Democracy Lab

A Nonviolent Alternative for Ukraine

Ukraine faces a rising tide of violence in the restive east. Here's why nonviolent activism is the best strategy for fighting back.

On May 15, thousands of unarmed residents and steelworkers of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol did nonviolently what a bloody attack by Ukrainian troops six days earlier was unable to: rid the region's second-largest city of armed pro-Russian separatists who had held key buildings and other parts of the city for weeks. Smaller protests have taken place in other cities in eastern Ukraine held by separatists.

In the eastern cities targeted by armed pro-Russian militias, such as Donetsk, Lugansk, and Krivy Rig, large nonviolent protests in support of national unity have taken place in recent weeks. (The photo above shows a pro-Ukrainian unity rally in Lugansk on April 18.) But as the country prepared for its presidential election on May 25, there was also an uptick in violence. In particular, a separatist attack on a government checkpoint just before the election left 16 dead; shortly after the polls closed on Sunday, the Ukrainian government launched bloody airstrikes against separatists who had taken control of the Donetsk airport. Given this turbulent context, a great deal depends on whether Ukrainian civil society relies on nonviolent action in the coming weeks and months.

A reliance on nonviolent methods makes it far more difficult for the separatists -- and their allies in Russia -- to claim the majority of the region's people are on their side. Military operations by the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as the mob violence that resulted in the deaths of more than 40 ethnic Russians in Odessa a few weeks ago, have already done much to fan anti-government sentiment. Relying on local groups to use peaceful resistance -- rather than sending in counterterrorism squads from Kiev or arming local pro-Kiev militias -- avoids the risk of turning residents against the central government. It was precisely such violent threats that Putin used, back in March, to justify his annexation of Crimea on the grounds that Russian-speaking people needed "protection."

Minorities wishing to secure or expand their rights should not underestimate the power of nonviolent resistance in achieving these goals. Over the past century, the power of civil resistance has played an important role in resisting foreign occupation. Moreover, campaigns that used armed struggle to liberate themselves from foreign occupation were less likely to succeed than those that used nonviolent resistance.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing recent examples of nonviolent resistance comes from the Middle East. Despite being torn by sectarian divisions and the legacy of a bloody civil war, the people of Lebanon were able to rise up nonviolently in 2005 to force an end to decades of Syrian domination, in what became known in the West as the "Cedar Revolution" -- though the Lebanese themselves revealingly refer to it as the intifada istiqlal, or "struggle for independence." The 25,000 troops in the country and the influential agents within key sectors of the Lebanese government were no match for the will of the majority the Lebanese people.

India, the largest country ever under direct foreign rule, freed itself from Britain through the nonviolent campaign led by Mahatma Gandhi. Nonviolent campaigns played a significant role in a number of African struggles against European occupation, most notably in Zambia. Despite concurrent armed struggles, nonviolent resistance in East Timor against the Indonesian occupation and in Namibia against the South African occupation played a major role in mobilizing global civil society in their support, which proved to play a far more significant role in enabling freedom for those nations than did the guerrilla forces.

Throughout the Cold War, movements throughout Eastern Europe resisted Soviet influence and occupation via unarmed resistance. The nonviolent resistance in Czechoslovakia following the 1968 Soviet invasion, despite its unplanned nature, prevented consolidation of control by the Soviets and their allies for a full six months (in contrast to the 1956 invasion of Hungary, where the armed resistance was brutally crushed within days).

Those months of active defiance of the Soviet occupation helped create a culture of resistance that lasted for the next 20 years, preventing Moscow from ever reasserting its total control over Czechoslovakia due to the unwillingness of many people in that country to obey, leading eventually to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the country's freedom. The occupied Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet control largely through widespread nonviolent resistance.

