(English) Part 1 on Democratization in Kyrgyzstan: Perspectives on Democracy

  • What is democratization?
  • How does it come about?
  • How does Central Asia Solidarity Groups view democratization in general and in Kyrgyzstan in particular?

All over the globe, people tend to have a love-hate relationship to the word “democracy”. It might be the most frequently used word in political speech. It might also be the most unclear word in political speech. The sibling of the word, “democratization”, which tries to capture the process with which any given entity is said to be moving towards what is called democracy, is arguably even more difficult to grasp.

Since I like drama, this love-hate relationship intrigues me. In this article, I will discuss the above questions, starting with outlining different conceptions of democracy and democratization and then comparing it to some of the views the Central Asia Solidarity Groups (from now on abbreviated CAG) holds. We will in this article start the exploration of what interventions in Kyrgyzstan it leads them to do in order to reach their vision, where “a democratic Central Asia” is mentioned as the first goal:

“Central Asia Solidarity Groups’ aim is to promote a democratic Central Asia with a strong, active and inclusive civil society that contributes to human rights being respected and social justice achieved.”

Moreover, CAG as an organization from the global North, emphasizes the importance of democratic and equal partnerships with the civil society in Central Asia to avoid re-creating global, unequal power structures. Typically, international partnerships in the region are characterized by one-way communication, static roles and hierarchies, and complete analytical and ideological ownership with the actor from the global North – something CAG wants to avoid in their partnerships.

One of their main partners in Kyrgyzstan, the youth organization Novi Ritm, will be the focus of the next article in this mini series about democratization in Kyrgyzstan. We will there continue to examine the implications of CAG’s view on democratization since we will look into in what way Novi Ritm could be said to contribute to the process of creating democracy.

Different conceptions of democracy have consequences for our understanding of democratization

First of all, we need to disentangle the ambiguous meaning of “democracy” since different conceptions of democracy have consequences for our understanding of democratization.

One of the most over-arching divides in how to view democracy is whether democracy should be seen as a dichotomy with two clear-cut categories (either an entity is democratic or not) or more as a continuum, where entities can be found along a scale (they could be more or less democratic). At the heart of this divide lies the question of whether there exists a final goal of democratization, that is, would we clearly recognize democracy when we get there? The advocates for the dichotomous definition would argue yes, and the advocates for a more nuanced view on democracy no, since democracy could always improve.

A dichotomous definition that strives to establish a minimum for what can be labelled democracy is stated by Weale (1999; 2007): “In a democracy important public decisions on questions of law and policy depend directly or indirectly upon public opinion formally expressed by citizens of the community, the vast bulk of whom have equal political rights”. This is normally called the formal democracy conception and is what could be called the mainstream view on democracy.

This type of minimalist definition has however received criticism. In Harris et. al. (2004), it is argued that the minimalist definition as above ignores power structures that will hinder the unprivileged to freely formulate their interests and opinions and also that the state is more responsive to the already privileged. Harris et al draw on empirics from global South contexts when they claim that there exists local, national and global strongmen with asymmetrical power derived from religious, gender, ethnic, cultural or economic power relations, but  also that more subtle differences in income, network and education determine the opportunities to participate in political life. As an example, when asked about what could improve the quality of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, Aida Bektasheva who is working for the organization called “Coalition for democracy and civil society”, answered for example that she would like to see what she calls “a real election process”. She meant that not everyone has equal opportunities to for example become politicians at the moment in Kyrgyzstan. According to her, now there is mainly businessmen involvedin politics, because they have the money and contacts to find their way through the corrupt system.

The ones putting forward this type of criticism based on that a formal notion of democracy overlooks the active participation of most social strata of citizens, have what is normally called a participatory conception of democracy. This conception tends to see democracy as a continuum – the more groups that have real possibilities of affecting the realm of politics, the more democratic an entity is.

The third categorization of democracy would be social democracy, where one also includes economic dimensions to the political rights and freedoms. The participatory conception tries to claim that it takes more than formal democracy for the vast bulk of people to partake in the political life, and social democracy goes one step further claiming that if the economic preconditions does not exist, one’s capability of making effective use of rights and freedoms is severely limited.  Obviously, this category is also found in the strand of democracy as continuum.

The framework established by Huber et al. (1997) help us display how different conceptions of democracy have consequences for our understanding of democratization. Adopting the formal democracy conception, democratization is development towards the liberal minimalist democracy, any development beyond is seen as plain ideological policies in other dimensions than those of democracy. Adopting the participatory conception, democratization means, on top of the minimalist criteria, also development towards more equal participation. And adopting social democracy, development towards redistributive efforts are also seen as democratization.

CAG’s view on democracy and how it relates to the existing theories and perspectives on democracy

CAG draws on different analytical tools for their understanding of Central Asia. Without attempting to explain them all in this text, they range from postcolonial studies, intersectionality, world system analysis, dependency theory, post-structuralism, actor-network theory and performativity theory.

The formal democracy perception, which tends to be the dominant one in public discourse, has according to CAG flaws which the other theories helps to shine light upon, for example the social and economic aspects of democracy. It is therefore easy to argue that CAG finds themselves as operating somewhere in the participatory and social conceptions of democracy.

Intersectionality, which means a perspective which acknowledges that different power structures organize society all the time (based on gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, ability etc) and that we have to take this into account and counteract their adverse effects on equality, is one of the analytical tools the influences most of CAG’s day-to-day work. This overlaps with the analysis made by advocates of participatory democracy. The other analytical tool which heavily characterizes CAGs work is performativity, meaning in this context that actions and behaviours that are democratic create democracy, both on a small-scale and large-scale.

