Revolution Brewing?

Demonstrations versus demonstrations. Who can mobilize the most people to their side? Such is the current situation following Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. Yesterday opposition parties called out their supporters to Qalaba (Victory) Square in Baku for a three hour protest. The organizers peacefully dispersed the crowd despite calls for the erection of tents in the square. Crowd estimates numbered around 15,000. The opposition, as well as international observers charge that the election results were rigged. So far the Azerbaijani Electoral Commission has annulled electoral results in the districts of Sumgait and Binaqadi. Further, President Aliyev sacked two governors of the districts of Suraxani and Sabirabad and detained four election officials for electoral fraud. This comes as the European Union charges that the Azeri elections didn’t meet European standards.

Things do seem to be heating up in Azerbaijan. And it seems the media is hoping and praying for the next chapter of “colored revolutions” in the former Soviet Republics. The fact that the opposition was able to even have a protest shows that they are not only riding a wave of discontent, but taking advantage of an atmosphere of protest against electoral fraud that has engulfed the region. I am cautious of whether the Azeri situation will become anything. But with the world watching, President Aliyev certainly has his hands tied as to the level of force he could use against the protests.

One option is to battle the opposition’s supporters with your own. So now the ruling Yeni Party has also called its supporters to Qalaba Square to show its numbers. The government claims that over 40,000 supporters came out, though estimates number more around 15,000. Thus the one-upmanship and numbers game starts. The Opposition brings out its people and the ruling party brings out there’s.

All this rhetoric of possible “revolution” in Azerbaijan should be tempered by special reporting and evaluation of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. The series looks at how all nine regions have fared since 2003. It seems that while there were immediate hope, gratification and promises for a better life, those in many cases have not been fulfilled. Take, for example, this passage from the story on the region of Ajaria:

“It all comes down to autonomy. The Georgian government promised that Ajaria would retain its autonomous status, and they have been true to their word. But limitations placed on that autonomy have sparked tensions that refuse to die.

According to the July 5, 2004 law that established Ajaria’s status as an autonomous republic, the Georgian president retains the right to nominate Ajaria’s prime minister – officially known as “chairman of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic” — and disband the region’s legislature, the Supreme Council, as well as its cabinet. Fiscal policy falls to the Ajarian government, but Tbilisi holds responsibility for security and defense. The prime minister can also veto decisions made by the Supreme Council – a provision criticized as favoring Tbilisi rather than Batumi.”

Or, take this excerpt from the story on the region of Guria:

“In his 2005 State of the Nation address, President Saakashvili tapped education and healthcare as among the priority sectors for government allocation of funds from Georgia’s ongoing privatization process. As of April, however, the Ministry of Labor, Healthcare and Social Protection had received just five percent of the new revenues available (or some $13.2 million), one of the lowest amounts of any ministry. The Education Ministry’s budget for 2005 stands at 69.3 million lari or about $38 million.

So far, the changes that have been made on the social welfare front focus largely on education – one of the Saakashvili administration’s official policy priorities. Teachers in Guria report that they now receive their salaries regularly, and are hopeful that the government will deliver on promises to increase their monthly pay. Salaries in Ozurgeti reportedly have reportedly already been increased by 40 percent to 140 lari per month (about $77) . . .

Nonetheless, familiar problems continue. While monthly salary payments are usually made on time, they are also made in steadily decreasing amounts, educators said. In Guria, as elsewhere in Georgia, schoolchildren often sit in schools with no glass in the windows; in winter, to make up for the lack of heat, they bring in firewood for a stove. Or stay at home for months at a time.”

Not only do the situations in Ajaria and Guria speak to the ubiquitous problem of infrastructure, government funding, and ethnic tensions and autonomy throughout the Caucuses, it also points to the problem of “revolution” itself.

For sure, revolutions rarely yield immediate results. Sometimes they don’t yield any at all. That being said, I have a few questions about these “colored revolutions”. First, can they be classified as revolutions? Second, does our idea of “revolution” in that region have so many assumptions about “democracy” that we thoroughly misread the political situation?

It seems to me the application of the term “revolution” was more a manufacture of the opposition and Western media than anything else. The situation in the Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, and now perhaps in Azerbaijan seemed more about two already entrenched political forces fighting for power. There wasn’t any real surge from below as found in most revolutions, nor was there the uncontrollable chaos that comes with that. Nor were there any fundamental changes in the political, economic or social structure of the countries. Rather these “revolutions” appear all too managed and formulaic. Let me break down the formula. 1) Elections. 2) Elections declared fraudulent. 3) Opposition gets Western support. 4) Opposition parties mobilize supporters. 5) Opposition puts pressure on ruling government. 6) Ruling government compromises. But does this constitute a revolution? Or is it the means in which political change now occurs in the region?

Granted there is something wonderful about seeing thousands of people flooding the streets to protest fraudulent elections; as it is to see that such protests have an effect in the politics of the country. I am not trying to minimize the significance of events there. I don’t think we can say that similar protests would ever have the same effect in the so-called archetype for democracy, the United States. What troubles me, however, is that our Western imagination about “democracy” in the former Soviet Union is so much about us, rather than it is about them. We assume that since their democracy isn’t like ours and their countries are so repressive, protests against election fraud constitutes a revolution in and of itself. We assume that with these “revolutions” all the problems of the region will be solved in one swoop. Essentially, I think many of us in the West get mesmerized by “oppositionism”, which is basically the notion that the “opposition” is automatically better, more legitimate, and more democratic than the ruling party. And if the “opposition” doesn’t win, it’s because the ruling party has “rigged” the entire election. We have the assumption that the “opposition” is outside of politics rather than being a player already in it. We should never forget that when it comes to the CIS, most politicians were former players in their indigenous Communist governments or Communist Parties. And all of them gained their current power through transforming their power and influence under those systems into what they have now. It is because of this that I think that in these electoral duels, what we are really seeing are two or more entrenched political forces trying to gain power over the other. This is why I personally think that neither side has a monopoly on the “rigging” of elections. Be sure when the newly implanted “opposition” is faced with elections, they too will rig them.

Moreover, I’m quite skeptical of the so-called “opposition” as I am the ruling parties in these regions because in all the Western news reports I’ve read and cited, rarely have I been told what the “opposition” stands for. All I read are calls for “freedom” and “fair elections.” Calls that are so neatly packaged to give the impression that a revolution is indeed brewing, and that it will be nothing but a “democratic” (read: pro-Western) one. As the situation in Georgia and Ukraine shows, the “revolution” has done little to lessen corruption or radically improve the average person’s life. What they have done is simply place another political faction in power.

Perhaps I’m too skeptical. But I can’t help questioning what is happening in the CIS. The wave of “colored revolutions” has sent political shockwaves throughout the region. All governments now have to worry about how they conduct their elections. Now they know that carrying out mass fraud will not go unnoticed. And this is a good thing. But I can’t seem to share the enthusiasm that charges of electoral fraud, no matter how legitimate, automatically translate into democracy. Democracy is such a complex thing; a concept infused with universal principles as well as with indigenous understandings. So when we in the West look at what is happening in the CIS, we should ask ourselves not whether it looks like democracy to us, but if it looks like it to them.