoms are understood in free countries.... We call on all healthy forces in society to take decisive actions, including actions of civil disobedience. Only by uniting forces will it be possible to free ourselves from the family clan that has usurped power."
On 6 January, an Almaty court cited this passage when it ruled that the DVK must be dissolved for incitement to unlawful action. Though Kazakhstan's opposition and international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have called on President Nazarbaev's government to review the decision, DVK has already lost one appeal, and future appeals appear likely to meet the same fate.
In Kyrgyzstan, which many observers have named as a possible candidate for the next revolution and where parliamentary elections on 27 February are fast approaching, a prominent opposition figure has found herself barred from participation in the upcoming election. On 6 January, a district election commission refused to allow former Foreign Minister Roza Otunbaeva, co-chairperson of the opposition bloc Ata-Jurt, to run in Bishkek's University District, arguing that Otunbaeva has resided abroad during the last five years. Otunbaeva, who was working abroad as a diplomat, has argued that the extraterritoriality principle should allow her to run. The in-country residency requirement has also prevented three former ambassadors from running for parliament.
Ata-Jurt and other opposition groups have organized protests in Bishkek, gathering as many as 500 people on 19 January, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In a nod to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the protestors decked themselves out in yellow to symbolize coming change. Demonstrators' demands have gone beyond participation for Otunbaeva and the ex-envoys, extending to calls for an end to the rule of President Askar Akaev and his family (two of Akaev's children are running for parliament, one of them in the same district where Otunbaeva's candidacy was blocked).
President Akaev has already said that he will not run for another term in the October presidential elections. While he has not anointed a successor, he has emerged as a staunch foe of all "rose" and "orange" revolutions. In an article in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 8 June, months before demonstrations convulsed Kyiv, Akaev pointedly compared Western efforts to export democracy with the Bolshevik export of revolution. In early January, the Kyrgyz president decried Ukraine's Orange Revolution for splitting the country in two and nearly igniting a civil war. And when Kyrgyzstan's opposition demonstrated in Bishkek to protest Otunbaeva's exclusion from elections, Akaev was scornful, saying, "Our homegrown provocateurs now have skilled coaches."
In his statements condemning the Georgian and Ukrainian models of revolutionary change, Akaev has provided a guide to sentiments that are common among uneasy defenders of the post-Soviet status quo. His mention of the Bolsheviks is particularly apt, with its implication of blind faith, conspiratorial politics, and a drive for control. In this view, events in Georgia and Ukraine represent the cunning manipulation of domestic dissatisfaction by outside forces -- usually seen as the United States -- that disregard local traditions as they attempt to impose their vision on other societies (blind faith), work by funding democracy-promotion organizations to support local intermediaries (conspiratorial politics), and aim to extend their influence through the installation of more pliant and pro-Western -- usually understood as pro-American -- regimes (drive for control).
The importance of this view lies not in its arguable analytical insights, but rather in its power to determine the future actions of post-Soviet ruling elites with a vested interest in preventing what they see as dangerous political change. Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovskii, for example, has stressed that this particular understanding of events in Georgia and Ukraine has a firm hold on the Kremlin's political imagination. In an interview with RosBalt on 6 January, Belkovskii noted that the Kremlin is now miffed at the United States because it feels that "Washington didn't let them install Viktor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine (although the outbreak of revolution in Kyiv was not Washington's doing, but you can't convince the Kremlin of this, so what can you do)." Later, in an interview with "Novye izvestiya" on 14 January, Belkovskii was asked whom the Kremlin would blame for its "defeat" in Ukraine. He replied: "The Kremlin doesn't recognize its defeat. They feel that they did everything right.... It's just that America interfered, and an 800-pound gorilla does what it wants."
How, then, to prevent further outbreaks of revolutionary fervor? Russian political strategist Gleb Pavlovskii, one of the architects of the Russian effort to support Ukrainian presidential candidate Yanukovych, gave perhaps the clearest indication in a widely quoted 7 December interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Asked whether the involvement of Russian strategists harmed the Yanukovych campaign, Pavlovskii replied, "The harm to [Yanukovych's] election campaign was done by a revolution that didn't get punched in the face in time."
Taken together, the conspiratorial understanding of revolutionary political change and the need to "punch the revolution in the face" before it gets off the ground imply a strategy of preemptive strikes against opposition politicians and perceived conduits of malign outside influence. Pavlovskii's colorful phrase should not be taken too literally; overly aggressive moves could provoke international censure and domestic disgruntlement. Decisions by courts and election commissions to trim opposition prospects in elections, along with efforts to bring to heel Western-funded democracy-promotion organizations and NGOs are more likely to prove the weapon of choice.
Moreover, worried elites will surely look to not only to the negative -- from their perspective -- experience of Tbilisi and Kyiv, but also to the positive -- once again, from their perspective -- experiences of such places as Uzbekistan, where December parliamentary elections went off quietly without the participation of any opposition parties.
A strategy of preemptive punches involves at least one significant risk, however. It presumes that nothing really revolutionary is afoot, that politics is first and foremost about manipulation, and that the best way to maintain political stability is to seek out conspiracies and head them off at the pass. This runs the risk of reducing politics to a game of cat and mouse that leaves real concerns to fester unattended, which could eventually prove a far greater threat to stability than any "rose" or "orange" revolution.
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