From Revolution to Democracy
March 7, 2011
Wall Street Journal, by Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung
Through sustained street protests, ordinary citizens in Egypt and Tunisia have dislodged long-entrenched dictators. Now the hard part begins: Translating aspirations for reform into meaningful institutional change will be a complex and long-term enterprise.
We know this from the experiences of, among others, post-authoritarian countries in the former Soviet Union. Since the USSR collapsed nearly 20 years ago, the independent states created in its wake have maintained a largely dismal reform record. Apart from the special cases of the Baltic states that are now EU and NATO members, none of these countries have established stable democratic systems.
Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan—the region's "color revolution" countries—are of particular interest given recent developments. All three freed themselves from decrepit authoritarian leadership through popular uprisings similar to those now taking place in the Arab world. Kyrgyzstan even had two revolutions.
The meaning of these color revolutions is still hotly debated. Proponents have been quick to tout their success, critics eager to dismiss their accomplishments. Such absolutes don't do them justice. Recently released findings from "Freedom in the World," Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, reveal the deep cross-currents at work in each society.
It is now seven years since Georgia's Rose, six since Ukraine's Orange, and five since Kyrgyzstan's Tulip, revolutions. Today, Freedom House designates all three nations as "Partly Free." But each followed a different path to this middle position.
Ukraine marks the first anniversary of the Orange Revolution street protestsUkraine became "Free" in 2006, principally due to the greater press freedom, competitive elections, and vibrant civil society following its Orange Revolution. But assumptions at the time that progress in these areas was indelible now seem premature. In the year since President Viktor Yanukovich took power, encroachments on democracy have hurt precisely those institutions that had made genuine headway in the previous five years.
Georgia improved in the immediate aftermath of its Rose Revolution but then faltered as a result of violent domestic upheaval and military invasion by Russia. One of President Mikheil Saakashvili's chief accomplishments has been to squarely orient his country toward the West. In practical reform terms, while Georgia has made notable progress in tackling corruption, its lagging judicial reforms and ineffectual opposition are among the country's yawning democratic gaps.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan—the country with the weakest starting point of the three—has zigged and zagged over the past half-decade. Central Asia is one of the most repressive regions in the world, caught between the 21st century's most vibrant and ambitious authoritarian states, China and Russia. Through a reform process that includes revamping the constitution, Kyrgyzstan's current interim government is seeking to break the authoritarian mold.
The slow and uneven nature of reforms has led many in the West to become cynical about the color revolutions. Despite their flaws and regressions, these countries are nevertheless outliers relative to the former Soviet-authoritarian standard and therefore remain important for a number of reasons, including demonstration effect.
In virtually all of the other former Soviet states, as in the Middle East, authoritarian leadership has undermined legitimate opposition, taken control of the media, and otherwise monopolized political and economic life. Without legitimate succession mechanisms, these systems are inherently unstable and pose risks similar to those in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan's partial progress should not be denigrated. A key lesson of these countries' experience is that the slow and imperfect nature of reform shouldn't be mistaken for failure. Instead, it should be recognized as a reflection of the extensive time and effort required in these difficult settings to coax along judicial independence, reduced concentration of executive power, and efforts to tackle corruption, among other key institutional reforms.
The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa remind us that authoritarianism is a dead end. They also remind that what was begun during the former Soviet Union's color revolutions during the last decade is by no means finished. As the world focuses on Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries in that region, the looming authoritarian challenge in the non-Baltic former Soviet Union remains.
The United States and European Union will be challenged to support the nascent Arab reform movements while continuing to help democratic hopefuls at a different phase of development in the former Soviet Union. Precisely because meaningful reform opportunities in repressive settings are so rare, staying the course in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan—struggling, partial democracies that have already undergone upheaval—must remain a priority.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.