Applying performativity theory to democracy  means that the methods that aims at creating democracy in society as a whole should be of democratic nature even in its small format. This is what creates democracy. Making democratic acts in everyday life, for example having a round during a meeting to let everyone have a say on the matter discussed, is how we create democracy continuously.

Followingly, CAG defines democracy as:

Democracy is a set of practices and organizational forms that facilitates a more equal and gender equal society. Democracy is not a static condition, it is actions. A country will never be fully democratic since democracy is not a state one can achieve once and for all but it can develop all the time.

From this, it is clear that performativity is the most characterizing trait of CAG’s view on democracy and also democratization. It is different from the other conceptions of democracy that we accounted for above, since the means and the end are seen as the same – democracy and democratization is the same thing! This places CAG’s view on democracy in the extreme end of the spectra of democracy as continuum, far from the minimalist and formal definition. The final goal, according to CAG, is to create and re-create more democracy continuously.

One very important difference is also the entity in focus of the analysis. Most definitions of democracy see the nation state as the natural point of focus, whereas a performative perspective encourages to consider all forums as potential democracies. As Gustaf Sörnmo, the Chair Person of CAG so elegantly put it:  “There can be dictatorial  elements in something that is politically democratic [on a nation state-level] and democratic enclaves in a dictatorship”.  

By this view, to democratize, we should maximize the amount and quality of democratic actions. Democratic actions are according to Sörnmo actions that facilitate equality, participation and equal influence.

Sörnmo also mentions the notion of democracy that is called deliberative democracy as influencing how CAG considers democracy. Deliberative democracy also emphasizes the process rather than the result, and promotes dialogue between people to realize what is the common good and to reach consensus. For this, it becomes important to create contexts where people, ideally from different backgrounds, can learn from each other. In this context Novi Ritm is an interesting case, to which we will return in next blog post.

To round off this section, it should be mentioned that CAG is not categorically against interventions aimed at improving the electoral system or more traditional institutions of democracy. After having analyzed the needs in the region in dialogue with local actors and compared it to the strengths and competencies represented within their own organization, CAG has developed its model of democratization to lean more towards a performative and deliberative model rather than a formalist one, but sees the need of a multitude of initiatives operating at different levels to improve democracy.

The role of civil society for democratization

The link between democracy and civil society is a contested one, especially in Kyrgyzstan. According to Schulte (2008):

“In Kyrgyzstan, as in other post-Soviet countries, one of the main strategies of democratization policies promoted by the international donor community has been the establishment of a strong civil society that promotes democratic ideas among the population and controls (counteracts when necessary) the actions of government.”

This view that most external donors  have on civil society as playing the role of the watch-dog that is supposed to keep the government in line, is usually seen as a part of the formal conception of democracy. At a first glance, one could think that CAG, being an international organization and also focusing on “a democratic Central Asia with a strong, active and inclusive civil society”  would hold a similar view on the role of civil society for democratization. CAG is however different in several ways.

Firstly,  they would argue that they are not supporting civil society in Kyrgyzstan (for example Novi Ritm) for them to promote democratic ideas,  but rather democratic actions, practices and organizational forms. Sörnmo says that CAG wants to avoid the perspective of international donors and organization educating, informing and enlightening the locals  in the way other international NGOs do, according to both him and Schulte. Sörnmo’s scepticism towards this perspective is twofold.  He is against that an organization from the global North would  impose universalist ideas and solutions, and he does not believe in sole knowledge transfer by focusing on information and awareness as a means of social change. CAG rather focuses on behaviour, practice and organizing for bringing about change.

Secondly, CAG is primarily not supporting civil society in Kyrgyzstan for them to counteract the government but CAG is supporting civil society for it to exist in its own right, and not necessarily in relation to the state. This is obviously linked to their performative view on democracy, which is not solely limited to liberalizing the government.

Thirdly, CAG is also clear on the point that civil society in Kyrgyzstan is not the universal cure for democratization. The civil society is internally far from being democratic in itself, especially since it tends to be professionalized rather than popular.  Here, the intersectional perspective allows CAG to screen the power relations within civil society and to conclude that there are many power imbalances within it. CAG sees their role as international organization supporting civil society as helping to democratize civil society itself.

In this regard, it is worth underlining that both Sörnmo and Schulte argue that NGOs, being the main components of civil society of Kyrgyzstan, are almost always seen as professional organizations in the contexts where they are operating, and not as popular movements stemming from the people. From CAGs performative view on democracy, this is a real problem  that should be addressed if we want to talk about the democratizing effect of civil society. This is arguably also why they are supporting Novi Ritm, which aims at being a NGO where local youth are the ones running the organization for other youth and setting their own agenda for social change, ideally planting a seed for a popular movement to take place. We will develop this thought in Part 2 on Democratization in Kyrgyzstan.

I would like to thank Gustaf Sörnmo, Aida Bektasheva and Thomas Högman for their contributions to this article.

By Josefin Åström


John Harris, Olle Thörnquist, Kristian Stokke, Sophie Oldfield and Björn Beckman in Harris et al., 2004 Politicizing Democracy The new Local Politics of Democratization. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Huber et al., 1997, Evelyne Huber, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, John D. Stephens, The Paradoxes of Contemporary Democracy: Formal, Participatory, and Social Dimensions. Article Published in Comparative Politics, Vol. 29, No. 3 [online] Available at: < http://www.jstor.org/stable/422124 >

Schulte, Yulia. 2008. Kyrgyzstan Today – Policy Briefs on Civil Society, Migration, Islam, Corruption. Benchmarking the process of democratization in Kyrgyzstan by defining the role and functions of NGOs. Bishkek: Social Research Center, American University of Central Asia. Available at: <http://www.geo.uzh.ch/~suthieme/KG_Today_eng%20Kopie.pdf>

Weale, Albert, 2007 Democracy 2nd edition. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan