Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is KAZAKHSTAN IMMUNE TO COLOR REVOLUTIONS? THE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS PERSPECTIVE

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is KAZAKHSTAN IMMUNE TO COLOR REVOLUTIONS? THE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS PERSPECTIVE

Article excerpt

Anumber of so-called "color revolutions" that began in the early 2000s and spanned autocracies from the Middle East to South Asia have occasioned dramatic political transformations in a number of former Soviet Union (FSU) countries. These democratic transitions have redrawn the socio-political and economic landscapes of affected authoritarian and hybrid regimes. (1) It remains to be seen whether the Georgian Rose, Ukrainian Orange and Kyrgyz Tulip revolutions have brought their respective countries anywhere close to the desired consolidation of democracy. But it is already clear that these events broke political stalemates by overthrowing authoritarian regimes and initiating democratic transitions--a prerequisite for democratic consolidation. (2) The question of what made color revolutions possible in these countries, at the same time as they failed to materialize in other FSU countries with which they shared a common past--such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia--is a question that has spawned numerous articles in the fields of post-Soviet politics and democratization. (3)

Located in the heart of Eurasia, Kazakhstan is the 9th-largest country in the world, with a multiethnic population of over 17 million people. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country's president since the collapse of the Soviet Union, promotes Kazakhstan as "an island of stability and accord." (4) This portrayal has some merit: unlike other FSU states, Kazakhstan not only managed to avoid civil war during the early post-independence years, but has also achieved sustained double-digit GDP growth and plans to become one of the world's thirty most competitive economies by 2050. (5) Yet while few observers question the success of the country's economic reforms, many express concern about its political reforms, which appear to be lagging behind--a dynamic that the president's famous postulate "first economics, then politics" suggests may be no accident.

After a brief period of political liberalization in the early post-independence years, the Kazakh leadership gradually began to return to authoritarian practices. Oppression of civic activists, isolation of political challengers, election-rigging, and human rights violations combined to make Kazakhstan what Freedom House described as a consolidated authoritarian regime, while others have referred to it as a competitive authoritarian regime. (6) While political protests against these practices do occasionally occur, they are typically not potent enough to alter substantively the political status quo--and when political mobilization appears to threaten the regime's survival, the government takes immediate measures to neutralize it. One illustration of this is the heavily publicized seven-month strike by oil and gas workers in the cities of Zhanaozen and Shetpe in 2011. What began as peaceful strikes demanding better working conditions and salary increases soon became politicized when strikers demanded the nationalization of oil and gas companies, advocated a boycott of the upcoming 2012 parliamentary elections, and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Karim Massimov. (7) Fearing further radicalization and the spread of protests to other cities in Kazakhstan, the regime ordered the immediate suppression of protests on December 16, 2011 (Independence Day) by sending special police troops. Zhanaozen and other political or politicized protests in Kazakhstan demonstrate the regime's strength, its sophistication, and the brutality with which it deals with political challengers. But is this the only way of explaining the regime's apparent immunity to color revolutions? This article aims to contribute to the literature on post-communist transitions by studying precisely this phenomenon.

O'Beachain and Polese define color revolutions as "a number of non-violent protests that succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian regimes during the first decade of the twenty-first century. …

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