MOSCOW BLOG: Where did all the colour revolutions go?

MOSCOW BLOG: Where did all the colour revolutions go?
A girl attaches flowers to riot police officers' shields during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Kyiv.
By Ben Aris in Berlin June 9, 2017

​The colour revolutions in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) caught front page headlines when they happened. Moving images of the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and most of all the Orange Revolution in Ukraine filled their populations and international partners with hope for a brighter future and a definitive end to the 70-year Communist experiment.

Unfortunately it hasn't worked out like that. Like Mendel’s peas, all these countries are reverting to form after only a few political cycles. Like evolution, changing these countries will take a lot longer than the one-off impressive giant pea that won the prizes at the village fair.

Changes are happening and reforms have been made. But they remain the work of committed individuals and are limited in scope, often forced on a reluctant government thanks to arm-twisting by international partners such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There has been no systematic revamp of the state administration led by the new governments.

The failure is not caused by corruption or obstruction by the “deep state” of Soviet–era apparatchiks fighting a change to the system, but the result of the fact that corruption is the system.

Using corruption to run the government is actually a practical choice. To change the DNA of these countries – all the countries in the region – it is not enough to have fair and free elections; you need to build real institutions based on justice, the rule of law and the limits on power. And for the new checks and balances to work the network of complimentary institutions all have to be functioning at once.

It’s an almost impossible task and presidents trying to control a chaotic countries reach for the much more immediate and easy to use levers of power provided by a client system as it gets results quickly and reliably. Breaking down this system will take at least a generation.

The West has underestimated the difficulty of forcing its new friends to basically destroy the crony capitalism system that has been built up over two decades. And the population is becoming disenfranchised in the face of the slow pace of progress.

Ukraine’s half-hearted reforms

“The partnership between civic activists, reformers, and political leaders in Ukraine has become badly frayed, threatening the remarkable democratic progress the country has made since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014,” Freedom House said in an editorial this week. “With political leaders increasingly making important decisions without any meaningful public consultation or discussion, and with those who seek to participate in key debates with policymakers and society facing apparently targeted attacks, Ukraine’s democratic development is at an important crossroads.”

President Petro Poroshenko has not kept many of his promises since coming to power in May 2014. While there has been remarkable progress on several economic reforms backed by the IMF – the clean–up of the banking sector and gas market stand out – on institutional change there has been very little.

The president failed to sell any of his businesses, putting them in blind trusts instead. His bank has become one of the most profitable in the country. And he has often ignored parliamentary procedure and placed his allies in positions of power. The oligarchs continue to rule the country, controlling most of the press and preferring backroom deals in the Verkhovna Rada to democracy.

The few effective liberal reformers in government have been ousted or sacked. Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko negotiated a major debt restructuring deal but departed last year. Economics Minister Aivaras Abromavicius began the clean–up of the state controlled energy sector and preparations for privatisation, but caused a political crisis when he quit, claiming presidential placemen were obstructing his efforts.

The most recent departure was the highly successful and effective governor of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) Valeriya Gontareva, who was pushed out of office after receiving death threats and claiming a lack of support from the presidential administration when she set her sights on oligarch–controlled banks, according to bne IntelliNews sources.

The state’s reluctance to break up the old client system has lead it to blatantly sabotage its own anti-corruption initiatives. An e-declaration system was launched last year to improve transparency and reduce official corruption, but it failed to work as the wrong software had been installed.

Moreover, the system has since been turned into a weapon to control NGOs. “Not only did Ukraine borrow from the playbook of neighbours to the east that do everything they can to prevent their citizens from engaging in public life, it also opened itself up to significant criticism from its international supporters,” says Freedom House. “It is hard to interpret the introduction of the e-declaration requirement – which was rushed through the Verkhovna Rada and approved by the president without any consultation – as anything but payback for activists’ constructive and critical efforts to implement reforms.”

Likewise, the newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) issued an arrest warrant for tax service chief and Poroshenko ally Roman Nasirov – the first big fish in Ukraine to be charged with corruption. However, since then the government has tried to force its own unqualified candidate on NABU as auditor in an attempt to control the body.

Nowhere is the failure to fight corruption better illustrated than Interpol’s decision to remove ousted president Viktor Yanukovych from its wanted list in May after the Ukrainian government failed to follow through on any investigation. Ironically Ukraine’s Freedom House democratic score was improving slowly until the 2014 revolution that drove Yanukovych into exile in Russia, but since then has started to fall again.

