Revolutions in Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 1/15/2006 · 8 comments

Mark N. Katz of George Mason University has an article carried by UPI discussing theories of revolution and Central Asia. He says that different theories of revolution offer different insights as to whether or not revolutions will occur in the first place and whether or not they would take a democratic or undemocratic path.

The application of the various theories to predict revolution to the situations in Central Asia is quite interesting if for no other reason than that it highlights the numerous inadequacies that reveal themselves when theories meet the real world.

Jeff Goodwin of New York University developed a theory that identifies certain types of regimes as more vulnerable to revolution than others. This theory argues that dictatorships are more vulnerable to revolution while democracies are much less so. Not all dictatorships, however, are equally vulnerable. Revolutions are more likely to succeed against patrimonial/clientelistic regimes (i.e., where there is one-man rule) than against bureaucratic/rational regimes (i.e., where an organization such as the army or a party is collectively in charge). Of the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, the one in Turkmenistan appears to be the most patrimonial/clientelistic (and hence likely to be overthrown) while the Akaev regime in Kyrgyzstan was the least so. Yet Turkmenbashi (Saparmurat Niyazov) is still in power while Akaev is not.

It could be argued, though, that all of the Central Asian dictatorships are clientelistic/patrimonial, albeit to varying degrees. If this viewpoint is valid, then revolution can be expected to occur throughout Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan just happened to experience it first.

While “most likely” does not mean the same thing as “bound to happen first,” Kyrgyzstan in the final years of the Akaev presidency appeared leaps and bounds more unstable than Turkmenistan. That this appears obvious prima facie suggests that there are economic bases to the anger that drives political revolutions. (Which, in turn, is why I find it unpersuasive that political repression alone is what fuels Islamism in the region.)

What I find more convincing is the theory that prolonged high population growth alongside state financial incapacity weakens states and makes them more vulnerable to revolution. This theory predicts smooth sailing for Kazakhstan as its population is actually projected to shrink by 2050 and things look fairly good on the economic front. Turkmenistan’s resource wealth will have to support a rapidly growing population (which it’s not really doing now anyway..), and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all face a dark future.

Apart from the question of whether or not revolutions will occur is the question of whether or not they will be democratic.

It may seem counterintuitive that the middle classes would ever embrace the non-democratic opposition, but this has happened when the regime resists democratization, the middle classes mistrust the United States for previous support for the dictatorship, and middle class leaders mistakenly believe that they can ally with the non-democratic revolutionary opposition to bring down the old regime but then dominate the new regime afterward.

The fact that the Tulip revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan suggests that middle class elements elsewhere in Central Asia would support democratization, if this option were possible.

I’m a little puzzled by that last sentence. I have a hard time accepting the characterization of the Tulip revolution as being a wholly democratic revolution. It would be much more accurate to say that the fact that the Tulip revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan suggests that the middle class (or whoever it’s most accurate to say carried out the bulk of protesting in Kyrgzstan) would support their patrons, as most of the protesters out in the regions did not seem nearly as interested in carrying the torch of liberty and democracy as they were in making sure their candidate made it into parliament. As much as the apparent increase in the chances for state collapse across Central Asia in the near future gives reason to worry, so should the fact that the Tulip revolution–the outcomes of which should largely be considered a result of state collapse rather than the realization of protesters’ wishes–indicates that support for patrimonialism/clientelism in the region is more natural than it is for democracy.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

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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Matt W January 16, 2006 at 1:54 am

I too used to be more of a Tulip revolution skeptic, but after extensive travel and talking to all sorts of people in the South here, I got the distinct impression that one big thing has changed: people now feel that if they don’t like their government here, it is possible and appropriate to change it.

Whether it’s complaining more bravely about corruption to higher officials, more bold tax avoidance or just a greater degree of interaction, people seem to be less afraid/ wary of the government.

Maybe Bakiev is worse than Akaev, maybe nothing has changed in the nature of the leadership of the country and rule of law is not being brought in, but that belief that bad government can and should be changed by people power is, perhaps, not the worst start for a more democratic and accountable system.

Add to this the possibility of a more healthy balance of power between the Jogorku Kenesh and the President and Kyrgyzstan is not doing bad for itself at all. Maybe not a great revolution, but at least significant, healthy (if turbulent) change.

Nathan January 16, 2006 at 2:03 am

I still think it was a good thing more or less for the attitudinal change you note. I do think that’s a healthy change that should, at the very least, serve to check Bakiev.

I am hesitant to draw lessons from Kyrgyzstan and apply them to other states in the region. Kyrgyzstan is, on the one hand, very unlucky to have had the opposition stumble into power before they were ready. On the other hand, they were very lucky to have had the opposition stumble into power before someone a little more organized and ruthless did. The pessimist in me is disinclined to think other states would be so lucky.

Matt W January 16, 2006 at 2:07 am

Yeah, agree that the Tulip Revolution is not a likely model for other close-by states (though I don’t know much about Tajikistan or Azerbaycan — anyone have any speculation on this?).

David L January 16, 2006 at 7:13 am

These comments remind me a little of conversations with some US diplomats in Tashkent, who used to argue in favour of supporting Karimov, because the ‘opposition was not ready’. Seems to me, on the contrary, the longer these regimes stay in power, the less credible opposition you will have, and the more liklihood of chaos and violence in any regime change scenario. Post-Saddam Iraq is a more useful parallel than these misleading theories of revolution perhaps. There is nothing here on the role of elites, which seems to have been a key factor in Kyrgyzstan at least. All in all, not a very illuminating article, but interesting comments on the new take on Kyrgyzstan… let’s hope you’re right.

Nathan January 16, 2006 at 11:00 am

On the contrary, I think it’s highly illuminating. It is a powerful reminder that we should beware putting too much stock in theory!

And I do not disagree with you that the longer these governments stay in power, the higher the chances for chaos and violence. But just to clarify (in case it is needed), when I talk about the readiness of the Kyrgyz opposition, I mean more that I think it would have been preferable for them to have had to carry on protests longer.

Javier January 16, 2006 at 6:47 pm

Wow. Being born in S América and living in Spain, I hadn`t seen any blog that covered asian politics like this. Congatulations for your work.
You may like my blog too

Best regards

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