The March of Freedom

by Henry Farrell on March 26, 2005

The FT has a good article on Kyrgyzstan today, suggesting that the recent upheavals in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ doesn’t actually have all that much to do with George W. Bush.

There is certainly a domino effect at work. Supporters of the US’s democracy campaign have been quick to cast Kyrgyzstan as the latest state to join “the global march of freedom led by President Bush”, as the conservative Wall Street Journal said on Friday, praising Washington’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, of more relevance to Kyrgyzstan have been the peaceful revolts against authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union, in Georgia and Ukraine. Television and the internet has spread the message. The common element has been a drive to get rid of self-serving corrupt cliques which have often been in power, as in Kyrgyzstan, since Soviet times. These cliques have generally been supported by Moscow, but the revolts against them have not been principally anti-Russian or pro-western. Domestic issues have mattered most.

This seems hard to argue with, given that the US administration has been persistently unwilling to invest actual political resources in pushing for democratization in Central Asia. As long as the states in question were helping in the war on terror, the odd boiled Uzbeki dissident here and there scarcely merited a tut-tut. Even as matters stand, the US hasn’t recognized the new regime in Kyrgyzstan, and appears to be rather uncomfortable with the prospect of widescale change in the region, fearing that instability might help local Islamists to establish themselves.

The FT article identifies two effects at work in Central Asia. First, there’s a geographic contagion effect – countries are more likely to move towards democracy if other countries nearby are established democracies (or have recently moved towards democracy). This was a key causal variable in the last wave of democratization – Jeff Kopstein and David Reilly have a nice paper providing statistical evidence in favour of geographic proximity as a key factor explaining the degree of democratization in Central and Eastern Europe. Here indeed, US policy has had some indirect effects – the US support for regime change in Georgia has probably had unanticipated consequences as Georgia became an example of change for other countries in the post-Soviet space.

Second, there’s a particular institution that has played a vital role – the OSCE. The FT anticipates that the OSCE has been important in Kyrgyzstan, and could help push for change in forthcoming elections in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

As in Georgia, Ukraine and, now, Kyrgyzstan, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which organises election monitors, could play a key role. Its criticisms of polls have given anti-government forces vital ammunition.

Why is the OSCE playing such an important role? Historically, the OSCE (then CSCE) was perceived as a toothless organization. Then East European dissidents like Vaclav Havel started to use its norms and commitments as potent tools to embarrass their governments, arguing that these governments had failed to live up to their international promises. After the Iron Curtain crumbled, participating states in the OSCE agreed on a set of new, beefier normative commitments that were supposed to support democracy, and that allowed certain kinds of limited internal intervention within countries (a High Commissioner on National Minorities; election monitoring) in order to shore up democracy where it was weak. Some countries – especially in Central Asia – then slid back into various forms of presidential authoritarianism, in which periodic elections rubberstamped continued autocratic rule. Now, however, we’re seeing again how these countries’ previous commitments are having unexpected consequences – OSCE election monitors’ reports are providing a means through which opposition figures can undermine the regime. Since the governments under threat purport to be democracies, they may find themselves in a rather difficult position.

It’s important to note the limits of this. As Adam Przeworski says, a democracy is a system where governments lose elections. Given some of the chancers that have come to power in Kyrgysztan and elsewhere, it could well turn out that we’re seeing the replacement of one lot of corrupt autocrats by another. Paradoxically, Ukraine’s chances of surviving as a democracy are rather better because the old regime struck a hard bargain in order to give up the reins of power. It successfully demanded that the presidency be weakened and the parliament strengthened, which means that it will be a little more difficult to accumulate power at the top again.

Furthermore, to the extent that the OSCE (rather than simple geographic diffusion) is responsible for this wave of democratization, it probably won’t spread to other parts of the world. It’s a product of the intersection between two sets of institutions and rather specific domestic conditions. The institutions are (a) the strong international commitments that these countries gave to the OSCE in the 1990’s, permitting election monitoring, and (b) the minimal trappings of democracy that these countries maintained. The domestic conditions are a government that is uncertain enough of its control of armed forces and internal security that it can’t be sure that they will obey orders to fire on protesters etc, and a domestic opposition that is capable of acting with some minimal degree of coherence to capitalize on reports of election fraud through protests and other actions. We aren’t likely to see these circumstances repeated elsewhere. However, it does suggest that Bush’s calls for spreading democracy around the world have had only an indirect, and rather marginal effect. The proximate causes – contagion and regional institutions – aren’t the ones that we would expect to see if US policy was indeed the main motor driving democratization.



