Protest spreads across CEE and Central Asia

By bne IntelliNews February 19, 2014

bne -

The black smoke from the bonfires on Hrushevshoho Street leading to Kyiv's government district were lit again on February 19 as some of the bloodiest fighting yet swept through the Ukrainian capital.

The tug of war between Russia and the EU over the fate of Ukraine has been front page news around the world since November, and a resolution still looks a long way off. However, the battles in Kyiv are only one of a raft of protests and riots that have gripped the region recently, most of which are largely unreported by all but the local press.

On the face of it, all these protests have different forms and causes, but on digging a little deeper, several recurring themes appear. Taking a wider view, it seems despite some vast differences between the countries involved, broadly speaking they are all moving forward at about the same pace.

The nominal causes of the protests include persistent poverty, corruption and wide income gaps. However, common to all these stories is that normal people across the region want to play a bigger role in running their country, and government's on the whole are being too slow to respond to the forces carrying people onto the streets.

Contagion: The most obvious contributing factor is contagion from the Arab Spring, which swept the north African coast starting in 2010, and continues to rumble on. The logic is a simple: "if they can do it why cant we?" The Arab Spring has had an obvious affect on the opposition in Azerbaijan, for instance, which has been adopting the same strategies on social media, albeit to less effect.

Prosperity: Growing income levels across the region have also inspired several countries - and Russia in particular - into open revolt. For most, the 1990s were a write off, with simple survival the only goal in life. However, now many countries are starting to enjoy income levels approaching those in the poorer end of the EU, and some - the emerging middle class in particular - have reached a point where they are prepared to sacrifice some prosperity for more say in politics. Governments, reluctant to share power, re finding that promises of more of the same are increasingly unappealing to voters.

Poverty/corruption: At the other end of the scale, a government's manifest failure to produce the same income gains as peers is another source of discontent. The recent rioting in Bosnia was driven by the same large population of impoverished unemployed youth that was the kindling for the Arab Spring's firestorm. Persistent corruption and large income gaps are two more sides of the same coin.

Hope: Perhaps the most subtle element is failed expectations, when the gap between what citizens hope for and what they have to deal with grows too great. The more practical aspect of dashed hopes is that for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union people are able to imagine what their life might look like in old age.

"Part of what is driving these protests is hope," says Professor Mark Galeotti from New York University. "As life becomes more normal people start to have hopes for their future, but the unreformed nature of most of the governments in the region mean those hopes are being frustrated so the people become more likely to protest."


Following a fortnight's hiatus, violence flared again in Kyiv on February 18 as attempts to compromise failed. The latest bout of bloodshed was sparked by the refusal of the ruling Party of Regions to consider returning Ukraine to the 2004 constitution, which would shift much of the political power from the president to the parliament.

However, underlying the conflict are the same forces that have driven protest across the region. Rising incomes and a more visible future lead to rising hope of a "normal life". That was embodied in the Ukrainian bid to move closer to Europe. Yanukovych's decision to do a deal with Russia instead throws the differences between the old guard that run the country and hopes of the people into the starkest possible relief.


Black smoked was also rising over Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on February 8, after anti-government protesters took to the streets in their thousands, setting administrative buildings and police cars ablaze.

The anger on the faces of hooded youths hurling rocks was palpable but the main issue the country is facing is at the other end of the spectrum to those in Ukraine. Since the Balkans war ravished the country in 1990s Bosnia has remained a divided state that has not been able to get to its feet. Poverty is a big driver of the unrest, with unemployment running at 25% - 45%, and youth unemployment well over 50% - the same drivers that set the North African coastline ablaze.

However, Bosnia also shares several of the other factors that are plaguing Ukraine and the other emerging CEE states: wide income-inequality, poor government, low levels of social provision, ethnic tensions, a history of unrest and an erosion of trust in the government to rescue the people - all of which has been made worse by the slowdown following the 2008 crisis.

