Zigging and Zagging Toward Democracy

Adrian Karatnycky
The Washington Post

Just a half-year ago a million nonviolent demonstrators in Beirut led a Cedar Revolution that forced Syria's military withdrawal from their country. In April mass protests in Kyrgyzstan, dubbed the Tulip Revolution, forced the country's corrupt president to resign. After Ukraine's Orange Revolution of November 2004 and Georgia's Rose Revolution of November 2003, it seemed as though the world was being swept up in a rising tide of democratic ferment.

This week the picture is more sobering. Though democratic opposition forces in Azerbaijan have begun massing and are wearing orange colors, they face long odds as they attempt to overturn a Nov. 6 parliamentary election judged unfair by international observers. Moreover, in recent months, civic movements have lost steam, while authoritarian leaders work to preclude pro-democracy movements (as in Russia) and tyrants work to suppress them (as in Belarus, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe).

At the same time, reform momentum appears to have run aground in places where civic forces triumphed. In Lebanon, the Syrians may be out, but terrorism persists and the country's democratic transition is held hostage to an antiquated electoral system that allocates quotas in the parliament and government to the country's religious denominations. In Kyrgyzstan, prominent parliamentarians have been murdered in recent weeks, and holdovers in parliament from the old regime have successfully blocked democratic reformers from key government posts.

In Ukraine, rivalries among leaders of the Orange Revolution led President Viktor Yushchenko to dismiss his prime minister and national security adviser. Now some erstwhile allies assert that Yushchenko is colluding with representatives of the old order and glossing over the criminality and corruption of the recent past.

In Georgia, critics worry that an election won by a margin of some 90 percent has left the country without a real opposition to check incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Still, not all is as grim as it might appear. A recent Freedom House study on how democracy takes root shows that not all anti-authoritarian revolutions are equal. Those that succeed in building durable democracy have three common characteristics: They maintain the discipline of nonviolent civic action; they are led by cohesive and broadly based civic coalitions; and they force splits within the ruling elite and its security forces, some of which ally with the opposition.

If the evidence of the past is a guide to the future, Ukraine and Georgia have better chances for durable democracy than Lebanon or Kyrgyzstan, where civic coalitions never cohered or where there was some serious opposition violence.

Indeed, one year after the Orange Revolution, Ukraine enjoys a vibrant and diverse political spectrum with three major parties and important minor parties, most with a real chance to influence the shape of the next government. Civic activism is high, with protesters challenging everything from economic policy to environmental degradation to urban development plans. There is an emboldened and free press.

Yushchenko may have lost some revolutionary luster and seen a drop in public support as he moves from revolutionary rhetoric to pragmatic and effective governing. Still, he is deeply committed to democracy and widely regarded as personally incorruptible. In recent weeks he has successfully brought $4 billion into state coffers by re-privatizing a steelworks bought through an insider deal by relatives and allies linked to the former regime. And he has renewed his commitment to solve the case of a murdered journalist and punish the planners of last year's massive voter fraud.

At the same time, despite a huge mandate and large parliamentary base, Georgia's Saakashvili was forced to dismiss his foreign minister amid widespread public and legislative criticism.

What does all this signify? First, we need to recalibrate our expectations about civic revolutions and the coalitions that make them and to better understand that their splintering is a welcome sign of political differentiation, not an indication of lack of cohesion. We also need to understand that coping with the legacies of the corrupt past is not simply a matter of revolutionary will. It requires the concurrence of a legal system that often includes holdovers from the bad old days, a problem that needs to be resolved quickly lest foreign investors be scared off by uncertainty over what belongs to whom.

In the past three decades some 70 tyrannies have fallen, and half of them have ended up as free and open democracies. Just as important: Many of these successful revolutions first had inchoate and failed trial runs at coalition-building and nonviolent civic action. This should give pause to those who say that civic ferment is in decline and that the color revolutions of the past few years are fading. It also should give heart to Azeris and to the Zimbabwean, Belarusan and Uzbek democrats who continue to struggle against autocratic rule.

History has not ended, nor has the democratic wave. It comes in uneven spurts; it zigs and zags. Yet, in the end, humankind moves forward to greater freedom.

Adrian Karatnycky is counselor and senior scholar at Freedom House and co-author of its recent study "How Freedom Is Won."