What Are We Trying to Explain?

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  • What Are We Trying to Explain?Vitali Silitski

    Journal of Democracy, Volume 20, Number 1, January 2009, pp. 86-89(Article)

    Published by The Johns Hopkins University PressDOI: 10.1353/jod.0.0045

    For additional information about this article

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  • What are We trying to explain?

    Vitali Silitski

    Vitali Silitski is director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Stud-ies. His most recent article in the Journal of Democracy is Belarus: Learning From Defeat, which appeared in the October 2006 issue.

    The age of the color revolutions in the postcommunist world may be over, but scholars and practitioners alike have yet to agree on what made electoral regime change possible in some countries of the region but not in others. Lucan Way strives to end the debate by identifying the real causes of the color revolutions.1 Yet what were the color revolutions? The phrase encompasses a set of political changes across the postcommunist world that can be divided into three categories: transformative elections, electoral revolutions as such, and postelectoral popular uprisings.

    This categorization reflects the varying importance of the election itself versus postelectoral contention and violencefrom purely elec-toral regime change in Slovakia and Croatia; to the electoral revolutions in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia; to an uprising in Kyrgyzstan that was only remotely connected with the parliamentary elections that formally triggered it.2 Yet these differences were hardly the only ones. Electoral transitions varied dramatically with regard to the significance of the op-positions actual victory in elections, the size of the crowds that turned out in the streets in support of the opposition, the geopolitical context of the transitions, and the long-term consequences of these electoral revolu-tions for the countries where they occurred.

    All this makes the life of a comparative analyst extremely complicat-edand not just because of the age-old problem of too many independent variables for too few cases. It is a challenge even to determine what it is that we are actually trying to explain: Are we explaining the downfall of the old regimes or what happened after they fell (why some post-revolutionary countries democratized and others did not, for example)? Or why, despite dramatically different political and cultural contexts and geopolitical influences, a similar electoral model of political change was

    Journal of Democracy Volume 20, Number 1 January 2009 2009 National Endowment for Democracy and The Johns Hopkins University Press

    Debating the Color Revolutions

  • 87Vitali Silitski

    successfully applied in all these countries? Or why this model underwent such extensive modifications during the course of the wave that, by the end, it had changed almost beyond recognition?

    Some scholars would probably oppose the inclusion of Slovakia and Croatia in this sequence of electoral turnovers, noting that transformative elections in these two countries lacked the revolutionary fervor of the other cases. These peaceful transitions, however, served as a laboratory for the electoral change that spread to the other countries afterward. Contagion does appear to have been a pivotal factor, binding together diverse events as part of a single sequence that was far from simply one damn thing after another. In fact, it is nearly impossible to explain why political change happened in, say, Georgia or Ukraine without taking into account events in Serbia in 2000 or even earlier in Slovakia in 1998.

    I disagree with Ways conclusion that the case for diffusion is some-how diminished by the fact that the arena for regime change was regular, scheduled, and predictable elections. Indeed, given how painful it is for an opposition in an autocratic society to choose whether to participate in or to boycott less-than-perfect elections sponsored by undemocratic leaders, the very fact that democrats in these countries saw balloting as an opportunity rather than a trap was indeed the work of diffusion.

    In the larger sense, however, I would argue against sharply dichotomiz-ing between diffusion and structural factors (domestic preconditions for change). As Way notes, cars indeed go to gas stations because they need gas, not because their drivers are emulating those ahead of them. Yet it is precisely this need for fuel that impels drivers, when they find themselves in unknown locations, to ask their fellow travelers for directions to the nearest station. The main thrust of the diffusion argument is that political change was possible in countries with different structural preconditions for change. By no means does it deny the importance of structural factors. In fact, diffusion, working in different structural and cultural contexts (and thus extending the range of possibilities for change beyond what hard-line structuralists would imagine), has produced diverse political outcomes (thus validating the importance of structural factors).

    Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik have made perhaps the best at-tempt to grasp the interaction between structure and contingency in the electoral revolutions. They have observed that the wave of electoral regime change began in the countries with more favorable domestic preconditions and spread by virtue of demonstration, as the discovery of a recipe for change empowered aspiring oppositions with a new repertoire. As the cross-national impact of precedent increases, [however,] it is joined with weaker and weaker local structural support for change.3 Thus, as electoral breakthroughs came to be driven more by contagion than by domestic condi-tions, the transition episodes of the wave saw declining mass participation, more violence and less powerful democratic consequences.4