Dan Simon 03.26.05 at 12:05 pm

Okay, Henry–let’s see if you’re willing to put your enthusiasm for the OSCE to an empirical test. I propose the following experiment: collect a list of democracy promotion organizations (there are lots and lots of them, as you know), and compare their success rates–perhaps per year of involvement–in achieving democratic goals, such as free elections or peaceful transitions of power, in the countries in which they’ve been involved.

Of course, the OSCE has something of an advantage here, since it limits its involvement to Europe and the former Soviet Union, thus avoiding many of the world’s really hard cases. So you might want to limit your attention to OSCE-relevant countries. (Or you might not.) You could also check correlations with factors other than democracy promotion–say, White House rhetoric, or EU rhetoric, or proximity to US military intervention.

Or you could continue attributing every step towards democracy in its area of interest to the OSCE’s magnificent works, without actually having any evidence that it’s not simply taking credit for the sunrise, so to speak. The choice is yours.


mrjauk 03.26.05 at 1:07 pm

Hey Dan:

Henry’s a busy guy, so I’ll take up your challenge on his behalf. I’ll need a little bit of help, though. Could you let me know how I would measure/quantify “White House rhetoric”?


Peter K. 03.26.05 at 1:19 pm

Dan, Henry is merely using the OSCE to direct credit away from Bush’s foreign policy. My attitude toward’s Henry’s views must be similar to his views of yours. In smaller countries, foreign influence will have a large effect. Also, I don’t understand why the OSCE and Bush can’t share credit.

It’s interesting that Henry quarantines off the Middle East from this discussion of the “march of freedom.” (Muslim Turkey borders Georgia and is near Ukraine.) No mention of Bahrain, which Juan Cole writes about today? Nothing on Lebanon? Didn’t the Lebanese opposition say they were partially inspired by the Orange revolution?

“Here indeed, US policy has had some indirect effects – the US support for regime change in Georgia has probably had unanticipated consequences as Georgia became an example of change for other countries in the post-Soviet space.”

Unanticipated? Didn’t the leader of the most powerful country in the world emphasize the universality of the appeal of democracy in multiple speeches? I believe he used the phrase “march of freedom” in a number of times. Much-maligned liberal hawks noted the possibilty of the “contagion” spreading to countries containing U.S. bases like Kyrgyzstan and Bahrain, following post-Saddam elections in Iraq. (The King of Jordan warned of an emerging Shia “crescent” stretching from Lebanon through Iraq to Iran. Bahrain’s democratic opposition is Shia.) The Cold War is long gone and the U.S. can accept and deal with the fall of its “bastards” to democratic movements. (Even during the Cold War, Wolfowitz successfully convinced Reagan to let our bastard in the Philippines go. During the 90s, our bastard in Indonesia was pushed out.)

If I were a young person learning about American policy for the first time, it would seem obvious to me that in today’s globalized world, democratic movements are encouraging one another with their successes and bravery.


Henry 03.26.05 at 2:24 pm

Dan, in the absence of any good statistical studies on this, I’m going to stick by the judgement of people like Vaclav Havel, who were actually there on the ground in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and people who are out there on the ground now. As far as I’m aware only people who seem to be in agreement with you on this are the Milosevic-fanciers in the Helsinki Project, or whatever it’s called. By the way, are you still sticking by your hilariously ad-hoc and bogus theory that Vaclav Havel was only telling polite lies when he credited the CSCE with a major role in the collapse of the Warsaw Pact? I have to say that this particular claim has rather dented your credibility with regard to this set of issues – it’s a claim that anyone who actually had any familiarity with Havel’s life and work would immediately recognize as being utterly preposterous.

