In May, 1993 Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev visited the United States. He met with President Bill Clinton, who promised U.S. assistance to Kyrgyzstan in the nation's transition to a democratic system. A White House spokesperson said at the time that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore "singled out Kyrgyzstan as a model for the other new independent states, praising President Akaev for his government's bold pursuit of macroeconomic stabilization and democratic reform," AP reported on 20 May 1993.
A little less than 12 years later, on 24 March 2005, President Akaev fled his country amid protests that began over alleged improprieties in parliamentary elections but quickly focused on a single demand -- the ouster of President Akaev. As Kyrgyzstan's opposition celebrated the end of what it condemned as a corrupt and undemocratic regime, observers looked to similar events that felled long-ruling regimes in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, and asked: Is a wave of democratic change sweeping through the former Soviet Union?
The White House's optimism about Akaev and Kyrgyzstan in 1993 was not unfounded; it rested on encouraging signs and genuine hopes. But the eventual failure of those hopes to come to fruition -- a failure sealed by Akaev's ignominious fall and flight on 24 March -- serves to warn us against undue exuberance in the face of the latest changes. Once again, we encounter encouraging signs. But for now we should be wary of concluding that democracy is finally on the march, much as we might hope for that outcome. Instead, we should take a hard look at the one indisputable lesson to be drawn from events in Georgia, Ukraine, and now Kyrgyzstan -- the post-Soviet political systems in each of those countries faced and failed a crucial test. What was the test, why did they fail, and what lessons does their failure hold for other countries in the former Soviet Union?
In Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the test that the existing political system faced and failed was the test of free and fair elections. In all three countries, allegations of electoral fraud sparked protests that eventually led to political changes so significant that they call to mind the word "revolutionary."
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights monitored all of the elections in question and produced detailed reports. The OSCE's preliminary report on 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections in Georgia concluded that they "fell short of a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections." A subsequent postelection interim report went further, stating that "the election process was characterized by a clear lack of political will by the governmental authorities to organize a genuine and democratic election process." The OSCE's assessment of second-round Ukrainian presidential elections was similarly harsh.
The OSCE's evaluation of 27 February first-round parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan struck similar notes: "The 27 February 2005 parliamentary elections in the Kyrgyz Republic, while more competitive than previous elections, fell short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections in a number of important areas. The election displayed some limited improvement, including the fact that voters were offered a real choice among contesting candidates in many constituencies. However, the competitive dynamic was undermined throughout the country by widespread vote buying, deregistration of candidates, interference with independent media, and a low level of confidence in electoral and judicial institutions on the part of candidates and voters."
Managed "democracy" is what happens when a ruling elite feels obligated to hold elections but does everything in its power to control their outcome. In the post-Soviet world, managed democracy is the brainchild of a political elite that grudgingly accepts elections as a precondition for legitimacy, yet retains a Soviet understanding of politics as a dark art of manipulation. The practice of managed democracy amounts to a grab-bag of dirty tricks and a playing field that is anything but level -- state-controlled media serve up puff pieces to promote favored candidates and smear campaigns to denigrate undesirable ones, election commissions ignore gross violations and punish minor ones, duplicate candidates confuse voters. The list is long and sordid. But its purpose is short and sweet -- to reduce the necessary evil of elections to a predictable exercise that allows elites to devote the bulk of their time to more pressing pursuits, mainly the exploitation of public office for private gain.
Though it has its roots in a Soviet idea -- that politics is at once material and ethereal, administered with payoffs and adjusted with propaganda -- the managed democracy we find in post-Soviet states should not be confused with the system that came before it. Through all its permutations, the Soviet system had a strong totalizing streak that led it to try to control all things in society. Its successors are, in at least one sense, genuinely more democratic, for they focus on the majority. They jealously guard state-run television, with its nationwide reach and demographically average viewers, but are not overly concerned if the numerically insignificant chattering classes air their discontents in newspapers with limited readership. (Managed democracy comes in a variety of forms, however, and some regimes -- in Central Asia, for example -- "manage" the political process so closely that they reduce the role of "democracy" to window dressing, producing systems more accurately described as "authoritarian" or even "dictatorial," although they contain elements of managed democracy.)
But while this system offers undeniable advantages to elites more concerned with the perquisites of power than the perils of accountability, it is fatally flawed. The flaw is twofold -- first, the lack of accountability reduces the incentive for the elite to communicate with constituents and base governance on the electorate's real concerns; and second, as issues properly treated in the public political realm are left to fester or are resolved through back-room deals, the inevitable popular dissatisfaction creates an incentive for the elite to intensify its management of the political process. The result is a vicious cycle in which the political process becomes dysfunctional. In other words, managed democracy is not democracy at all.
