Central Asia expert and Demokratizatsiya contributor Donnacha Ó Beacháin discusses regional elections, authoritarianism, and what young scholars should know. Plus, find out what's next for Donnacha!
DEM: What first piqued your interest in the Central Asian region? Was it election-related?
DÓB: My connection with Central Asian is pure serendipity. I was working with an organization called the Civic Education Project (CEP) as a visiting fellow, and after two years in Georgia I reapplied for another posting and was allocated the National University of Uzbekistan in Tashkent, where I spent a fascinating year at the Department of Political Science. (President Karimov shut down CEP in Uzbekistan shortly after I left, and subsequently abolished the teaching of political science, but I try not to take that personally!) CEP and its successor, the Academic Fellowship Program, brought me to Kazakhstan, where I also worked at KIMEP University. All told, I spent six years in Central Asia, visited every constituent country and region, and met with many captivating individuals. This is a long way of saying I did not go to Central Asia because of a clear research agenda, but I certainly developed one while there.
DEM: If elections are, as your article contends, typically managed by elites, where can potential drivers of change come from?
DÓB: Experience suggests that revolution, be it peaceful or violent, is the only way to dislodge authoritarian leaders determined to main power by rigging elections. Abel Polese and I did extensive work on this topic, including an edited volume on the color revolution phenomenon that peaked in the post-Soviet pace during the mid-2000s.
Dictators tend not to give up power without a struggle. With a desire for unbridled power comes a fear of the repercussions should they lose an election. Unlike their Western counterparts, who are merely condemned to lecture tours, writing an autobiography, and spending more time with their family, ousted Central Asian presidents know they risk death, exile, and loss of enormous wealth, not to mention their place in history, should they be unceremoniously dislodged. For that reason, they have preferred not to dabble in democracy.
DEM: Is there any prospect that Central Asian leaders would consider abolishing elections, or do the current “menus of manipulation” in use mean that elections serve exactly the function that leaders want them to?
DÓB: Niyazov in Turkmenistan abolished presidential elections, but this is a solitary example and they were reinstated by his successor, Berdimuhamedov. Western bewilderment at blatant acts of rigging, manipulation and plain theft should be tempered by an appreciation that Central Asian autocrats, schooled in Soviet-style democracy, cannot think of any other way to achieve their ambitions. The regimes evolve but don’t fundamentally change. From their perspective, if it’s not broken, why fix it?
DEM: Many of Demokratizatsiya’s readers and contributors are scholars just beginning their careers. Where would you advise these scholars to start their search for interesting and currently under-researched aspects of Central Asian elections to explore?
DÓB: Research on Central Asian politics has tended to focus, for understandable reasons, either on the geopolitics of the region (“the new great game,” natural resources, etc.), presidential autocracies, or conflict. There have also been some very interesting anthropological studies looking at interactions at the local or regional level. In my view, however, current scholarship fails to adaquately capture the role of parliaments and political parties in supporting authoritarianism. This would be a worthwhile research focus for an aspiring scholar eager to produce original analyses of the region, and of authoritarian regimes generally.
DEM: Do you have any particular memories or stories about observing Central Asian elections that you would like to share?
DÓB: I remember observing the university constituency in Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections in 2005, which led to the overthrow of President Askar Akayev. The president’s daughter, Bermet, who had just founded a party called “Alga Kyrgyzstan,” was running in the constituency. Conveniently for Akayeva, a leading opposition figure and future president, Roza Otunbayeva, was deregistered from running in the same district.
It was here, I think, that I was first introduced to the concept of the “carousel,” a remarkable system that involved giving a voter a completed ballot, which indicated a preference for a candidate. The voter was then sent into the polling station, where they deposited the prepared paper in the ballot box and returned outside with the blank voting paper they had been issued with in the polling station, which in turn was marked with the same preference and given to another voter—and so the process continued. The beauty of such a manipulative system is that it is difficult to detect by simply observing activity within the polling station.
DEM: We know you also study elections in de facto states. Since few external actors take these elections seriously, what is the rationale behind them? Do they provide important information for the regime?
DÓB: In general terms, elections serve the same functions everywhere. In the more democratically inclined states, they provide a mechanism to determine who will govern. In non-democracies, they are a legitimizing device to create the illusion of pluralism and multi-party competition. Interestingly, whereas there are many autocracies—including hereditary ones—in recognized states, you would be hard-pressed to find examples of dictatorships amongst unrecognized states. Moreover, in terms of democratic credentials, many unrecognized regimes compare favorably with those from which they have seceded (e.g. Taiwan v. China, Nagorno Karabakh v. Azerbaijan, Somaliland v. Somalia).
I conducted field research in Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh during numerous presidential and parliamentary elections. The most remarkable aspect of the elections was their ordinariness. The public meetings I attended were normal opportunities for candidates to address the electorate and to listen to their concerns. These concerns were not about international recognition or geopolitics, but rather about the mundane but vital topics of healthcare, education, employment, infrastructure, pensions, and so on.
Recent elections have demonstrated that de facto states are capable of holding competitive elections in which real opposition candidates participate and enjoy prospects of success. There have been successful transfers of power from government to opposition in Abkhazia and Transnistria, and the results have been unpredictable. This is impressive considering that many post-Soviet countries have never enjoyed a peaceful constitutional transfer of power from government to opposition. Another striking feature of the elections is the fact that the patron states are not as influential as is often supposed.
DEM: What’s your next project?
DÓB: I have just completed a book entitled From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland, which will be published by Manchester University Press and should be in the shops by the summer.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Associate Professor of Politics and Director of Research at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. His article "Menus of Manipulation: Authoritarian Continuities in Central Asian Elections" (with Rob Kevlihan) appeared in the October 2017 issue of Demokratizatsiya. Contact: email@example.com.