Peter – the reason why I say that these effects were probably unanticipated, is that the US seems highly uncomfortable with them. The administration isn’t at all happy with the prospect of instability in Central Asia, even if this can be seen as part of a general wave of democratization, insofar as it may mean increased political opportunities for Islamists. In all fairness, I think that this is a very real concern – if, as is entirely possible, the medium term result is chaos instability in the Central Asia region rather than the establishment of new democracies, then the administration may well have a point.


buermann 03.26.05 at 4:48 pm

I guess I’m kind of surprised that US (a lot of it from individuals, Soros, etc.) support for “civil society NGOs” is left out here – and whether or not the USG has any right to interfere, or the State Dept.’s issuing official noises to Kyrgyz. about human rights and the like, or the US supplied printing press for independent media, or a host of other instances in which the US’ interactions with the regime didn’t make the situation necessarily worse. I mean, US miitary/security assistance to the government hasn’t been tied, as it never is, to human rights developments, so it probably gets to share in the credit for their deteriorating conditions over the past few years, but at least it hasn’t invented any reasons to behave like China, which has actually been encouraging government repression of Kyrgyzstan’s Uighur minority.

Whether or not one could credit Bush for much is another thing: minus increases in military aid all of this stuff has been ongoing US policy in the region for a while. I’m more concerned about the specifics of what the NED/Soros folks are actually pushing for behind the scenes – given their assortment of unmitigated disasters in the past – which there’s prescious little coverage of except when regimes make vague rambling statements about foreign interference, etc., which are generally true but otherwise uninformative.


Dan Simon 03.26.05 at 6:42 pm

Henry, I’m well aware that you grant me no credibility on this issue, and personally, I ask for none. However, it occurred to me that maybe an assistant professor of political science might consider it useful to shift the discussion to more objective evidentiary criteria. Of course, if you, as a credentialed political scientist, would rather blithely dismiss any hope of investigating this question scientifically, and just “stick by the judgement of people like Vaclav Havel”, then who am I to argue?

By the way, when you say “people like Vaclav Havel”, who else do you have in mind? For a guy who expresses such confidence in his view on this matter, you sure seem to invoke that one authority an awful lot. (Perhaps that explains why it’s so important to you that Havel’s sincerity be placed beyond question.) I’d hate to think you’re simply brandishing Havel’s endorsement for lack of a single shred of corroborating evidence….


Dan Simon 03.26.05 at 6:51 pm

mrjauk, I don’t see why it would be so difficult to quantify White House rhetoric. Most of the time, the administration of the moment says nothing at all about most of the world’s countries, leaving it to local ambassadors and perhaps low-level State Department officials to comment on events. One should be able to quantify statements above that level on particular international issues–say, by frequency, rank of speaker, and harshness of tone. (My understanding is that diplomatic language is pretty formalized, with words like “watching closely”, “concerned”, and so on indicating degrees of emphasis.) Whether these quantities actually correlate with any particular effects–well, that’s presumably what an analysis of this sort would aim to find out.


vivian 03.26.05 at 8:29 pm

Actually, Dan, that precoded events data exists, and if you’re a seeker of knowledge, is remarkably cheap/free, courtesy of the PANDA project of Harvard, and Doug Bond is a wonderful person, kind and helpful, thoroughly decent. Last I heard, they wanted to make money off of commercial applications of political science data (how often do you see that phrase?) but share with academic types. Links to their data off their website, off of Harvard’s CFIA’s PNSCS and most directly, off the links page at hey describe the project, so I don’t have to.

I’m curious to see what you come up with.


Henry 03.27.05 at 9:22 am

Dan – what your claim about Havel suggests is one(or a combination) of the following possibilities. (a) You don’t know anything about Havel’s role as a dissident in the 1970’s/1980’s. (b) You do know something – but are deliberately making an argument in bad faith to try to shoot down an assertion that is personally uncomfortable. (c) You are correct, and Vaclav Havel has indeed consistently and repeatedly lied about the CSCE’s role in order to keep the CSCE happy. I don’t know whether it is (a) or (b), but I certainly don’t think it’s (c). Nor, do I think, do you, which is why you haven’t responded directly when you’ve been called on it. What this suggests to me is that most probably you’re engaged in bullshitting, in the Harry Frankfurt definition of the term – that is you don’t especially care whether the claims you make are true or not, as long as they fit your priors and preferences. Which is why I have no intention of actually arguing with you – I don’t believe that you are arguing in good faith.