Sooner or later, something has to give. Elections are a flashpoint because they put the spotlight on the machinery of managed democracy even as they raise the very issues the dysfunctional political system has neglected. The particular course of events in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan was in each case a product of local circumstances, but the unifying thread was that a virtual political system that maintains the appearance of democracy but disdains its essence collided with the real political concerns of millions of citizens. The collision revealed that the emperor had no clothes, and he was soon forced to exit the scene.
While the breakdown of managed democracy is the common thread in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the way it broke down in Kyrgyzstan was a product of local factors. The first election-related protests erupted in Kyrgyzstan a few days before the first round of parliamentary elections on 27 February, when demonstrators blocked roads in a number of districts to protest the removal of candidates from the ballot. Two aspects of these protests were significant. First, they were not limited to the southern part of the country. Mountains divide Kyrgyzstan into north and south, and the south, which is poorer than the north, has traditionally been home to significant antigovernment sentiment. President Akaev is a northerner, and the perception that the south languished under his rule contributed to dissatisfaction. Second, the late-February protests did not fit neatly into a divide between "pro-government" and "opposition" candidates. Protesters took to the streets because they felt that "their" candidates, usually prominent local figures, had been removed from the ballot by regional election commissions as a result of manipulation, sometimes by rival local figures with better connections to central authorities.
Kyrgyzstan held first-round parliamentary elections on 27 February and second-round elections on 13 March. Preliminary official results from the two rounds showed a commanding victory for pro-government candidates, with the opposition garnering at best 10 percent of the legislature's 75 seats. As events progressed and protests intensified during and after the election period, they began to conform more to the familiar outline of Kyrgyz politics sketched above, with the largest demonstrations taking place in the south and well-known opposition figures playing an increasingly prominent role. More importantly, local demands such as the reinstatement of a particular candidate or a recount of election results in a particular district gave way to broader political demands, primary among them the resignation of President Akaev. Numerous sources indicate that protesters were driven by a sense that Akaev and his family had "gone too far," plunging the country into a morass of corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, and cronyism. The perception was widespread that Akaev and his family not only controlled substantial business interests, but also maintained a stranglehold on virtually all sources of revenue in the impoverished country. Contributing to this sense that "enough is enough" was the decision by Akaev's son and daughter, as well as the children of other high-ranking officials, to run for parliament.
Akaev and his allies mobilized the resources of the state-controlled media apparatus to depict protests either as insignificant or as the work of dangerous extremists with ties to the outlawed Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. But these efforts backfired. They angered protesters who felt that their concerns were being deliberately ignored or misrepresented. Further exacerbating the situation, the Kyrgyz authorities had recently taken steps to tighten their control over the media. Although it already controlled nationwide television channels, the government threatened independent newspapers with lawsuits in the lead-up to elections. A printing press funded by Freedom House suffered a mysterious power outage on 22 February, only days before elections. And Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) lost much of its local broadcasting capacity on 24 February when the state-run radio authority announced that it was holding a new tender for the frequencies used by RFE/RL.
By 20 March, antigovernment protesters occupied administrative offices in a number of locations, including the key southern city of Osh. On the early morning of 20 March, riot police stormed provincial administrative offices in Osh and Jalal-Abad, another southern city. Large crowds of protesters soon gathered, and by 21 March opposition forces had retaken the government buildings and controlled the two cities. The opposition by now had united behind a demand for President Akaev's resignation. Yet even as the opposition readied itself for a demonstration in the capital of Bishkek, President Akaev continued to claim that his opponents were too fragmented for negotiations. The president also sent contradictory signals, telling the Central Election Commission on 21 March to review certain election results, then calling the new, disputed parliament into session the next day. Akaev's position hardened further on 23 March, when he appointed a new interior minister who promptly announced that police could use "any legal means" to reestablish "constitutional order."
On 24 March, things fell apart. A large opposition demonstration in Bishkek turned violent after pro-government provocateurs incited fights only a few hours after the new interior minister had vowed that he would not use force against demonstrators. The scuffles produced numerous injuries, but no confirmed fatalities. After brief resistance from riot police, protesters stormed and took the presidential administration. President Akaev fled. The opposition had come to power.
Causes and Consequences
The causes of Kyrgyzstan's revolution are not difficult to divine. They include a widespread perception that the Akaev government was massively corrupt, that the distribution of whatever economic benefits had accrued to Kyrgyzstan in the post-Soviet period was grossly inequitable, that the Akaev-led ruling elite was actively manipulating the mechanisms of democracy in order to prolong its rule, and that state-controlled media were distorting the real situation in the country. The specific grievances that gave rise to protests were election-related. But the government's refusal to respond to demonstrators' concerns, and the decision to bring into play pro-government provocateurs, exacerbated an already critical situation and opened the floodgates for an outpouring of popular dissatisfaction that brought down the regime.