Brussels is becoming increasingly frustrated with Ukraine, but despite a growing desire to withdraw, according to bne IntelliNews diplomatic sources, it can’t, because it is now locked into a stand–off with Russia over the country’s fate. And time is on Russia’s side. Likewise, the IMF has gotten strict with disbursals of the $17.5bn stand–by package and only made one payment of $1bn this year, but is unlike to make any more without comprehensive reforms to the land laws and pension system.


Georgia and Kyrgyzstan going backwards

If anything, Georgia’s star has fallen even further. The government of its US-educated former president Mikheil Saakashvili, installed after the Rose Revolution of 2003, promised to be everything Washington could want in an ally in the region.

Following a week-long war with Russia in 2008, Europe’s leaders flocked to the ancient capital of Tbilisi and a road has even been renamed Bush Street in honour of that US president.

However, since then Saakashvili has been driven into exile and is wanted at home on corruption charges. He was caught going on a $40,000 fat farm treatment trip with the mayor of the capital, paid on the nation’s coin, as well as buying a very expensive coat using public money (which he has since returned to the new president) among other things. Hardly nefarious, but like Boris Yeltsin, Saakashvili’s reputation abroad is a lot better than at home. 

Adherence to democratic principles has gone backwards, with media freedom in marked decline amid an ongoing tussle to wrest control of the critical Rustavi 2 channel into government-friendly hands. And this month a major scandal broke when an Azeri dissident journalist living in Georgia was abducted by the secret service and resurfaced in an Azeri jail where he faces a long sentence. Several days earlier, a Tbilisi court ordered Turkish educator Mustafa Cabuk to be returned to his country, where he faces persecution and imprisonment because Ankara alleges that he has ties to FETO, a Muslim organisation linked to cleric Fethullah Gulen that was outlawed as a terrorist organisation last year. 

Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, tired of the promises of help and investment from the West, have been forging their own regional economic club and growing closer together, exposing Tbilisi to pressure from the other two increasingly authoritarian regimes.

The same story is being played out in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Known for a while as an “island of democracy” in Central Asia, the tiny republic has actually had two colour revolutions: the first in March 2005 that ousted president Askar Akayev, who got off to a good start but succumbed to the temptations of office; then five years later there was a second revolution to oust the even more venal president Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

However, the current Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev is not only allegedly corrupt but also slightly loopy, with a perchant for singing to his nation. He plans to make an album after he has retired from his current job. 

On the political front he is less frivolous, having jailed prominent opposition leaders in March and at least six high-profile figures have been accused of corruption in the country over the last two months. Kyrgyzstan has fallen back into the consolidated authoritarian regime category, according to Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2017 report.

Atambayev managed to backtrack from promising to leave politics for good at the end of his term, to vowing to not only continue working with his Social Democratic Party (SDPK), but to also dismiss parliament before his departure from office in elections slated for October, from which the president is constitutionally barred. A third revolution is in the offing as protests have wracked the country on a weekly basis over the last few months.

The obvious question is why have all the colour revolutions gone sour? Clearly the difficulty of building democratic institutions plays a major role. But there is an element of the company you keep.

The accession countries of Central Europe have largely succeeded in building the democratic instutitions and for the most part are now looking increasingly like mature European countries, although there has been considerable backsliding recently in Poland and Hungary, part perhaps of the wave of populism sweeping Europe.

However, Georgia’s increasingly tight ties with two of the most authoritarian regimes in the region is not healthy. Despite the West’s warm words, it plays a small role in both Georgia’s trade and investment.

The situation in Kyrgyzstan is even more extreme. Speaking at the EBRD annual meeting in Tbilisi in 2015, the president admitted that while the country aspired to Western values, it had decided to join Russia’s Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), simply as it was too far away from Europe for there to be any meaningful economic interaction.

Ukraine finds itself on the front line here. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) deal with the EU is a step in the right direction, but the tariff-free quotas have been set so low that Ukraine gets little economic benefit. For example, the country’s honey producers burnt through their quota in just the first six weeks of this year. Without the boost in trade that true accession brought Central Europe, Ukraine effectively remains in limbo between the two adversaries and in this barren environment maybe it is not surprising that it is reverting to the regional mean.