Democracy Lab

The Streets Ain't What They Used to Be

Back in the days of the Arab Spring, optimists predicted a bright future for democratic upheavals around the world. But the reality in places like Ukraine, Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand is far messier.

Ukraine isn’t the only country where protesters have been busy battling governments lately. In Venezuela, 18 people have been killed during weeks of big demonstrations against the administration of President Nicolás Maduro. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having survived months of intense popular discontent, is fighting for his political life. And although the leader of the street protests in Thailand recently decided to end his supporters’ blockade of downtown Bangkok, the showdown there (which has taken the lives of at least 16 people) is far from over.

In some ways all of these rebellions look like extensions of the Arab Spring that started three years ago. The same motives that drew protesters into Tahir Square and the streets of Tunis and Tripoli still loom large. Irate citizens are taking aim at corruption, economic mismanagement, and autocratic overreach -- the same factors that also prompted powerful mass protests last year in countries as diverse as Brazil, Cambodia, and Bulgaria (all of which continue to this day in various forms). One might even include the remarkable opposition rallies in big cities around Russia in 2012 -- or perhaps the surprising people power movement that flared up in Bosnia last month. Are we witnessing, perhaps, an oft-predicted “contagion effect” -- the flowering of a new era of demands for democratic accountability?

That’s certainly possible. The mere fact that so many people in so many parts of the world have chosen to put their bodies (and in some cases their lives) on the line certainly suggests that citizens are far less content to unthinkingly accept whatever their leaders dish out. The speed with which information zooms around the world unquestionably plays an inspiring role: when you see big crowds of people on the evening news chanting slogans against their own governments, your first reaction is likely to be, “Why can’t we do that here?

Take a closer look, though, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s a big gulf between today’s would-be revolutions and those that unfolded during the Arab Spring. The main difference involves the nature of the regimes that opposition movements are trying to combat. When people took to the streets in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, they were opposing long-entrenched dictators. But the demonstrators in Turkey, Thailand, and Venezuela are fighting elected leaders who still have the backing of big segments of society. This was true in Ukraine as well.

In Thailand, the so-called “Yellow Shirt” protesters who want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra cite her alleged corruption as their rationale for attempting to overturn a government that received a comfortable majority of Thais’ votes in the last election. (She’s the sister of the country’s richest man, the now-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, who continues to control a big chunk of Thailand’s economy from afar.)

But there’s also an ill-concealed regional and class dynamic behind the protests: the opposition draws heavily on middle- and upper-class Thais from the urban south who feel threatened by the Shinawatras’ success in using subsidies and cheap health care to court northerners whose livelihoods are tied closely to the rural economy. In just about any electoral scenario, the much more numerous northerners will usually triumph over the smaller southern elites. This helps to explain why members of the opposition, led by the confusingly named People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), actually tried to prevent Thais from voting in the election held in early February. But Shinawatra has managed to hang on nonetheless -- fresh evidence that her own political support among certain segments of the Thai population remains quite strong. Now the PDRC has decided to lift its blockade of downtown Bangkok, vowing instead to pursue corruption charges against the prime minister through the court system.

Corruption is a major ingredient in the continuing political battle in Turkey as well. There, leaked tapes and documents implicating Prime Minister Erdogan in various forms of malfeasance are now inspiring a fresh round of street protests. The prime minister (who of course denies the accusations) is vowing to fight back with every means at his disposal; lately he’s even started talking about banning Facebook and YouTube.

The Turkish protest movement actually began last year. It started when a series of high-handed government decisions prompted many Turks to accuse Erdogan (who, like Shinwatra, has won several consecutive general election victories) of increasingly dictatorial behavior. The biggest practical problem facing the Turkish opposition movement today is that it remains deeply fragmented: no single party or group is capable of offering a unifying focus. In contrast, the prime minister still enjoys the backing of his Islamist AK Party, a well-organized political machine with a strong popular following. It’s small wonder that the most effective challenge to Erdogan’s power now comes not from the protesters but from shadowy rival Islamists within the government.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, demonstrators are confronting a government that narrowly survived a strong challenge from opposition leader Henrique Capriles in last year’s general election. That vote wasn’t fair, given the government’s dominance of the media and its use of "administrative resources," but it was just free enough that the opposition actually had a realistic shot at victory. Yet the spreading discontent over shortages, sky-high crime rates, and soaring inflation doesn’t seem to have dented President Maduro’s core support among his backers in the slums and poor rural communities. Here, as in the other countries, protesters face the unenviable task of dislodging a leader who can claim a certain degree of legitimacy from the ballot box.

