The Mink/Leopard Revolutions

Post image for The Mink/Leopard Revolutions

by Joshua Foust on 12/19/2011 · 23 comments

As the protests in western Kazakhstan continue, and as the Russian protesters plan for the planned December 24 march, there is growing talk on the Internets about revolution. My friend Steve LeVine, for instance, doesn’t mince a single word:

At the 20-year mark of the Soviet Union’s collapse, protests have broken out now in two of its oil-soaked constituent states — Russia and neighboring Kazakhstan. In the latter, at least 15 oil workers and others died over the weekend. There is debate whether we are witnessing a spread of the Arab Spring, but I do not know why — clearly we are.

The key matter is context — Russians and Kazakhs are in the street of their own accord, but against the backdrop of wholly unpredicted upheaval in some of the world’s most compleat police states. Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov probably exaggerates when he tells London’s Sunday Telegraph that he could beat Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a second-round of presidential voting next year, but his general point is accurate: No longer can it be said with certainty that Putin can defeat any opponent in a fair fight. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, others including the Russians have absorbed courage and inspiration from the Arab Street.

Those are pure politics. Kazakhstan is a different story — there we see the Arab Spring not most interestingly in the people in the street, but in the government’s reaction to them. The image is of a Kazakh officialdom palpably terrified of the post-Muhammad Al Bouazizi world, in which no petrocrat seems safe (pictured above, a Tunisian memorial raised to Bouazizi’s legacy two days ago).

I think Steve is right to be talking about the basic social contract in both countries shifting (and he is absolutely right to group them together; Kazakhstan has much more in common with Russian than the rest of the countries of Central Asia). But do events in either country constitute “revolution?” Is the Arab Spring moving east in the winter?

I don’t see it. Both Putin and Nazarbayev are facing a situation where the order they want to impose on their population is not in line with the amount of legitimacy they have, or with the violence they’re willing to inflict. It’s clear Nazarbayev is aware of the Arab Spring and is trying to avoid being caught by a rapidly snowballing protest movement; it is not clear, however, that there is actually a Spring-like movement in Kazakhstan. The oil workers, despite their large numbers, just haven’t been drawing the kind of broad, feet-on-the-street sympathy they’d need to to replicate the same mass movement we saw in, say, Tunisia. While there have been small protests in Almaty and Astana (a whole 12 people in Astana), they pale in comparison to previous protests over Chinese farmland leases, or even the housing crisis from a few years back. Unless there is some secret stash of Kazakhs waiting to protest who haven’t, but are open about wanting to protest at the right sign, I don’t see how you can say that there is an Arab Spring afoot.

The same applies to Russia. While the protests there have been massive, they’ve also been mostly confined to rich young people in the biggest cities; perhaps in that sense calling it a “‘Mink’ Revolution,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Gregory White does, is more descriptive than it’s meant to be. In Russia, you can see people angrily reacting against a social contract they feel Putin has failed to live up to, just as you can in Kazakhstan where oil workers feel the government has failed them. But as neat as it is to see them use the Internets to talk to each other, these movements haven’t coalesced into either the regime shattering apoplexy of the Libyan movement or even the grinding mass movement of Yemen. There’s just not a parallel to draw on. While the regimes of Russia and Kazakhstan certainly lack the broad social legitimacy they seemed to have a few years ago, their social contract hasn’t come close to breaking down.

As an example, Jund al-Khalifah, the nascent Kazakh Islamist movement that has planted a few bombs and released a few scary Internet videos, is trying to capitalize on the killings in Zhanaozen to mostly crickets. Much like the Arab Spring (hah!), the Islamists are not playing a role here, which is nice. But there’s no real sense that anything beyond anger — not action, but anger — is motivating the protests. Apart from calling for a normal election pledge in Russia (defeat Putin in the election), there are no social parallels to the Spring marches.