    Overall, it appears that some of the electoral revolutions were determined

  • 88 Journal of Democracy

    more by structural factors than were others. Such acknowledgment allows us to answer a range of questions that go beyond regime change per se and focus on the substantive outcomes of political transitions. First, overdeter-mined transitions, triggered by strong oppositions and civil societies, tend

    to produce stronger transformative outcomes and necessitate less violence. Underdeter-mined transitions, on the other hand, are extremely reliant on contingent factors such as diffusion and the underlying weaknesses of the old regimes. Not only do they produce less-transformative political outcomes, but they also create a negative demonstration effect: While putting the incumbents in sur-viving autocracies on alert, they also generate unfavorable publicity for the revolutions. Authoritarian learning is not the only factor that granted immunity from revolutions to such autocrats as Alyaksandr Lukashenka

    of Belarus or Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. Embedded autocrats, by virtue of the stability of their power, had more time to study carefully the revolutionary scenarios than did embattled semi-authoritarians such as Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine, who were challenged one after another in a short period of time. The strategy of preemption explains why political alternatives were crushed beyond what would have been necessary to calm the autocrats nerves on election day.

    Finally, I would like to reflect on the key independent variable that Way uses throughout his work: the strength of the regime. It is hard to determine ex ante a regimes power or its repressive capacity. We can say with authority that a regime is strong or not only after it has succumbed to or survived challenges. Moreover, it is important to differentiate between repressive capacity (the ability to quell dissent and control the government apparatus) and infrastructural capacity (the ability to run the state and provide vital public services). The first countries in the sequence of elec-toral revolutionsSlovakia and Croatiawere those in which incumbents possessed the strongest infrastructural capabilities but led the least repres-sive political regimes. Thus their repressive capabilities were limited by a greater array of factors than, say, the inability to pay the security forces. Such matters as political culture, institutional checks on incumbents, and the self-restraint of rulers also must be taken into account.

    That being said, Way is perhaps right that at least a substantial number of these electoral regime changesand, in a broader sense, the collapse of competitive-authoritarian regimeswere caused more by the frailty of the regimes than by the strength of the oppositions. As noted above, in such cases, the transitions outcome is often less democratic. Furthermore, I have certain doubts about interpreting the repressive capacity of a regime

    Nondemocratic regimes are weak when the dominant moral codesshaped by history, identity, and culturefail to legitimize authori-tarian practices and institutions.

  • 89Vitali Silitski

    as a strictly structural factor. Some of the successful authoritarians did not have the luxury of old and storied armies and had to build their coercive apparatus, if not from scratch, then from the ruins of the systems that they had inherited. This applies even to such strong leaders as Lukashenka, who a decade and a half into his rule has yet to ensure the loyalty of his countrys principal repressive agency, the KGB.

    Likewise, by many criteria, the repressive capacity of Vladimir Putins regime was extremely weak at the outset. If anything, Russiawith power-ful oligarchs, regional barons, and private mediawas a clear example of pluralism by default, where the spread of uncontrolled wealth and power favored the survival of political competition. Yet Putins power grab pro-ceeded without active resistance. Moreover, at the beginning of his reign, the security apparatus was largely dislodged from the state. Members of the Soviet-era security and military forcesthe silovikicomprised only 14 percent of the Russian elite in 1999, a number that eight years later had nearly reached 50 percent.4 Thus the strengthening of Putins regime cannot be understood without considering contingent factorslegitimacy, charisma, and the ability to ensure harmony, not within the entire state but within the inner circle of Putin associates who carried out the transition from competitive authoritarianism to sovereign democracy.

    In analyzing the repressive capabilities of regimes, we must remember that physical strength is primarily dependent upon mental strengththe ability not only to coerce the opposition into submission but also to garner support with appeals to moral codes and culture. Nondemocratic regimes are weak when the dominant moral codesshaped by history, identity, and culturefail to legitimize authoritarian practices and institu-tions. Although Putins regime initially did not possess great repressive or infrastructural capability, it embodied the ideology of Great Russia and quickly forged a consensus among the Russian elite and society, enabling its power grab to go forward largely unopposed.


    1. Lucan Way, The Real Causes of the Color Revolutions, Journal of Democracy 19 (July 2008): 5569.

    2. See Vitali Silitski, Different Authoritarianisms, Distinct Patterns of Electoral Change, in Joerg Forbrig and Pavol Demes, eds., Reclaiming Democracy: Civil Society and Electoral Change in Central and Eastern Europe (Washington, D.C.: German Marshall Fund, 2007).

    3. Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik, International Diffusion and Postcommunist Electoral Revolutions, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 39 (September 2006): 283304.

    4. Bunce and Wolchik, International Diffusion, 288.

    5. See Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russian Elite in Transition, lecture, Moscow, 31 July 2008; available at www.polit.ru/lectures/2008/07/31/rus_elita.html (in Russian).


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