But the rising number of casualties among Venezuelan demonstrators should give Maduro pause. The example of Ukraine shows how quickly a popular mandate can evaporate once a leader gives the order to disperse his critics in the streets by force. Ex-President Yanukovych undoubtedly made life much easier for his critics with his blatant corruption and his obvious efforts to accumulate power in his own hands. (It so happens that his greed also alienated many of the oligarchs who still wield the lion’s share of power over Ukraine’s economy -- a factor that may have helped to precipitate his fall in ways we still don’t entirely understand.)

Even so, the way the “democratic revolution” that won out in Kiev still demonstrates the complications that can arise when opposition movements face off against leaders who boast the backing of large segments of society. Most of the key posts in the new interim government, for example, went to the party of ex-opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose past political record (and questionable wealth) have made her strikingly unpopular among the grassroots protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. Such divisions within the opposition could render the government unstable during the crucial months ahead.

Similarly, the rump parliament that convened after many Yanukovych supporters deserted the capital overreached, quickly passing legislation (on language and other issues) that was calculated to alienate Yanukovych’s core voters in the Russian-speaking east. The Russians might well have seized the opportunity to grab Crimea anyway -- but the revolutionaries’ mishandling of the situation unquestionably played into Moscow’s hands. It will certainly prove much harder for Kiev to build bridges to Ukrainians in the east and preserve national unity as a result.

When are street protesters entitled to push for the overthrow a democratically elected government -- and when not? At what point does an elected leader squander -- through corruption, incompetence, or authoritarian excess -- the legitimacy conferred by the ballot box? When do conflicts between classes or political factions exceed the normal bounds of healthy political competition inherent in democracies?

To some extent, the fact that we have to ask these questions mirrors an age in which many societies aren't clearcut dictatorships or obvious liberal democracies, but rather something in between: "illiberal democracies" or "hybrid regimes" that combine the trappings of democracy with various authoritarian mechanisms. In such a world, situations like the one in Thailand -- where self-described "Democrats" end up blockading polling stations to prevent their fellow citizens from voting -- aren't necessarily as unusual as one might think.

It’s natural for people who live in democratic societies to root for those elsewhere who seem to be fighting for the same values. It was relatively easy to take sides during the Arab Spring, which offered a relatively clear disposition of forces: dictators versus demonstrators. Judging by some of these more recent stories, though, we can't expect matters to be so clear. The current wave of revolutionary discontent around the world is anything but black and white.

John Moore/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Rescue Me!

Vladimir Putin is justifying his grab for Crimea with the need to protect the "Russian-speaking population" in Ukraine. But why stop there?

Dear President Putin:

I am sorely in need of your protection. Please help.

Now, I know this might seem a bit unexpected coming from an American -- a "pure American," as you might say. By which I mean that there's not a drop of Russian blood in my body.

But that, you see, is not the whole story. It so happens that I speak your language. I started studying Russian in high school, and I've been studying it for years since then. Maybe I'm not entirely fluent, but I know enough to follow the news.

Which is why I was so thrilled to read the Kremlin's statement about your March 1 phone call with President Obama: "Vladimir Putin stressed that in case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas." What a wonderfully elastic phrase: "the Russian-speaking population."

The context, of course, is your latest decision to use troops from the Black Sea Fleet to take over Crimea. You're afraid that the new Ukrainian government -- those guys who overthrew your friend, Viktor Yanukovych -- want to start killing people who speak Russian. That's why you spoke of a Ukrainian "threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots" in your authorization-of-force request to the upper house of the Russian parliament on the same day you spoke with Obama.

Now I realize that there's not much real evidence that the new government in Kiev has been planning anything like an assault on Russians (or Russian speakers) in the country. Luckily for you, the revolutionary parliament, keen on rolling back Yanukovych-era legislation, quickly passed a law enshrining Ukrainian as the only state language. So you seized the opportunity to stir up fears that the culture of those "compatriots" is under threat.

To be sure, the shaky Ukrainian interim government is barely in a position to clean up the streets of the capital, much less implement a change in language policy. But their backers have been tearing down a lot of Lenin statues. After all, he was a Russian-speaker, right? (Even though he looks like a bit of a Tartar.) Now there's a threat for you.