Frankly, you see stronger language from Republicans in the American Presidential primary race than you do in the streets of Moscow. While Steve is right to note that killing citizens is not a recipe for stability, it also doesn’t mean much in the long run; no one really thought the U.S. government was about to collapse when it murdered protesting students at Kent State University in 1970. Similarly, the Zheltoksan Riots twenty years ago were broken up with substantially more violence than Nazarbayev has used in Zhanaozen, but still Kazakhstan was the last state to leave the USSR.

At the end of the day — that is, Monday, December 19 — we just don’t know enough about what’s happening in the rest of Kazakhstan, and we most certainly have the whole story of what happened in Zhanaozen, to have a good idea of what’s coming next. It seems like a major event, but I don’t think it’s a catastrophic one. The protests in Russia seem like a major event, but if Putin loses a presidential election next year that’s not exactly a revolution per se, so much as the development of a normal democratic politics. There is no real chance of a similar thing happening in Kazakhstan, but also not the same public anger you see in Russia.

So let’s tamp down the revolution spring talk a bit, yes? It’s a pleasing short hand, but it’s also not a very accurate description of what we know to be happening and what we don’t know to be happening.

Image: Riot police detain an opposition supporter after he attempted to march to an office of the ruling Nur Otan party in Almaty, protesting against the government’s actions during the recent Zhanaozen clashes December 17, 2011.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 23 comments }

Grant December 19, 2011 at 2:11 pm

I will note that the U.S is a democracy and democracies rarely see revolution. Had the U.S been authoritarian we might very well have seen a revolution in the late 1960s or early 1970s. A long, bloody and expensive war that left the U.S military internally torn, civilian leadership that was increasingly questioned, a vastly expanded intelligence system and the recent murder of two national figures could have done it.

Realist Writer December 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm

I wouldn’t say “rarely”…less likely, yes, but you can still have military coups (France by DeGaulle), race riots (United States after MLK Jr.’s death), and general strikes (Britain during Thatcher) that could be devastating for morale. Actual revolutions are pretty rare anyway, in both democracies and non-democracies.

The reason you don’t see revolutions is probably due to something called “free and fair elections”. The opposition gets “co-opted” into the system and believe that they have a chance to either seize power legally or to have their concerns be heard and taken into account. That may not even be true, but at least the illusion of hope can help prevent the opposition from staging a violent takeover (since they can do a peaceful takeover or be able to veto key policies that they dislike). And actually, a “change of power” did happen in the United States: the Democratic Party lost the Presidency to the Republicans.

Now…if the “Great Society” Democratic Party rigged elections to ensure they get 90% of the vote every time…

Grant December 20, 2011 at 7:50 am

I’m afraid that’s a bit unclear. You first stated that revolutions are ‘less likely’ and then you stated that they are ‘pretty rare’. Additionally I think you’re confusing coups, riots and strikes for revolutions.

As for the reasons of why revolutions don’t happen often, I think you’re greatly underestimating the democratic potential in most of Europe and North America while being partially correct about co-opting. When Nixon was about to be impeached he didn’t try to use the military to take power but rather he resigned. Admittedly documents show that Ford promised him amnesty but in an authoritarian setting would he have been so willing to do so? More recently Democrats did win the 2006 legislative and 2008 legislative/presidential elections. If the U.S were authoritarian then wouldn’t the Republican Party have rigged the vote to prevent that from happening? The same can be said of the U.K and France*. The opposition can take power and the former ruling party will not resort to force to stop them.
As for the rest of the world, having elections is not necessarily enough. Egypt had elections, it wasn’t enough to protect Mubarak. There has to be a real enough chance that the opposition can have some real power.

*Incidentally the reason I said democracies rarely face revolution is because of France. France is something of an outlier to the European democracies.

Oldschool Boy December 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Do not forget that Roman Republic that was “democratic” had a revolution and civil war that turned it into absolutism or Roman Empire

Grant December 21, 2011 at 9:40 am

The Roman Republic was a rather divided society where corruption and control of the city through mobs was common and the optimates and populares would happily wipe each other out*. By that point I don’t think it was really democratic and certainly not a system where opposition forces would have trusted the ruling party (if such terms can apply to B.C.E Rome).
Additionally the revolution (which was really more civil war that eventually led to military guided system reform) didn’t occur until events came to a point where the Senate could not control Caesar and his army, something unpleasantly established by Sulla decades earlier.