The outcome of Kyrgyzstan's revolution is much less clear. While opposition leaders managed to restore order after looting gripped Bishkek on the night of 24 March, they have had more difficulty consolidating and legitimizing their newfound power. After some confusion, the newly elected parliament was sworn in as the legitimate legislature, although alleged violations in elections to that very body had sparked the protests that eventually led to President Akaev's downfall. For his part, President Akaev, currently residing in Russia, has signed a resignation petition, but the Kyrgyz parliament has not yet managed to hold a session to approve it [Ed. Parliament approved Akaev's resignation on 11 April]. New presidential elections are tentatively set for 26 June 2006, and five candidates have already thrown their hats in the ring. Meanwhile, the interim government of acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev, a former prime minister and prominent opposition leader, has been somewhat slow off the mark, hampered by a less-than-transparent approach to appointments, apparent infighting, and an inability thus far to articulate policy changes that would mark a clean break with the Akaev era. The situation is still fluid, however, and any verdict on the post-revolutionary government would be premature.
It should be noted that events in Kyrgyzstan differ from events in Georgia and Ukraine in several crucial respects. Protesters in Kyrgyzstan united against the figure of President Akaev, but they did not rally behind a single opposition leader, as Georgians rallied behind Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainians behind Viktor Yushchenko. Also, Kyrgyzstan's geopolitical orientation was never at issue. President Akaev made efforts to maintain solid relations with both Russia and the United States, and Kyrgyzstan hosts both a Russian and a U.S. military base. One of the Kyrgyz opposition's first statements upon assuming power was that this policy will continue. During events in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly supported presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych, who made a "pro-Russian orientation" one of the planks of his platform. The Russian position on events in Kyrgyzstan was much more restrained, and key opposition figures such as Kurmanbek Bakiev and Roza Otunbaeva traveled to Moscow in the lead-up to parliamentary elections for talks with Russian officials.
With events in Kyrgyzstan still very much in flux, the eventual consequences for the rest of Central Asia will likely take some time to emerge. For now, the fall of Akaev has emboldened domestic opposition movements, especially in Kazakhstan, and unsettled current rulers. Nevertheless, events in Kyrgyzstan cannot simply be extrapolated to the rest of the region. Tajikistan, for example, held parliamentary elections at the same time as Kyrgyzstan, and international observers found those elections to be similarly flawed, yet no protests resulted. Kazakhstan's September 2004 parliamentary elections produced a solidly pro-government majority amid opposition allegations of fraud and guardedly negative assessments by international observers, yet no upheaval resulted. Other factors play a role as well -- Tajikistan's bloody civil war in the 1990s continues to exert a sobering influence on domestic politics, and Kazakhstan's far-flung geography and comparative economic prosperity militate against an exact repetition of the Kyrgyz scenario.
Still, both Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan fall under the general rubric of managed democracies, with significant state-sponsored stage-managing of the political process and a resulting failure to provide viable venues for the discussion and resolution of pressing problems. The evidence from Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan indicates that when managed democracy fails, its failure can quickly become catastrophic for the existing rulers. The implications could prove especially relevant to Kazakhstan's upcoming presidential elections, for which the opposition has already selected a single candidate to oppose long-ruling President Nursultan Nazarbaev.
A failure of managed democracy is much less likely in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, if only because there is much less democracy to fail. Turkmenistan is an isolationist, neo-Stalinist dictatorship that obeys laws peculiar to that political genre, rendering any discussion of life after "president-for-life" Saparmurat Niyazov highly speculative. Uzbek President Islam Karimov maintains a tight hold on power, and reformist initiatives have been few and far between in Uzbekistan. But recent reports from Uzbekistan point to a dangerous combination of rising social tensions as a result of economic hardship and an authoritarian government intent on maintaining the status quo (see "Taking to the Streets in Uzbekistan," 28 September 2004). This comes against a backdrop of rancorous debates over the extent of the Islamist threat in Uzbekistan, with the government and its supporters claiming that a real threat necessitates harsh measures and critics charging that repression is fueling extremism and creating dangers where none need exist (see "Terror in Uzbekistan," 20 August 2004). The Uzbek pot has simmered stubbornly for years in the face of predictions that it will soon boil over. But its contents are indeed explosive, and turmoil in Central Asia's most populous country could have grave consequences for the region.
Beyond Central Asia
Beyond Central Asia, the proven failure of managed democracy in three post-Soviet countries could betoken an uneasy future for the largest and most important managed democracy of all -- Russia. In Russia we find many of the features of this flawed system in its classic form: state control over national television, a virtual political environment increasingly bereft of viable channels for communication between government and governed, and a squabble-prone elite that bends the mechanisms of the state to its own ends, often rendering them useless for legitimate purposes. The point is not that Russia, or any other country, is "next" in a parade of democratic revolutions. Rather, the cautionary moral of this story is that the ongoing breakdown of managed democracy bodes ill for the stability of all countries, including Russia, where this dubious experiment continues in willful ignorance of the lessons of Georgia, Ukraine, and now Kyrgyzstan.