The EIU identified Bosnia as having the highest risk of social unrest at the end of 2013, but also said Croatia was at "high risk" and Serbia "medium risk". Bosnia's case, set against Russia and Ukraine, poses the big unanswered question: to what extent are all the countries in transition in Eastern Europe moving in parallel in the process of convergence with the rest of Europe?


Demonstrations in Istanbul flared up again in the last weeks of February following the mass revolt on Taksim Square last year. The police were back with tear gas and batons as protestors objected this time to new laws that curb freedom of the internet, the tool which protestors made such effective use of in 2013.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is typical of the strong leaders in the region and has, like many others, been in power for more than a decade. He has overseen a boom that has lifted incomes across the board and like other strong leaders continues to enjoy strong domestic support, but a large minority that would like to open up the political process took to the streets.


Russia's case is particularly confusing. Over a hundred thousand people marched against the Kremlin in December 2011 after a controversial Duma election, but since then opposition leaders have failed to unite or come up with a viable platform other than "not Putin". It's a problem shared by many would-be opposition leaders across the region; they have little political experience because they are completely locked out of the political process.

However, now Russia is quiet. President Vladimir Putin has been helped by his strong performance on the international stage, continuous rising incomes and boost to national pride that comes with hosting an Olympics. Putin's personal popularity rose to 65% in the polls in January - his best result since 2002.

The worst Putin has had to endure recently is a demonstration against a new law that bans synthetic material in lady's underwear: a small group of women marched in Moscow wearing lace panties on their heads to air their objections. Those at a similar protest in Kazakhstan were arrested.


Crowds have been filling the streets of Sofia for more than six months with demands which are very similar those demanded by the crowds in Kyiv - and Bulgaria is already a full member of the European Union, something that is not even being offered to Ukraine. However, this protest has garnered almost no international attention.

While the intensity of the protests has faded somewhat since the autumn, when students occupied universities and demonstrators barricaded MPs into the government building, the opposition continue to hold regular rallies. The latest was on February 16, when the Bulgaria Without Censorship party and the Bulgarian National Movement held a rally boasting 10,000.


The situation in Central Asia and the Caucasus is also taut, although public demonstrations are rarer as the authorities rule with a much heavier hand.

Even in Kazakhstan, easily the most prosperous (although that may also be a motivation), the population is slowly finding its voice. In a rare show of dissent around 200 people demonstrated against the decision to devalue the tenge in Almaty on February 15. Hoping to head off more serious protest the government quickly responded and hiked public sector salaries, urging major employers to do the same.

Public protests remain rare in Kazakhstan but there are signs of wider dissatisfaction, with increasingly outspoken criticism of the government appearing on social media. The most serious outbreak of civic unrest came in December 2011, when hundreds rioted in the town of Zhanozen. At least 14 people were killed when police brutally put down protests connected to a seven-month strike by oil workers.


Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov keeps an even tighter grip on power, and demonstrations are extremely rare. When one brave protestor came out in public to show his solidarity with the crowds on Maidan in Ukraine he was quickly arrested. It's understandable Uzbeks are reluctant to take to the streets. The most serious protest seen in the country happened in the Fergana Valley city of Andijan in May 2005. Up to 1,500 people were reportedly killed after police opened fire on the crowd.


One of the few countries in the former Soviet Union to have actually ousted its corrupt government and (in theory) replaced it with a truly representative body, Kyrgyzstan saw its "coloured" revolution (Tulip) in 2005. A second uprising however swept through the country in 2010, and it remains very unstable.

The country was nearly torn apart by clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the second largest city of Osh in 2010 that ended with 420 deaths (mostly Uzbeks). Nearly 80,000 were displaced in some of the worst civil unrest seen in Central Asia since 1991.

More recently, violence has been close to erupting once more, with a disputed mayoral election in Osh in January the most recent flashpoint.Huge crowds gathered in the city centre to demand the long-standing mayor Melisbek Myrzakmatov be reinstated after he lost an election. The new mayor, Aitmamat Kadyrbaev, has vowed to preserve order despite ongoing pressure.