*Although we should be careful about how we see the groups, it isn’t clear if the parties really existed as more than informal associations and it could have just been some like-minded people motivated by economic interest and the domination of charismatic individuals.

Oldschool Boy December 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm

You think too much about the modern society. Probably, in a few centuries from now, someone will say the same about the current societies as what you say about the Ancient Rome

Grant December 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

One of the serious problems with studying ancient politics is the fact that there are so many viable possibilities for what something might have been. There is far more research and evidence in recent history to settle matters.

Oldschool Boy December 22, 2011 at 3:29 am

The problem with studying recent history is that there is a strong bias towards exaggerating significance and importance of relatively recent events. Example: two years ago, election of Obama as a US president seemed so revolutionary and so great. Now, everybody sees that it did not change anything, and has been, probably, one of the worst presidency in the history of the US, excluding Bush

Michael Hancock-Parmer December 19, 2011 at 4:06 pm

“While Steve is right to note that killing citizens is not a recipe for stability, it also doesn’t mean much in the long run; no one really thought the U.S. government was about to collapse when it murdered protesting students at Kent State University in 1970. Similarly, the Zheltoksan Riots twenty years ago were broken up with substantially more violence than Nazarbayev has used in Zhanaozen, but still Kazakhstan was the last state to leave the USSR.”

It is always safer to study less-contemporary history… otherwise I would look into just how much of a connection existed between the rise of Nazarbaev’s star and the violence of the Zheltoqsan riots. Kunaev was, reportedly at least, every bit as corrupt as Rashidov and the other Brezhnevites. His replacement with the non-Kazakh, anti-corruption elite from Moscow – I believe – did not have to inevitably lead to ethnic unrest. I think it’s a gun whose trigger was pulled… and oddly enough, the KSSR leader prior to Kunaev was also non-Kazakh (an Uyghur), and whose appointment did not see students turning up in the streets to clash with riot police and K-9 squads.

Again, I would like to return to Kazakhstan to research, so I will table that topic for… oh, say, 2030?

Limonbay December 20, 2011 at 7:04 am

I don’t think has anything to do with an arab spring, but anyway it’s too worrysome by itself. A lot of people are dying and there’s not a plausible solution at hand. At least that’s my opinion. Kazakhstan people deserves much more positive things than what they are getting.

Oldschool Boy December 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Thos who draw parallels with the “Arab springs” are speculating without even looking into a map. Look where Zhanaozen is located (150 km to the nearest city) how big it is (20 thousand people) and how easily it can be isolated (surrounded by a desert with only two or three roads).
To create any considerable wake in Kazakhstan, Zhanaozen rioters have to have more informational and ideological influence. Yes, there are opositional media that try to put all resposibility for what happened on the government; however, the most people in Kazakhstan are under the influence of the state media and Russian media where the attitude towards “Arab Springs” and “Colour Revolutions” is quite negative. Plus, in general, Kazakh people, especially those working in the goverment, police and military structures, are, like Russians, so called “derzhavniki” or “statists”. Most people in Kazakhstan were quite simpathetic with Quadaffi – how can they want any revolution? They like Putin. They think that the whole Ozenmunay business as well as Kirgiz and other local revolutions were organized by the West. There are some analysts who draw connections with the recent Hilary Clinton’s visit to the region. People are told that the West (USA) want to destabilize the region to get the oil.
Another thing: to organize something like a revolution the hypothetical revolutioners need supplies. Where will they get them from in Mangystau? From Russia? Or may be from Turkmenistan or Iran? Or may be from Karimov?
Believe me, people in Kazakhstan are too influenced by the state and Russian media, are too scared of any “revolutions” as a potential threat to the country that they will soon try to forget the whole Zhanaozen thing as a nightmare.

pepe December 20, 2011 at 3:11 pm

The so-called Arab Spring, who took out the event could not figure out who’s got a finger. Have you information regarding this issue.