Henry 03.27.05 at 9:48 am

Oh, and as for your implied sneer about my integrity and willingness as a political scientist to look at data, I think you’ll find, if you look, that my claims about the CSCE have been published in a co-written article in International Organization, which has an article acceptance rate of less than 10% (it’s the most difficult journal in the field of international relations to get published in). This doesn’t mean that I’m right – but it certainly does mean that my arguments and evidence have received rigorous peer-review, and not been found wanting.


nick 03.27.05 at 9:51 am

If I were a young person learning about American policy for the first time, it would seem obvious to me that in today’s globalized world, democratic movements are encouraging one another with their successes and bravery.

It would probably also seem obvious to you that the sun travelled around the earth. That’s to say, your argument combines naivete with a huge amount of over-reaching.


Dan Simon 03.27.05 at 12:05 pm

Henry, I’m familiar with Havel’s history, and I expect that as a harassed dissident in Iron Curtain-era Czechoslovakia in the 1970’s and ’80’s, he was grateful for the modest comfort and support he occasionally received from Western organizations, including the CSCE. That would incline him to credit the CSCE/OSCE perhaps more than they really deserved–after all, Havel, a famously modest, self-effacing soul, was always inclined to credit himself less than he really deserved.

You’re right that I’m starting from a position of skepticism on this matter. As I explained, my casual observation is that CSCE/OSCE involvement hasn’t correlated particularly well with democratization, and that happens to fit well with my general views about how political changes such as democratizations take place. But I’m certainly open to serious arguments for alternative points of view. Is your International Organization article (or some version of the arguments contained therein) available online? If so, I’m keen to read it.


Niky Ring 03.27.05 at 11:46 pm

does this mean that there are people out there who are actually attributing this to george w. bush? it takes a cursory glance at the last decade of the country’s history to disprove that notion.


Uncle Kvetch 03.28.05 at 9:27 am

does this mean that there are people out there who are actually attributing this to george w. bush?

Of course there are.

it takes a cursory glance at the last decade of the country’s history to disprove that notion.

In the American news media at the moment, there’s no time for a cursory glance at the history of a country nobody’s ever heard of. They’re starving that poor woman in Florida to death! Who on earth has time to think about anything else?


rd 03.28.05 at 1:01 pm

Wait a second, the news reports for *all* of these post-soviet democratic revolutions have been replete with mentions of US aid to the opposition movements. So much so that a few Guardian columnists talked about the Ukraine protests as all a big US plot. In Kyrgztan, for instance, we *have* made investments to help democratic reform, and we’ve been doing so for a while:

In short, we’ve made a substantial contribution to the “regional contagion effect” supposedly driving this. This post seems like a determined attempt to ignore all that in case Bush got any credit. The hard fact is he had increased democracy aid funding, NGOs are using some of this, and its paying off.


Peter K. 03.28.05 at 1:09 pm

Henry –

“if, as is entirely possible, the medium term result is chaos instability in the Central Asia region rather than the establishment of new democracies, then the administration may well have a point.”

You have a point, but doesn’t the fact that the Belarusian Foreing Minister is warning of instablitity also give you pause or cause second thoughts?

As you know, the administration backs and backed to varying degrees appalling dictatorships in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Central Asian countries partly because of the war with Islamic fundamentalits, who are every bit as nutty as the people in Florida.

But I believe, after 911 Bush decided dictatorships where creating more instability and more terrorists rather than preventing chaos.


Henry 03.28.05 at 4:50 pm

Dan – both of my previous two posts on the CSCE/OSCE have links to the article.

RD – as the WSJ article makes quite clear, the US refused to fund activities in Kyrgyzstan that might be construed as creating an effective opposition, encouraging civil disobedience etc. Its efforts had only marginal consequences. The US manifestly is rather worried at what is happening in Kyrgyszstan – it didn’t want this. Different story in Georgia – but there, energy politics played a not-insubstantial role.

