Policy Watch: Revolution in Central Asia?

By MARK N. KATZ   |   Jan. 14, 2006 at 2:15 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Will either democratic or Islamic fundamentalist revolution spread throughout Central Asia? This question can be addressed by examining what is going on in Central Asia in light of different theories of revolution.

The "color revolutions" in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005) raises the possibility that democratic revolutions might occur elsewhere in Central Asia (as well as other former Soviet republics). However, the fact that Islamic revolutionary movements, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir, are also active in Central Asia suggests that Islamic revolution could occur there too. Another possibility is that existing authoritarian regimes will remain in power. Theories of revolution can be applied to Central Asia in search of insights about the likelihood of these three possibilities. Different theories, though, often provide differing insights.

The relative deprivation theory (one of whose most notable proponents is Ted Robert Gurr of the University of Maryland) predicts that revolution does not usually occur in the very poorest countries. Instead, they occur in ones that have achieved a certain degree of economic growth but where expectations have grown even faster. While GDP per capita (as measured on a purchasing power parity basis) is very low in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan ($1,100-1,800 in 2004), it has grown to $5,700 in Turkmenistan and $7,800 in Kazakhstan. This theory would point to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as candidates for revolution -- especially if oil prices fall and living standards that people have gotten used to cannot be sustained.

Jeff Goodwin of New York University developed a theory that identifies certain types of regimes as more vulnerable to revolution than others. This theory argues that dictatorships are more vulnerable to revolution while democracies are much less so. Not all dictatorships, however, are equally vulnerable. Revolutions are more likely to succeed against patrimonial/clientelistic regimes (i.e., where there is one-man rule) than against bureaucratic/rational regimes (i.e., where an organization such as the army or a party is collectively in charge). Of the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia, the one in Turkmenistan appears to be the most patrimonial/clientelistic (and hence likely to be overthrown) while the Akaev regime in Kyrgyzstan was the least so. Yet Turkmenbashi (Saparmurat Niyazov) is still in power while Akaev is not.

It could be argued, though, that all of the Central Asian dictatorships are clientelistic/patrimonial, albeit to varying degrees. If this viewpoint is valid, then revolution can be expected to occur throughout Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan just happened to experience it first.

"State breakdown" is the focus of a highly influential set of theories about revolution. According to this perspective, examining why opposition movements become strong is less important than analyzing why the power of states declines. A variant of this theory developed by Jack Goldstone of George Mason University argues that this is caused by prolonged high population growth combined with state financial incapacity.

According to projections for 2050 made by the Population Reference Bureau in 2004, Kazakhstan's population will shrink by 1 percent, but Tajikistan's will grow by 52 percent, Turkmenistan's by 53 percent, Kyrgyzstan's by 62 percent, and Uzbekistan's by 84 percent.

With its relatively high per capita income and stable population trajectory, this theory indicates that Kazakhstan is likely to avoid revolution both now and in the future. Turkmenistan's population is growing rapidly, but its natural gas riches may be sufficient to support its growing population--if only its government would utilize them for this purpose. But unless they experience miraculous economic development, the low per capita income and lack of petroleum resources in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan suggest that these three countries will not have the resources to support their growing populations -- and hence will be likely candidates for revolution.

Revolutions, of course, can be either democratic or non-democratic. When, as in Central Asia, there is both a democratic and a non-democratic opposition, what determines whether revolution will result in democracy or dictatorship?

Robert Pastor of American University has argued that when an authoritarian regime is breaking down, the crucial factor often proves to be which side the middle classes choose to ally with. If the middle classes join with the democratic opposition, then democratic revolution can occur and non-democratic revolution can be averted. If, however, the middle classes ally with anti-Western, non-democratic revolutionary movements, then the prospects for democratic revolution are poor and those for non-democratic revolution are good.

It may seem counterintuitive that the middle classes would ever embrace the non-democratic opposition, but this has happened when the regime resists democratization, the middle classes mistrust the United States for previous support for the dictatorship, and middle class leaders mistakenly believe that they can ally with the non-democratic revolutionary opposition to bring down the old regime but then dominate the new regime afterward.

The fact that the Tulip revolution took place in Kyrgyzstan suggests that middle class elements elsewhere in Central Asia would support democratization, if this option were possible.

But will revolution occur at all? Many authoritarian regimes, including those in Central Asia, resist yielding power to either their democratic or their non-democratic opponents. They can only do so, as Timothy Wickham-Crowley of Georgetown University has shown, if their armed forces are willing and able to use deadly force against the regime's opponents. Although it threatened to do so, the Akaev regime did not take this step against its opponents during the 2005 Tulip revolution.

Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, by contrast, did use deadly force against his opponents in May 2005. It seems highly doubtful that Central Asia's other authoritarian rulers would behave as Akaev did. It must be emphasized, however, that a dictator's willingness to use force against his opponents does not guarantee that force will be used against them effectively. Sometimes, the armed forces defect to the opposition.

What all this shows is that the ingredients for revolution in Central Asia, as suggested by several theories, are either present now or will be in the not too distant future. This does not mean, however, that revolution is destined to occur there. Yet while revolution in Central Asia is not inevitable, these theories suggest that it would be naïve to think that serious attempts at it will not occur.


Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. He has published three books on revolution: Revolutions and Revolutionary Waves (Palgrave, 1997); Reflections on Revolutions (Palgrave, 1999); and (ed.) Revolution: International Dimensions (CQ Press, 2001).

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