Kazakh Spring December 20, 2011 at 4:10 pm

While consultants and commentators think, talk and write, blood is being shed by our brothers and fathers and sons. Please help us spread news, by contributing news items and video links to our http://kazakhspring.org We are just individuals who love our country and wish our dictator would leave. You can contact via kazakhspring@kazakhspring.org or direct on our new website.

michaelhancock January 3, 2012 at 1:46 am

Who is running Kazakh Spring? I only see English language posts on your twitter feed and website, the Exiled and other English-language expats are your followers… where are all the Kazakhs? Қазақсынба? Не елсiң? Or perhaps you’re agitating for a Kazakhstani Spring – but where are the Russian-language posts? I’m just confused as to your aims, is all. Having the Exiled on your side after all the stuff over on their website is just kind of… I don’t know. Не случайно, да?

David December 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm

I think the point is not whether there will be a revolution, in the sense of a change of leadership (talk of Putin losing the election is more or less meaningless in this context – he can only lose the election if he loses power), but whether these regimes as alternative legitimate political systems have lost their way. Both Kazakhstan and Russia seemed to offer a relatively liberal form of authoritarianism that promised economic growth. But in the end, the essence of the Kazakh model has turned out not to be too different from other Central Asian regimes – and it has proved that at the heart of these authoritarian political systems is still coercive power – the ability and willingness of the police to shoot people. So in that sense, it probably is catastrophic, not necessarily in the short term in purely political outcomes, but for the long-term legitimacy of the system, for this idea of Nazarbaevism/Putinism that was supposed to be this sustainable alternative to democracy in the region.

Grant December 20, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Most authoritarian states base their legitimacy on two things, security and economic growth. However the question is what is the makeup of the leadership and the control of technocrats. In Russia Putin is definitely in control but given the state of Russia’s infrastructure and taxation I’m not so sure that his rule is stable*. In Kazakhstan I unhappily can’t say. I’d want to see the state of roads, bridges, trains and other things and then see how many rich citizens get taxed.

*I’ll admit that the recent protests genuinely shocked me but I’ve been wondering about Russia over the past year.

Oldschool Boy December 21, 2011 at 1:19 pm

David,
Your views seem somehow idealistic. Police is able and willing to shoot at people everywhere, Kazakhstan or USA. The same way the US defends its own political system at home and in Afghanistan.

Grant December 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm

What kind of experiences have you had with U.S police? From my relatives among them and friends who have dealt with them if an officer in the U.S even uses a firearm for any reason they have to file a host of reports about what happened and when, and even then they could find themselves charged with some crime.

On another note after having attended more than a few protests and witnessing others I’m amazed at how few police I have seen opening fire on protesters, not to mention the fact that they usually don’t use live ammunition in this country.

Oldschool Boy December 22, 2011 at 3:37 am

In this country? What about Afghanistan?

Oldschool Boy December 22, 2011 at 4:00 am

At how many of these protests that you have seen the protesters burned a municipality, banks, and almost killed a deputy police chief?

David December 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm

There’s plenty of reasons to criticise the US police, but they don’t normally run across a square shooting live ammunition at protestors, who they then beat with truncheons while they lie on the ground with gunshot wounds. I understand your patriotic enthusiasm for defending the Kazakh authorities, but I don’t think it is very relevant to bring the problems of US policing into the argument.

Oldschool Boy December 22, 2011 at 3:36 am

I am not a Kazakh patriot, and I am not defending anyone, I am jsut saying that all policemen are trigger happy. That is you, who patriotically defends the US police. By the way, very recently a US policeman killed a Kazakh student in the US simply when he was trying to get to his apartment. The case was widely discussed in Kazakh media. May be you did not see a US policeman shooting at a civilian, well, read the news what is going on in Afghanistan.

prefabrik January 3, 2012 at 1:54 am

prefabrik hakkında tüm bilgiler burada.

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