Even in the face of German occupation during World War II, nonviolent resistance in Norway and Denmark greatly reduced the ability of the Nazis to control those countries and suppress their populations relative to elsewhere in Europe. Today, small Eastern European states like Lithuania, recognizing the limitations of their armed forces in resisting conquest by powerful neighbors, have adopted as part of their national defense policies the mobilization of the population in civil resistance. Recognizing the power of total withdrawal of cooperation by civilians, Lithuania's grand strategy explicitly incorporates "civilian-based defense" -- or the threat of continual resistance against any foreign invader -- as a way to deter occupation by a foreign country.

Nonviolent resistance is certainly more difficult in situations where the majority of the population supports the occupation, such as in Western Sahara, where Moroccan settlers brought in since the 1975 conquest and illegal annexation of that country now outnumber the indigenous Sahrawis. The ongoing nonviolent resistance movement in Western Sahara, while thus far failing to end the occupation, has nevertheless prevented Morocco's conquest from becoming a fait accompli.

Similarly, nonviolent resistance in Crimea would make Russian control of the peninsula, despite the referendum victory, problematic. Tatars and Ukrainians constitute nearly 40 percent of the population of Crimea combined, but far fewer than that are required to make the Russian occupation difficult. A variety of low-risk actions -- such as subtle forms of noncooperation, tax boycotts, and even sex strikes are currently underway in both Crimea and parts of Ukraine as ways to maintain autonomy and resist the Russian annexation.

Crimean Tatars may even have the ability to use nonviolent resistance to elicit the support of powerful third parties, both in mainland Ukraine and even in Russia. They have the sympathy -- if not overt support -- of allies in Ukraine, which provides most of Crimea's electricity and 70 percent of its food. Despite the unanimous support in the Duma of Putin's military moves in Ukraine, the Russian public appears to be ambivalent if not unenthusiastic about further Russian intervention in Ukraine. The widespread use of nonviolent resistance in mainland Russia would serve notice that opposition to Russian annexation of Crimea goes beyond the Western nations and includes the heartfelt sentiment of a significant number of Crimeans themselves.

Remaining nonviolent certainly won't guarantee that the occupier will treat the opposition peacefully. In fact, most nonviolent campaigns face considerable violence. But remaining nonviolent means that the pro-Russia militias and the Russian regime's uses of violence are more likely to produce difficulties with sustaining repression over the long haul, while also increasing the chances that such repression will backfire and elicit more support from the international community. Moreover, nonviolent methods of resistance -- such as foot-dragging and other forms of noncooperation like those used by the Czechs and Slovaks during the 1970s and 1980s -- are less likely to elicit as violent a response from regime forces than, say, open armed rebellion, street fighting, or sabotage.

A strategy of nonviolent action also has important long-term implications (though Ukrainians can be forgiven if they find it hard to look beyond the urgent present). Studies have shown that the way groups prosecute a campaign strongly affects the way the country evolves in the longer term: Countries that experienced campaigns of nonviolent resistance were about 15 percent less likely to relapse into civil war within a decade than those with campaigns waged through armed struggle. Moreover, nonviolent campaigns that use small amounts of violence are likewise more than twice as likely to experience civil war as those that use strict nonviolent discipline in the prosecution of the campaign.

The international community should, meanwhile, act delicately toward the nonviolent movements that emerge. Supporting them outright could actually undermine their domestic legitimacy and feed into Putin's propaganda that the West is conspiring to use the unrest in Ukraine to expand its influence to Russia's borders. Moreover, research suggests that overt forms of material assistance -- such as funds -- do not increase the average success rate of grassroots movements.

Instead, the international community should use whatever means necessary to reinforce the goal of reducing violence in the country as the primary aim of all negotiations. Moreover, international actors should strongly assert the right of people in Ukraine -- of all political persuasions -- to engage in peaceful protest and resistance in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Violations of these rights by Russian forces -- or by the Ukrainian government in Kiev -- should continue to be punished, first through travel restrictions against guilty parties, then by targeted economic sanctions such as the freezing of economic assets held in foreign banks. The international community should also demand that both eastern Ukraine and Crimea remain open to journalists from all countries -- not just from Russia and Ukraine. The world needs to witness what unfolds in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, and watching through a solely Kremlin or Kiev-oriented lens is unlikely to yield credible information. Armed struggle, if used by pro-Kiev groups, would likely undermine the willingness and capacity of the international community to maintain its commitment to such steps, while threatening to create truly massive humanitarian crisis in the country -- both in the short and longer term.

