Monday, January 16, 2006

What color is your revolution? 

MLK day in my schedule is the day I begin transition to spring semester. It's also the end of the mid-year conference season. Blogrel notes the conference I was at this weekend. (Blogrel is, in case you didn't know it, the best Armenian blog. Those containers on its banner are two of my favorite foods of Armenia, madzoon and tahn. Can't get them in MN.)

One of the sessions discussed the formation of civil society in Armenia, and I thought it was the most interesting part of the conference (that I saw -- I had to leave before the last two sessions of the afternoon.) Here's one of the papers, presented by Armine Ishkanian of the London School of Economics. One of the points she makes is the relationship between non-governmental organizations that have been formed throughout the xUSSR and the "color" revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and the Kyrgyz Republic. At Registan, Nathan points to an article by Mark Katz on central Asia and its revolutions, and provides a useful dose of skepticism about lessons to be learned from these revolutions.

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.

I think one should be skeptical of exporting any revolutions. The opposition in Azerbaijan wanted to jumpstart an "orange revolution" in advance of elections there, but planning for protests post-election may have in fact led to their failure. A vibrant civil society cannot make a revolution happen, but it can provide a network of the middle class able to organize quickly should the opportunity arise. Orange is different than Tulip insofar as it had a broader group of NGOs to work with, but shares the characteristic that a government appeared too illegitimate to continue. It's what happens after that realization becomes part of the national consciousness that makes Orange, Tulip and Rose distinct. While Nathan is right that Kyrgyzstan's revolution was about switching pashas, both of the others had groups already organized around principles of advancing democracy (in Ukraine, freedom of the press was crystalized by the Gongadze killing; in Georgia, a combination of corruption and a leader who was believable in combatting it.) There has to be something that steps in to the vacuum, or that can sustain momentum when an opening arises, but these groups -- which, we were told yesterday, employ many in the middle class who lost work in transition -- are unable to generate a revolution on their own.

Not that Russia is waiting around to test my theory. Andrei Illarionov, the Russian advisor to Putin who quit in the middle of the Ukrainian gas crisis last month after being gagged by Putin, said in a Time interview:

TIME: What is your view of Russia's political scene today? How meaningful or symbolic is the new legislation restricting NGOs?

Illarionov: I see the reduction of the volume of political freedom, more restrictions clamped on political parties, the media, public expression�all this is obvious. The trends that have been long accumulating, found their completion and finally shaped up in 2005. That Freedom House report I mentioned came six months ago�nobody in Russia has even tried to deny it officially. Now that Russia has passed this new law restricting NGOs, I think it will push Russia's next year rating even lower.

Freedom House has its own commentary and a report I recommend.