Setting the Odds

by Nathan Hamm on 2/4/2005 · 6 comments

Righteousbiche, who lives in Kyrgyzstan, says the Lemon Revolution won’t happen for the following reasons:

* No student organizations
* Far from Europe (unlike Georgia and Ukraine and their desire to eventually join)
* Culturally different from Georgia and Ukraine
* Discreet middle and upper class (no Hummers yet)
* unprofessional media outlets

As I was drafting this post, my first impulse was to provide counterexamples to each of the mentioned factors. However, my point is not to be nit-picky or contrarian, but rather to let on that I’m wary of predicting these kinds of things because events have a way of surprising us. Georgia surprised the heck out of me, as it apparently did the rest of the world. While I doubt it, the Kyrgyz may pull something surprising off.

The odds are pretty long, and my list for why I think it won’t happen would be very different. I don’t think geography, culture, students, or the media are as important as many tend to, and I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of the necessity of a middle class.

Off the top of my head, I can think of no one better to look to than the Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond for what factors are important. This article is as good a place as any to start. While keeping in mind that I know far less about Kyrgyzstan than Uzbekistan, here’s my best estimation of where the country stands based on the factors Diamond lists as causing democratization.

Economic Development: Diamond notes that economic development tends to have a whole host of effects that make democracy more likely.

…increases in national wealth bring about pressures for democratization only to the extent that they generate several other intervening effects: rising levels of education; the creation of a complex and diverse middle class that is independent of the state; the development of a more pluralistic, active, and resourceful civil society; and, as a result of all of these changes, the emergence of a more questioning, assertive, pro-democratic political culture

I won’t pretend to really have my finger on the pulse on this one. I can tell you that in 2001 the difference between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan was palpable, as I’m sure it is today. I was only there a short time but everywhere I went, despite the country not being wealthy, the economy felt livelier, people seemed much more willing to talk about politics, and people’s day-to-day life was not so overshadowed by the state. In other words, it’s what someone much more in the know than me says about the country.

I’d say this one’s a mixed bag for Kyrgyzstan. It has some of the secondary effects of economic development without much of the development itself. Whether or not it’s a critical mass is an open question. I wouldn’t have said Georgia had a critical mass prior to the 2003 parliamentary election that triggered the Rose Revolution, but it certainly did have some of those secondary effects (and, it’s important to note, it would be hard to say they were the result of economic development).

Economic Performance: Diamond points out that poor economic performance, or bad governance in general, is a driving force behind recent democratization. What’s the case in Kyrgyzstan? I get the impression that it’s worse than you or I would like, but not so bad that the Kyrgyz themselves are ready to take to the streets. Where I’m willing to entertain culture arguments is right here. Righteousbiche makes the point, and were I to spell it out, it would be similar to the argument about the Uzbeks (that I make myself from time to time) that they show a willingness to tolerate a lot of abuse from their government.

So, I’m leaning towards this condition not being satisfied but am very open to arguments to the contrary.

International Actions and Pressures & Changing International Norms and Conventions: The former is the one that Akayev is being so paranoid about. Kyrgyzstan’s relative openness has allowed NGOs and governments to be very active since independence applying indirect pressure–laying the foundation–in a way that partially substitutes for economic development. Has there been enough of this? It’s hard to say and my best guess is that there hasn’t. Events have a way of surprising us though.

The latter, as it applies to Kyrgyzstan around the election, means that the threshold for international intervention in favor of democracy is lower. It is considered more legitimate than it was in the past even Russia and some quarters in the West have increasingly cried out for more Westphalianism. Whether or not this will be a factor remains to be seen. Over the past few years, the EU and the US have both reacted the same way to election crises (I would argue that the EU is following the US lead not wanting to get left behind). And, like I’ve been saying lately, if the Kyrgyz take to the streets in great numbers and appear to have a very legitimate case, I would expect the US to apply pressure.

On these criteria, I’d judge the odds in favor of a Lemon Revolution to be long, but not terribly so. I won’t be putting any money down.

The Diamond article I link to doesn’t mention another factor that I think is important during the revolution: the organizational strength of the opposition. Ukraine and Georgia had strong organizations behind the protests that were absolutely instrumental to the success of each protest movement in getting what they wanted. A strong organization will get the people out on the streets, keep them focused, play the media right, and prevent the masses from becoming a mob.

And here, Kyrgyzstan is very lacking. Roza Otunbayeva may be the one we keep hearing about, but she’s far from being the leader of a broad, unified, well-organized opposition. And, even if she had a shred of a claim to being so, she’s not much to get fired up about. I’ll recycle quotations from yesterday’s post:

“Yes, we are not mature enough [to be a full-fledged democracy]. But we should set correct targets instead of imitating democracy, which we have been doing for a decade. The deformed democracy that exists in our country is deforming our conscience.”

…we are talking not about a revolution, but about a peaceful, orderly and constitutional transfer of power.

Akayev’s a gradualist. Karimov’s a gradualist. Even Niyazov’s a gradualist. I’m inclined to believe Otunbayeva’s more credible, but I wouldn’t go rushing headlong into calling for her coming to power. The candor is nice, but no one should be confused. Otunbayeva almost seems concerned with change for change’s sake, and that’s nothing to get excited about.

When I add in the organizational strength, I think the odds get longer. I don’t expect to see a revolution in Kyrgyzstan, though if a Georgia or Ukraine style one (as opposed to a bazaar merchants’ uprising, which would be more of a riot really) were to take happen in Central Asia, I’d expect it in Kyrgyzstan considering Diamond’s conditions.

So, I may not judge it the same way as Righteousbiche, but its the same idea–an interplay of variables make it unlikely that there will be any protests following the February 27 election strong enough to shake Akayev from power.


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– author of 2991 posts on Registan.net.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 1 comment }

Keith March 22, 2005 at 11:12 am

Just came across this post when I Googled “lemon revolution.” It’s interesting that not only has the Kyrgyz opposition taken to the streets – in spite of predictions to the contrary – but they have done so with a force and violence unseen in Ukraine or Georgia. Perhaps that’s the lesson: the different circumstances don’t make revolution less likely, but they make it more likely to turn violent.

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