Not All Nonrevolutions Are Created Equal

Why unremarkable elections still matter.

Nazarbayev, firmly in charge of Kazakhstan

The media love a revolution. Revolutions provide compelling photos and heartwarming video. A nonrevolution is a nonstory, the journalistic equivalent of a footnote. But a nonrevolution sometimes matters, too, particularly when it uncovers previously hidden political and social instability and poses problems for the future of a volatile region. The Caspian region recently saw two sets of elections: a presidential vote in Kazakhstan and parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan. Following the so-called color revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and the Kyrgyz Republic (2005), some consider any former Soviet republic that goes to the polls vulnerable to extreme political upheaval. There were good reasons why neither Kazakhstan nor Azerbaijan offered a particularly good bet for an opposition takeover, and the media took no notice.

Still, the absence of revolution does not mean that the two states are equally stable or that what happened doesn’t matter. While Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Kazakh government remains as well-entrenched after the election as it was before, Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan may now face a newly radicalized and disruptive opposition.

Leaving aside important differences in how and why governments changed hands in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the three countries have something very basic in common: They all lack the oil and gas revenues that have stabilized Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. That income matters enormously. In states that enjoy substantial energy wealth, some of the revenues trickle down to key segments of the citizenry and enhance quality of life. True, the benefits are unevenly distributed. But the extra income these governments receive ensures that elites have the resources to buy off key individuals and groups—and to better finance the use of oppression where necessary. The ruling regimes in Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have experienced all these benefits.

Another reason neither regime faced a serious threat during or after their recent elections: The United States had virtually no expectation that a transfer of power in either country was at all likely. In both cases, Washington remained aloof, issuing standard commitments to political reform while tacitly supporting the existing regime in the name of regional stability. 

But while Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev maintains a secure grip on power, Azerbaijan’s Aliyev now faces real domestic challenges. The politically skilled Nazarbayev, now 65, rose to power 15 years ago. He first served as leader of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic before leading his new country through the turmoil that followed the Soviet collapse. He continues to enjoy substantial support in the West for his willingness to open the country to foreign investment and for his talent for bringing stability to a region that looked likely to explode back in the early 1990s.

Ilham Aliyev, who will soon turn 44, assumed power after the death of his father just two years ago. Because he inherited his presidency—rather than “earning” it, as Nazarbayev did—the challenge of amassing political capital has proved to be a greater challenge. Like Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited power from his father five years ago, the younger Aliyev has spent much of his time in office winning the confidence of the elite on which his presidency depends. He has succeeded to this point, but the work remains unfinished.

As Aliyev manages the small but tenacious demonstrations that followed his party’s tainted electoral victory, he knows those closest to him are watching and weighing his every move. He also knows there is no guarantee the most powerful of his supporters—from the country’s small cadre of politically plugged-in business leaders to those running the security services—won’t sideline him if they lose confidence that the young president is capable of defending their interests. Few have challenged the flawed election results in Kazakhstan. But the surprisingly durable, albeit relatively tame, demonstrations following Azerbaijan’s balloting have pushed Aliyev to offer limited recounts in some districts and his security police to answer protests with violence. In imitation of the demonstrators who forced a rerun of last year’s elections in Ukraine, Azerbaijani protesters have taken to waving orange flags. Though they still lack anything like the broad public popularity of the demonstrators in Kiev, they have so far refused to lay down their flags and accept defeat.

Azerbaijan is not Georgia or Ukraine, and Aliyev is likely to muddle through his present troubles. But the galvanizing effect of the elections has brought some unity to Azerbaijan’s splintered opposition and antagonized the demonstrators.

Before the elections, Azerbaijan’s most influential opposition bloc, the Azadlyg movement, rejected radical, confrontational, and nationalist strategies. That’s in part because opposition leaders mistakenly believed they were poised to make incremental, but substantial, electoral gains and that the United States would recognize their efforts. But because the Azerbaijani government rigged the elections to limit those gains and the United States has refused to become directly involved, we can now expect a change in opposition tactics.

They may begin by working to thwart Aliyev’s agenda. Azerbaijan’s president hopes to make diplomatic progress with Armenia over the status of the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Soviet period, the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic administered this ethnic Armenian-dominated enclave. Two weeks before the Soviet collapse, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared independence from Azerbaijan. In the conflict that followed, more than 18,000 people were killed and more than a million Azeris were pushed out of the territory. A 1994 cease-fire left Armenia in effective military control of the territory and ended the fighting. The enclave’s status is still in limbo, and many Azerbaijanis remain angry.

Aliyev knows that the various opposition parties can win increased popular support by playing on nationalist resistance to compromise on the issue, thereby blocking his efforts to improve Azerbaijan’s standing in the region and his own international reputation.

Azadlyg may further undermine Aliyev’s authority by organizing labor opposition to his regime by playing on the resentment of Azerbaijani workers who believe that foreign firms operating in the country’s energy industries underpay them. The result may be reinvigorated resistance to foreign investment in the country, a key source of national revenue. Finally, Azerbaijan’s main opposition parties may seek alliances with Islamist political parties, unleashing a political force the country has not experienced since before the birth of the Soviet Union.

There is no reason why all post-Soviet states should be considered equally vulnerable to the political upheavals we’ve seen in three of them, despite the hopes of some in the West and the fears of those who govern the others. The colored revolution phenomenon has more to do with the political circumstances in a few of those states than with any generalized structural defects common to them all.

But there’s a lot of distance between revolution and the kind of stability that Nursultan Nazarbayev enjoys in Kazakhstan. Ilham Aliyev must now govern in the space between those two extremes, and Azerbaijan may well be in for a period of sustained and contentious “democratic” politics.