Easy Democracy

| Wed May 18, 2005 3:04 PM EDT

Over the past few days, the riots and subsequent government crackdown in eastern Uzbekistan have been garnering a lot of attention. It's hard to know what to make of all this just yet, though it seems likely that the protests were borne of popular frustration over President Islam Karimov's regime—which has badly managed the economy and violently suppressed all political opposition—rather than a riot whipped up by Islamic fundamentalists (although there may be some of that).

Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner wonders if this is part of the "fourth-wave of democratization" among former Soviet republics, one that began with Georgia and the Ukraine and spread to Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps. Unfortunately, reading this Financial Times story on Uzbekistan, it seems that Karimov has no intention of going the way of his peers:

By permitting his troops to open fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andizhan, Mr Karimov has become the first leader of a former Soviet republic in recent years to suppress public protests with such ruthless use of lethal force. Human rights activists estimate that 500 or more people may have been killed in the violence that erupted on Friday when anti-government rebels stormed the town jail and freed prisoners.

Those deaths show the authoritarian leader has no intention of becoming the latest victim of the political protests that have swept the former Soviet Union in the last 18 months. Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Aslan Akayev of Kyrgyzstan all lost power after deciding not to deploy troops against demonstrators.

In other words, dictators can learn too. Indeed, for those thinking about how and when the democratic revolution can spread around the world, this paper by Mark Katz offers a useful thesis: "When the military is willing to use force to protect the ancien regime, democratic revolutionaries cannot prevail." The exceptions are when there are key defections in the military to the opposition. But so long as some part of the security services are willing to fire on crowds, no revolution takes place. In the Tiananmen Square protests in China back in 1989, the 38th Army refused to follow government orders and crack down on the protestors, but it also refused to defend the protestors. So Beijing just brought in the provincial 27th Army to open fire on the square. Had the 38th Army been more aggressive in its defense, some sort of revolution might have been sparked. But they weren't.

More likely, some sort of U.S. pressure is going to be needed to get Karimov to slowly open up the country, but it's not clear what can be done. Last year, Fiona Hill wrote a prescient analysis of Uzbekistan that predicted the current riots. She notes that there are no easy answers for reform. Getting Karimov to end his torture and arbitrary detention practices would be a good start, and we could help by not sending our own detainees to Uzbekistan, but broader reforms will be very difficult. The State Department is starting to put pressure on Karimov, but as analyst Ahmed Rashim writes, even Karimov's replacement would likely only be another dictator, and "the chances of a democratic movement emerging in Uzbekistan are highly unlikely." That's what happens when the U.S. and Europe stand by for so long—save for a few meaningless words about democracy—while our dictatorial "allies" consolidate power. It's not easy for us to change our mind all of the sudden and ask for democracy.