Memo From a Failed Revolutionary

Shout out to the five people who still read this blog who aren't related to me. I noticed that the last post I started to write and didn't finish was about this same topic: colored revolutions. After exhausting myself on Twitter and Facebook responding to others' comments - both insightful and ridiculous -- about what's happening in Iran right now, I figured it was time to write a coherent analysis using this regretfully neglected blog.

While I am no expert in Iran, I do have more experience with failed and successful "colored revolutions" than I care to remember and I am a pollster by trade and temperament. Besides, I get irate when I read blogs like Andrew Sullivan's, overflowing with gloppy idealism about democracy and freedom.  This is serious stuff and if the Iranians were serious about regime change, they should have been more organized about it. Successful democratic transitions are not spontaneous; they are planned and this one was clearly not planned. Spontaneous demonstrations of public outrage are heartwarming to people watching from a distance who love to see purple fingers and green banners and big chanting crowds, but under dictatorships like Iran's, the stakes for ordinary people are incredibly high. People die and lives are ruined.

Let me start by saying I do think there was fraud. But, just because one side stole votes doesn't mean the other side won. The important question is was the scale of fraud big enough to alter the outcome? In the absence of an exit poll or PVT or a mission of independent domestic or international monitors documenting, quantifying and reporting violations, we may never know for sure. There's plenty of speculation -- some of it BS, some of it plausible -- but I think the strongest arguments for fraud are that Mousavi underperformed in the Azeri (he's an ethnic Azeri) part of the country (as well as other geographic anomalies)and the speed at which the count was reported. But neither of those can tell us that XX% of the vote was likely stolen, which is the critical data point we lack. If there was a PVT or exit poll (why those may or may not have been appropriate tools for the Iranian case are fodder for another post, but it doesn't matter. The regime would never have allowed them anyway) we would know. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data. (super post about this topic here!)

By quantifying fraud, observers' reports and exits polls provide the foundation for protesting stolen elections. If there are credible exit polls or observers' reports, there can be a communications strategy to tell people about how many votes were stolen where; a legal strategy to flood the courts with evidence of violations (even if it's pointless, it contrasts the opposition's commitment to rule of law with the intransigence of the authorities); an organizing strategy to coordinate and channel public reaction (and prevent counterproductive violence); and, a political strategy to persuade security and political forces to switch sides and not shoot people. It's as simple as that. If the Iranians had any of these strategies in place, I might change my mind about the prospects for a transition.

Iran is different in other ways from other countries that have had democratic transitions. Ahmadinejad has a substantial and enthusiastic rural, lower class constituency. He is not Shevardnadze in Georgia, whose regime was rotten to the core, or the murdering Kuchma/Yanukovich regime which began to offend even the Russian-leaning east in Ukraine. I believe the Terror Free Tomorrow poll  (why is also fodder for another post) that states he was ahead a month before the election. If they were to release the crosstabs on who was undecided, it would be pretty easy to predict how those undecideds might vote on election day (especially since they interviewed all adults and not just likely voters). That would give us more evidence that the election was probably close, but no real insight on who actually won. They did point out that the only subgroup where Mousavi led was among the youngest. This dynamic was unlikely to have shifted much in the final month.

And yes, Twitter is 1000 kinds of awesome. Everyone agrees. All of us armchair revolutionaries can feel like we have a dog in the fight and read all kinds of unfiltered and probably wrong reports from the front lines, which is incredibly important. I am not going to diminish the importance of it being the only way information is getting out of the country right now, but I also want to point out that it is absolutely useless for getting information to people who are actually in the country (anyone have any numbers yet on the number of Twitterers in Iran? Maybe someone can look into that before we have Moldova all over again). Where are the 67% of Iranians who do not have access to the internet getting their news? What about the 90% who have never heard of Twitter? (I made that number up, but I suspect I am being generous). The Orange Revolution was pushed along when Channel Five (a BROADCAST station, which means "accessible to everyone") decided to stop telling the regime's lies. When the BROADCAST channels in Iran start to do that, I might change my mind about the prospects for regime change.

All this talk about this being the next Twitter/FB revolution strengthens my perception that this is an urban elite movement. Having a million people on the streets of Tehran, a city of 14 million in a country of 80 million, doesn't impress me much. Ukrainians had 500,000 in a city of 3 million. Urban elite everywhere tend to be completely out of touch with the views of anyone who doesn't live in their area code. Ask Misha Saakashvili if he's concerned about the Georgian opposition, which is almost entirely made up of urban elite. He knows he's ok with the folks in Kutaisi. When I start seeing reports about massive protests in Shiraz or Tabriz, I may change my mind.

