LEAD EDITORIAL COMMENT: Financial Times
London, United Kingdom, Tuesday, December 27 2005
When President Viktor Yushchenko took power in Ukraine’s Orange
Twelve months later, his prediction rings a bit hollow. The year that began
with Mr Yushchenko’s triumph has ended with the success of Nursultan
Nazarbayev, the authoritarian president of Kazakhstan, who earlier this
month won his third presidential election with 91 per cent of the vote. His
victory was welcomed by the region’s other authoritarian leaders, notably
Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The forces of anti-democracy are striking back.
The region’s democrats must not despair. Even if revolution has now
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, authoritarian ex-Communist officials took
power in most ex-Soviet republics, often rebranding themselves as
nationalists to gain legitimacy. Under former president Boris Yeltsin,
Russia bucked the trend and witnessed flashes of genuine democracy but
The first democratic shock came with Georgia’s Rose Revolution two years
ago, when protests brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. Then came Ukraine,
followed by Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, when Askar Akayev was deposed
Ukraine caused the most heartache. Incumbent rulers feared that if a revolt
could succeed in Ukraine it could succeed anywhere, even in Russia.
They were right to be afraid. Mr Yushchenko showed decisively that even
decades of totalitarianism could not keep people in chains.
Now the forces of reaction have gone into overdrive. In Uzbekistan, hundreds
died in a bloody crackdown on demonstrators in the town of Andijan. In
Russia, the Kremlin has taken a more sophisticated approach, recognising
that a regime that shoots its own people is a regime that has failed. The
modern authoritarian ruler must maintain the pressure on the media and on
potential challengers. But he must also give citizens some of what they
want – especially good jobs, pensions and public services. Kazakh officials
have come to the same conclusion. So have the authorities in Azerbaijan,
where pro-government parties won recent parliamentary polls.
These authoritarian states have seen that while elections create chances for
the opposition they are also an opportunity for rulers to legitimise power.
Successful authoritarian presidents want to be popular and demonstrate their
popularity in a public test. The secret lies in rigging the test. Mr
Nazarbayev’s supporters resorted to crude ballot-stuffing. But this leads to
international criticism and embarrassment for any self-respecting president.
Better to prepare the ground in advance – mainly through media
manipulation – so the establishment’s candidate wins without too much foul
play on the day.
This is the Kremlin’s strategy for 2008, when Mr Putin is required to step
down and make way for a successor. In Belarus, President Aleksander
Lukashenko is taking a more repressive approach in the run-up to next
The authoritarian presidents are making the most of the revolutionaries’
current difficulties. In Georgia and Ukraine, Mr Saakashvili and Mr
Yushchenko have split with former allies. In Kyrgyzstan, post-revolt
in-fighting risks descending into chaos.
But democrats must not lose hope. Despite the setbacks, the three revolts,
especially the Orange Revolution, have changed the former Soviet Union.
developed an armoury of peaceful weapons – including mobile phones and
Above all they have demonstrated that, under the right conditions, people
power works. The region’s authoritarians have responded by trying to make
sure the right conditions are not created anywhere else any time soon. The
challenge for the region’s democrats is to do precisely the opposite. -30-