Black January In Baku: What Did We Learn?

One of my favorite Eurasia sites, Window on Eurasia, has an excellent post on the impact events of January 20, 1990 in Azerbaijan had on the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet system on life support, Gorbachev sent the army in to quash popular protests in Baku. Scores of people who had taken to the streets in support of independence were murdered, and it's an important national day of remembrance in Azerbaijan (photos and story here)

In Azerbaijan, the Kremlin’s action convinced even those who had doubted it before that they could have no future inside the USSR. Indeed, the day after the killings, many Communist Party members there, including some of its most senior leaders, tore up their party cards, an action that showed there would be now going back.
And elsewhere in the USSR the message Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership hoped to send backfired. Both where many were already seeking independence from Moscow and where few had yet thought about it, Soviet actions in Baku 18 years ago today did not intimidate but rather destroyed the fear that had kept the USSR together.

In addition to urging the west to give Azerbaijanis their due, he also argues that citizens themselves should never forget the critical role they played in bringing down Soviet rule. They should resist the urge to look back on those days with nostalgia.

I draw slightly different conclusions about the lessons of January 20th.

Read more: Black January In Baku: What Did We Learn?

Party's Over, Georgians. Time to Go Home

There comes a time when election protesters need to sit down and shut up. In Georgia, that time has come. Let's look at the data:

  • A credible, pre-election poll shows the president at 46% among the likeliest voters, with projected support at 52%;
  • An exit poll that put the president's support at 54% [though with 28% refusing to participate, the results of this poll are highly suspect];
  • Two parallel vote tabulations (PVTs) conducted by respected NGOs that put the president's support between 50% and 53%.
  • Multiple international observation missions deem the election "broadly democratic" (although not without citing serious shortcomings).

Official results (at this point) give the president 53%. I love a good conspiracy as much as the next person and former Soviets are better than anyone at spinning them, but sane people really need to look hard at how all these disparate data points converged to tell a very clear story: Mikhail Saakashvili exceeded 50% and avoided a run-off.

Instead of wasting their supporters' energy and anger by making them stand outside in the freezing cold for no good reason, the opposition parties (such as they are) should focus their resources on organizing around Misha's shortcomings as a leader and creating a viable alternative. They need to be thinking about the next election now (or, rather, yesterday). Continued carping about this one diminishes their own credibility both with the Georgian electorate and the international community.

One of the biggest strategic errors of parties in this part of the world is they are always fighting the last election, and never thinking about how to win the next one.

Additionally, in advance of the parliamentary elections, they should talk to the Ukrainians about creating a partisan election monitoring program (starting NOW). They need to have a legal, PR and grassroots strategy in place that documents, challenges, quantifies and systematically publicizes election violations. Even the Azadaliq coalition in Azerbaijan managed to get part of a program in place in 2005 (a lot of good it did them, but like the Georgians, before they met with the Ukrainians their idea of challenging the election was running everyone out in the streets to get their heads beaten in by the authorities).

Although I think the Georgian opposition doesn't have a leg to stand on, I don't think the President's victory celebrations should obscure two very important points. First of all, this election had some serious problems, ranging from technical problems (according to IRI's report) to instances of intimidation, problems with voter lists, lack of access to the media and abuse of administrative resources (cited by the ODIHR/International Mission).

While I do not believe the fraud had a substantial impact on the final results, could there have been enough at the margins to push Saakashvili over the 50% threshold? Certainly. Could voters have felt too intimidated to make any other choice? Absolutely. The latter is not the kind of manipulation that can be detected by exit polls or PVTs or measured by observers, but it needs to be taken into consideration.

Secondly, if I were Saakashvili and his advisers, I'd drink my Saparavi today and start tomorrow with a cold-eyed analysis of why an incumbent President who enjoys substantial administrative advantages and an exceptionally weak opposition barely managed to get majority support. That's embarrassing and certainly no mandate. I was amazed at how deeply Georgians were troubled by November 7th, a traumatizing event to people who thought the country was on the road to democracy. I agree. The West also needs to keep the screws turned on Saakashvili. However, with a strategic pipeline located on Georgian soil, the latter suggestion is probably wishful thinking.