And let's talk a bit about violence. There's a reason why people were so inspired by the Ukrainians and the Georgians: their revolutions were non-violent and utilized tools of civil disobedience and old-fashioned political organizing. There were plenty of times when things could have gone either way, but because the Ukrainians had a strategy and were organized, they were able to maintain discipline and keep angry people from setting fires and throwing rocks and behaving like thugs.  By seizing the moral high ground and eschewing violence, they encouraged ordinary, non-activist Ukrainians to camp out with them on Maidan in the freezing weather and made it harder for police to shoot unarmed people. It's hard to imagine the protesters in Tehran are going to persuade ordinary, non-activist people who may be on the fence about this whole issue or who support the protesters but are afraid of violence, to join them. It will never become a truly mass movement until that happens. When it does, I'll change my mind.

My single achievement in Azerbaijan in the 2005 parliamentary election was helping to organize the opposition movement to such a degree that they were able to prevent their people from responding to a stolen election with violence and getting people killed, as happened in 2003. The final post-election rally was brutally dispersed and the protests effectively ended, but the violence was on the part of the police, not the protesters, and no one died. We take our solace where we can. We can talk about all the reasons the opposition in Azerbaijan failed later.

And can we please abandon the narrative that the US or Obama has influenced this election, the Lebanese election on June 7 or any other? It's ignorant, narcissistic and diminishes the importance of the actions of people who actually live in these places. You mean to tell me that Joe Biden's pre-election stopover in Beirut had more of an impact on the Lebanese elections than the Maronite Patriarch guilting people into voting against Aoun? Are you for serious?  Accordingly, little the US did precipitated the Orange Revolution. The Ukrainians did it. Also, it's plausible that political change *might* happen in Iran, even without the presence of NDI, IRI and all the other beltway bandits charged with democracy promotion by USAID. All these arguments do demonstrate is that US arrogance has nothing to do with which party is in power.

Anyway, even if nothing happens and the protesters go home to nurse their wounds and try to spring their comrades from jail, what this election shows is huge split in Iran between urban and rural, educated and non, young and old, none of which is either terribly surprising or unusual in a country of its size and demographic profile. Maybe before the next election, young activists will study the lessons learned by folks in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Lebanon and even Azerbaijan, about how to plan a revolution.

The Azerbaijan Presidential Election Doesn't Matter, But..

I doubt anyone reads this blog anymore and it's my fault. I really should be posting on the Azerbaijan Presidential election because there are few people there who were there in 2005 (just as there were few there in 2005 who lived through 2003) and who can interpret the spin that will emerge from both the USG and GovAZ. On the other hand, the election matters not one bit and what anyone has to say about it matters even less. There are forces at work in that country greater than any of us.

Anyway, the Committee to Protect Journalists put out an excellent report on the murder of Elmar Huseynov, which happened while I was there.  This article brings back lots of bad memories of all the ridiculous things that were happening at that time, things about which I knew a great deal but was restricted from talking about publicly.

I'm sure the "obsevers" in town for the "election" will put together a thorough report that demonstrates how much better this election was than the last one (that was our strategic objective in 2005, as well).  Everyone will point out how weak the opposition is and that Aliyev would have won anyway and that he's the best bet for regional stability. Then, when Aliyev does something insane (a la Saakashvili, and it doesn't take much imagination to come up with insane moves he might consider), or is overthrown by a gang of competing kleptocrats, because U.S. "democracy support" programs in the Caucusus favor personalities over institutions, everyone will panic.

I have a lot of things to say on this topic. Maybe when I am out of Saudi Arabia, I'll revitalize this blog.

A FSU Civic Activists' Guide

Paul Goble, over at Window On Eurasia, found a guide to civic activism in Russia on Live Journal (Russia's main blog platform) from a blogger called Noblesse Oblige. Noblesse Oblige has come up with several principles for "Civic Activists in Russia who Don't Want to Get Beat in the Head." Paul has translated and I've copied his text, so blame him if you don't like it (unfortunately, his links to the original don't work).