These ethnic tensions highlight another factor in the unrest across the region. Russia too has been suffering from nationalist pressure, and in recent months has deported hundreds of immigrant workers, mostly to Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The problems in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan - especially poverty - are even more acute. If growing prosperity is one of the drivers of protest movements in the region, then neither of these countries is ripe for protests to begin. In addition, public demonstrations are almost unheard of, with respective rulers Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow and Emomalii Rahmon out and out dictators that tolerate no dissent at all.


There have been several demonstrations in the Caucusus recently, driven by a combination of local issues.

Mass protests against Armenian pension reform took place in the capital Yerevan in January. Around 6,000 people took to the streets to voice their objections to the new compulsory insurance scheme. Even former president Robert Kocharyan got in on the act, saying the contribution of 5% of salaries to the scheme for all Armenian employees born after 1974 was unfair.

The opponents to the new pension system have also voiced concern about corruption, although the government has sought to allay fears by selecting two European firms to manage the funds via an international tender process. However, underpinning the issue-specific protest is the terrible state of the economy and the government's failure to produce growth. Increasingly the youth of Armenia are simply leaving to seek work elsewhere.


The problems in Azerbaijan are less like those in neighbour Armenia, resembling the issues in Ukraine and Russia. By far the most prosperous country in the Caucuses thanks to its oil wealth, like its northern cousins Azerbaijan has a growing middle class embarking on a political waking.

To its credit the government seems to be fully aware of what is happening, and has doubled efforts to both diversify the economy (and hence create better jobs for the young) and invest heavily into the social and educational spheres. However, the regime of President Ilham Aliyev retains tight control and any protest remains small and topic-specific.

In the most recent events, the capital Baku saw a relatively large protest on February 16, with around 1,000 people rallying in the city centre to demand higher compensation for homes being demolished to make way for new developments. Residents of the Yasamal district said that the AZN1,500 ($2,050) per square metre they have been offered is half the market rate. The police were out in force, but the protest passed off without incident.

There were also sizable protests following the results of October's presidential elections (won by Aliyev), but they were officially sanctioned and held at a stadium in Baku without incident. However, a rally to protest against a string of unexplained deaths of army conscripts turned violent in March, when the police went in with water canon and rubber bullets.

Azerbaijan's opposition has clearly been inspired by the Arab Spring and stepped up its use of social media. However, like Putin, Aliyev has also avoided the knee jerk reaction of his regional peers to crack down, electing instead to offer more inclusive and socially orientated policies. Thus far, that appears to have successfully defanged the opposition movement.


Some 10,000 people rallied in the Serbian cities of Nis and Novi Sad, on February 12 calling for perpetrators in local murder cases to be brought to justice and the state to tackle rising crime and violence.

The crowds were angered by a verdict in Novi Sad ordering a retrial of the alleged killer of 26-year-old Vladisalava Cervenko. Meanwhile, in Nis, the murder on the street of 22-year-old student Vuk Stoiljkovic brought locals out to demand justice. The mayor of Nis, Zoran Perisic, said that he supported the protests and called on the police to prevent attacks and the judiciary to do their job professionally.

While these demonstrations are again issue specific, the broader issue is of government incompetence and corruption.


Montenegrins held protests on February 13, blaming the government for high unemployment, economic mismanagement and alleged corruption. During violent scenes, nine police officers were injured and 20 protestors arrested as 300 demonstrators gathered in the capital Podgorica.

The protesters reportedly had no political backing, but were responding to a call on a Facebook profile entitled: "Revolution in Montenegro, everyone on the streets". The profile disappeared during the course of the day, reported AP.

However, more organized street demonstrations have been regularly seen. Opposition leaders have led a string of protests over the last year. Last year, the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro, together with the Student's Union, organized rallies of up to 20,000 protestors. However, despite the government's growing nervousness it is struggling to deliver much change.

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