Legit Pre-Election Poll in Georgia Shows Saakashvili Up

There's been a spate of pre-election polls from Georgia lately, most of them not worth the paper they're written on. All have been released by various interests to demonstrate their electoral strength and have little to no basis in reality. The only consequence of their release has been to increase public skepticism of polls.

President Mikail Saakashvili's party (UPM) released poll a few weeks ago that was greeted with howls of derision, but for a lot of wrong reasons. Most people I talked to categorically refused to believe data publicly released by BCG National Research, the firm that polls for the president's party (a high ranking official in the government I met insisted that's different than the serving as president's pollster, which suggested a bit of disingenuousness on his part, but we'll not quibble here. Also, BCG is run by the wife of the head of the Central Election Commission, a particularly stinky connection in this part of the world). The poll showed the president with a comfortable lead. Big surprise.

Read more: Legit Pre-Election Poll in Georgia Shows Saakashvili Up

The Challenge of Exit Polls in Unstable Countries: Kenya

Two excellent examples in the news (more or less) this week about conducting polls in unstable countries. (Tomorrow, the latest poll from Georgia).

The first was a snippet in an interesting Slate article by Alex Halperin called What's Going on In Kenya?

Unfortunately, one bit of data has not surfaced. The International Republican Institute, a democracy-fostering nonprofit funded by the U.S. government—and despite the name, officially nonpartisan—commissioned an Election Day exit poll but has declined to release the results. Two people familiar with the results told me that they showed Odinga with a substantial lead over President Kibaki—one reported eight points, the other nine points. One has only to remember the United States' 2004 elections to know how fallible exit polls are, but a U.S.-sponsored survey would have weight here and could have given the ECK pause before it called the election so disastrously.

Ken Flottman, an official in the IRI's Nairobi office, said the data would serve additional purposes, such as studying voter demographics. The organization issued a statement criticizing the vote counting but does not mention its data. It missed an opportunity to advance its mission of promoting democracy and fair elections.

There's been limited news coverage or reaction in the blogosphere so far to this except from knee-jerk reactions from people who know little about IRI's mission or the purpose of exit polls. Furthermore, drawing conclusions about the fallibility of an exit poll in Kenya based on the 2004 election in the US or any other country, as Halperin does, is specious.

Halperin asks a fair question, though: Where're the data?

Read more: The Challenge of Exit Polls in Unstable Countries: Kenya

Is it Possible to Conduct Solid Pre-Election Research in a Place Like Georgia?

Simple question, complex answer.

The Caucasus Research Resources Center, with whom I met on my recent trip to Georgia, starts to get to the heart of the matter in this very good post on how to evaluate pre-election polls. To boil Hans' argument down, the burden on is on the pollster to publicly disclose as much information about the data collection process as possible. Of course, the media has to also report the results responsibly, which is almost as big a hurdle in these countries as disclosing basic information about sample sizes, margin of error, interviewing techniques and, most importantly, funders.

This sort of disclosure is necessary anywhere, whether it's Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia (Onnik at the Armenia Election Monitor has been posting on this topic quite a bit lately) or even Iowa. That's why Pollster.com has been a strong proponent of The Disclosure Project, which pressures U.S. pollsters to reveal more about their methodology. This is even more important in countries where pre-election opinion polls are relatively new and neither the media nor voters are very sophisticated poll consumers.

Conducting methodologically sound polling in a highly politicized environment like Georgia or Azerbajian is difficult, but not impossible (and I do put Georgia and Azerbaijan in the same category in that regard-- I was shocked at how polarized the pre-election environment is in Tbilisi. The pre-election atmosphere in Georgia has much more in common with Azerbaijan's prior to the 2005 election than it does with Ukraine's 2006 or 2007 pre-election period, which is depressing). Just like in campaign finance, disclosure is the the first and most important step to increasing public confidence in the process.

People need to understand that polling is neither good nor bad. It's simply a tool that can be put to both legitimate and nefarious purposes. Polls are fundamentally democratic because they give ordinary people a voice, but disclosure helps an informed citizenry assess whether their voices are truly being heard or are being manipulated.

Can't Understand Why Central Asia Matters So Much?

Take a look at this map by Le Monde Diplomatique, via Intellibriefs.

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