These are by far the most useful guidelines for FSU civic activism that I've come across. More importantly, they are applicable to most of the countries in the FSU, not just Russia. I say that as someone who spent three years trying, without any measurable success, to encourage civic activism in Ukraine and Azerbaijan. My only quibble is that NO could have elaborated a little bit more. I'd love to read some examples of how these principles have or haven't worked in real life.

What I really like about them is that they are lessons that can only be taught by someone who understands the political environment of the FSU at a native level and who has learned from personal experience that many of the principles taught by well-meaning "experts" from western Europe or America are pretty much useless. It might be retitled "Think like an Apparatchik!"

Read more: A FSU Civic Activists' Guide

How To Steal A Russian Election

RFE/RL has provided a helpful primer for those who are interested in becoming election stealing consultants.

Managed Democracy: Azerbaijan's Presidential Election

As the 2008 Presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches, I predict there will be a substantial amount of revisionism of what happened in the 2005 election. It's not hard to do -- so few people pay attention that it's easy for regime mouthpieces to say whatever they want without anyone challenging them -- and there's plenty to gain by persuading people who only hear what they want to hear that the election was quite democratic.

Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the NYT this week that provides good insight into the regime's talking points. He was responding to an excellent but sort of "duh" article a few weeks back by Chris Chivers called Seeking a Path in Democracy's Dead End.

"To clarify, President Ilham Aliyev issued two orders in 2005 calling on election officials to obey election laws and lifted a ban on public demonstrations. The government also fully supported the use of exit polls and the inking of voters’ fingers to prevent the practice of double-voting, both of which were historic firsts for the country.

Moreover, when the government learned of voting irregularities in 10 districts, it took the unprecedented step of annulling those ballots and holding new elections in those areas, as well as dismissing from their posts the officials responsible.

The road to democracy is a process, and Azerbaijan views it not as a “dead end” but as a doorway through which we step willingly."

I watched a lot of the "process" in 2005 and democratic wasn't the exactly the word that came to mind. I don't doubt Ilham Aliyev twice ordered officials to obey the law (a strange command, if you think about it, since it is their job), if by "obey the law" you mean "beating people in the street," "arresting some journalists" and "stealing a boatload of votes." My friend's BBC documentary "How To Start a Revolution," has some footage of some of the more compelling examples of what passes for "law obeying" during elections in Azerbaijan.

Bragging about participating in exit polls and finger inking is pretty disingenuous, since the government consented to the inking about two weeks before the election and hired its own exit pollster to dilute the impact of the non-government sponsored exit poll. It's impossible to administer an effective finger inking program (especially invisible ink) in such a short time and train precinct personnel in its usage, a point that I am certain was not lost on the regime. Accordingly, I saw people freely voting who had all five fingers inked on both hands. Both are very savvy moves, and indicative of little else but the government's desire to promote the perception of a democratic process and the willingness of the West to buy into the narrative.

The "annulling ballots" part is admirable, but only a small part of the story. In an effort to purge the 2005 election in Azerbaijan from my mind, I have blocked a lot of this out, but other people remember quite well. Thanks to Vugar Godjaev for refreshing my memory.

  • Zakatala district (ConEC #110): Arif Hajiyev of the Azadliq bloc won the election. President Aliyev dismissed governor of Zakatala District Vaqif Rahimov for alleged interference in the vote. The election results were annulled.
  • Sabirabad district: Panah Huseynov of Azadliq Bloc won the election and the President dismissed the ExCom (an Excom is a presidentially appointed governor).
  • Surakhani district: Ali Karimov of Azadliq bloc won this constituency. The President dismissed the ExCom and the election results were annulled.
  • A week after Election Day, the Prosecutors Office said four election officials were detained on suspicion of falsifying balloting results and abuse of office. These election officials were from Binagadi (ConEC #9) and Sumgait (ConEC #42) constituencies, where Azadlik Bloc’s Sardar Jalaloglu and Flora Karimova respectively won the elections

These are only the most cut-and-dried examples. There were multiple other constituencies where the USAID exit poll varied from official results, but within the margin of error of the poll, so it was hard to make an assessment. There were also plenty of protocols that showed monkey business. OSCE outlines this and other problems here.

The Aliyev regime is going to be making a lot of effort this year to demonstrate to the US and European partners that Azerbaijan is "democratic and lawful." We'll be keeping a watch out here. We specialize in lost causes.

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?