In any event, stating that your main concern in Ukraine is guarding the interests of the "Russian-speaking population" is a masterstroke. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians speak some Russian, so just about anyone in the country is potentially in a position to enjoy your protection.

And as for potential threats to us Russian speakers in the rest of the world -- well, they're everywhere, aren't they? When my wife and I were speaking Russian in the supermarket checkout line today, I noticed the cashier giving us dirty looks. And we're not alone. There are thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants in the suburbs of Washington. If we all gather together in one place, we'd definitely qualify as a "population."

OK, so maybe we aren't "compatriots," strictly speaking. But you've got an easy solution for that too -- you can just give us passports! As freshly minted citizens, we'll be fully entitled to your protection.

You know what I'm talking about, right? I've seen those images of your officials handing out shiny new Russian passports to members of Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police who are the main folks responsible for the killing of 88 demonstrators in the center of Kiev during the EuroMaidan Revolution. Now, if anyone knows how to take care of themselves, surely it's these guys -- yet you're going out of your way to guarantee that crucial extra bit of insurance. Could there be any better example of the broad, generous Russian soul at work?

Let's give credit where credit is due: You are the architect of these policies, Vladimir Vladimirovich. You and no one else. The ruling elite in Moscow is simply following your lead, frantically scrambling onto the anti-Ukrainian bandwagon as fast as they can. (They're right not to care if war results; after all, it's not their kids who will be doing the fighting.) As for ordinary Russians -- well, for some reason they aren't quite so keen. One poll conducted last week showed that 73 percent of your own citizens think that Russian intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine is a bad idea.

Wimps. These are obviously people who, unlike their beleaguered compatriots in Ukraine, don't have to live under the constant psychological pressure of talk about "Europe" and "rule of law" and "human rights." That's because you, Mr. President, have done such a marvelous job of protecting Russians at home -- not only in other countries. You've protected them from all those people in the opposition who threaten Russia with their unpleasant talk about safeguarding the environment and fighting corruption. (You call them "extremists" -- the same way that your government now reflexively refers to members of Ukraine's pro-European government as "fascists.") You've protected them from people like Roman Khabarov, that ex-cop who has made a career out of exposing police abuses. And you even protected the Olympics against those scary girls from Pussy Riot. I truly shiver whenever I see them.

You've even extended your protection to President Yanukovych himself (though you have made it clear you don't think much of him, since he turned out to be such a big softie). After he turned up in Russia a few days ago, he held a big press conference in which he insisted, among other things, that he's still Ukraine's president. In case anyone had doubts about whose protection he was under, he spoke Russian throughout the entire event. Now there's a man who has earned his passport.

Not that you should stop there, of course, Mr. Putin. There are plenty of other Russian speakers around the world yearning to be free. Take London -- or should I say "Londongrad"? The Russian-speaking population there already numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Most importantly of all, that's where Yanukovych's main financial backer, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, spent $221 million on the world's most expensive apartment a few years back. Some Ukrainians are already sniffing around, trying to figure out how he earned the money -- and how much he gave Yanukovych to keep him afloat. Keep tabs on this, Mr. President; this guy might very well need some protection from those Ukrainian "fascists."

Just like all of those oligarchs who serve you back home -- you know, those 110 men who control 35 percent of the country's entire wealth? They know that they have you to thank. Without you, they'd be no one. They'd be nothing.

OK, I get it. You have bigger fish to fry. You're preparing to set up this new organization called the "Eurasian Union," a sort of small-scale reprise of the old USSR that will bring together Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. (You offered Yanukovych those big bucks to back away from closer association with the European Union because you wanted to see Ukraine join up too.)

One of the best things about this new grouping is that many of the people in these allied countries speak Russian. So it will be that much easier to give them passports, demand that their rights be guarded, and offer all the other sorts of protection that Russian speakers in Crimea have already come to expect. Not bad, Mr. President. The best policies are ones that can be used against your friends -- as well as your enemies. (That may be why the Kazakh government recently decided to stress publicly that it wants the Eurasian Union to remain limited to trade and economic matters. Good luck with that, eh?)

As for me, you know how to get in touch. We American Russian-speakers don't need a lot of protection -- I'm sure that a couple of spetsnaz around the neighborhood would do fine. But please don't wait too long. The English-speaking majority around here is starting to get a bit uppity.

Photo: VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images