Peter – yes – there’s no doubt that incumbents may appeal to stability to try to get foreign support. But I simply don’t agree that Bush has agreed that democracy everywhere is the answer – the rhetoric outpaces the reality by a very substantial margin.


rd 03.28.05 at 5:41 pm

Your article is incorrect. Funding the only non-government controlled printing press isn’t helping the opposition? How about the US embassy trucking over electric generators to the printing press when the government had cut off its power when it was printing news of opposition protests?
(Scroll down to a recap on an LA Times now behind an archive wall.)

Was the extensive effort of the US to help the Ukraine opposition organize real or were the Guardian columnists commenting on it, Timothy Garton Ash (pro) and Jonathan Steele (anti), just caught up in some fantastic mirage? But maybe we were just after all that Ukranian oil, much like our clever exploitation of the Georgian situation.

Could Bush do more? Sure. But the fact remains that he as increased democracy funding abroad, we give far more direct help to oppositions than the EU, and its starting to pay off.


Darren 03.29.05 at 4:09 am

Here is some analysis by Raimondo that may be of interest.

The contempt for the sovereignty of independent nation states by NGOs and their supporters is quite astounding.


Doug 03.29.05 at 5:26 am

US government support for Ukrainian civil society in the two years prior to the presidential election was less than $1m. That’s what the foreign service officer who was responsible for public diplomacy (including civil society support programs) in Kiev at the time told me last week. Of course they were conscientious and tried to get the greatest bang for their buck, but compared with the US resources directed elsewhere, this was a pittance.

By comparison the PORA civic campaign had organized 73 regional groups with tens of thousdands of activists. Accrding to PORA, they distributed 79 million pieces of literature, held more than 1500 public actions and set up the network that brought the falsification during the election to international attention. This is from a brochure distributed at the “Official ceremony of completion of activities of PORA Campaign, Kyiv, January 29, 2005.”

The people outside a country are really only competing for the Oscar for best supporting actor. If they ascribe a starring role to themselves, they are mistaken (except in cases of actual invasion).

The role of the OSCE is more subtle. It is one of the factors that sets norms, that defines possible outcomes, that sets the frameworks within which political players act. When people in Eastern Europe said they wanted to live in normal European countries, part of that definition of normal came from OSCE values. Other parts came from the Council of Europe or from the European Union. Other parts of that idea of normality came less from institutions than fromculture, personal experience and other factors.

Still, the role of the OSCE in helping to define this framework is important, and it’s important in Kyrgyzstan because of that country’s membership in the organization as a slightly different legacy of the Soviet experience. (Compare the norms defined by the OSCE with those set by ASEAN, the OAU, APEC or a Middle East regional grouping.) The heritage of Helsinki is one of the planks that the Kyrgyz opposition reached for when it built a platform to oppose the what the Akayev government had become.

It’s good for the West that these norms were available because they represent a source of legitimacy separate from ethnicity or religion.

As a postscript, I would say that “people like V. Havel” include Jacek Kuron, Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik, Gyorgy Konrad, Marcin Krol, Gabor Demszky, Vytautas Landsbergis. Go see what they’ve said about the CSCE, the Helsinki committees and their importance to dissidents.


Peter K. 03.29.05 at 4:36 pm

Of course, Bush’s rhetoric outdoes the reality. He’s a politician. (Just ask Karla Fay Tucker about his propensity to err on the side of “life.” Oh wait, she’s with Jesus now.)

If Bush deserves little credit for the amazing number of anti-incumbant, democratic uprisings lately, then Clinton certainly deserves little credit for the “booming” 90s economy. He was just around at the right time, however you’ll find many, many liberals willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. I’d just like to have single standards.


abdymok 03.31.05 at 4:43 am

i enjoyed the shishkin article and your chat.

bringing countries – or dictators – to the tipping point is a lot easier and more inexpensive than it used to be.

warsaw moscow belgrade tbilisi kyiv bishkek minsk

you need a lot of beer to come up with a good template.

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