In the end, it may not be politicians in the Kremlin or in Kiev who have all the power in this situation. It may be the people themselves. As political scientist Oliver Kaplan has shown, a number of nonviolent options are available to civilians -- even in the midst of violent conflict and against armed militia groups -- to protect their autonomy. Villages in rural Colombia have nonviolently resisted pressure from the military, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries to be conscripted, extorted, or controlled. In such violent regions as the Niger Delta and the Guatemalan highlands, nonviolent resistance has similarly challenged both armed groups and government forces.

If Ukrainians need a source for inspiration, perhaps they can look to the Tatars, who utilized nonviolent resistance in successfully demanding a fair degree of autonomy for the Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation, avoiding the carnage, repression, and emergence of extremists of Chechnya, another Muslim republic within the Russian Federation. And on May 18, more than 20,000 Crimean Tartars protested in the capital of Sevastopol and many thousands more would have taken to the streets in Simferopol and elsewhere had Russian troops not prevented the rallies from taking place. The people in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and throughout the country do not want to be pawns in a great power game. They are increasingly recognizing that the best way to stop Russian irredentism and challenge ethnic chauvinists on both sides is for civil society to take the lead and fight for their freedom through strategic nonviolent action.



The Brawl in Bogota

A nasty -- and surprising -- election fight is playing out in Colombia. And the recent years of peace and prosperity hang in the balance.

Four years ago, Colombia -- Washington's closest ally on the continent and a nation that a decade earlier had been widely viewed as on the verge of being a failed state -- bore all the traces of continuing a remarkable transition to a robust democracy. After nearly a decade of battling the country's largest insurgency -- the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) -- the tough, take-charge, and polarizing two-term president, Álvaro Uribe, turned over the reins to his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos.

Surprisingly for many, given his reputation as a hard-liner, Santos's tenor was far more conciliatory than his predecessor's from the moment he was elected in June 2010. He promised continuity on key economic and security policies, but was far more inclined to forge consensus among Colombia's diverse political forces. His search for governance and a reform agenda led Santos quickly to form the National Unity coalition of parties, which accounted for about 90 percent of Congress when he assumed office.

While Santos sought to lower the temperature from the confrontational politics that characterized the preceding eight years, he initially had nothing but praise for Uribe's record. The former president's undeniable success in debilitating the country's five-decade insurgency and improving the overall security situation led Santos to call Uribe "Colombia's second-greatest liberator" (behind independence hero Simón Bolívar, of course).

But the mutual goodwill has proved fleeting, and Santos's tenure has been anything but smooth. An unprecedented feud emerged between the two Colombian presidents, chiefly about how best to sustain the country's security gains under Uribe and end the long-standing armed conflict. The extent of the bad blood was sharply revealed in the tumultuous first round of the presidential election on May 25.

Uribe, who in 2010 was barred by the Constitutional Court from running for a third term but was elected to the Senate in March, handpicked his former finance minister, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, to represent his nascent Democratic Center party. Defying the polls and surprising most pundits, Zuluaga topped the field of five candidates, garnering 29 percent of the vote, followed by Santos with 26 percent. The runoff will be held on June 15.

In his victory speech, it was striking that Zuluaga framed the final vote as a fundamental choice between continuity and change -- or, perhaps more directly, a return to Uribe. The key question, however, is why so many voters are attracted to the "change" option when the country is advancing so impressively on many fronts.

Colombia is indeed performing well -- both compared with the rest of Latin America as well as during the Uribe presidency. The economy grew over 5 percent last year, foreign investment is pouring in, inflation is at its lowest point in decades, and levels of poverty and unemployment have been declining. To be sure, serious problems remain: persistent agrarian protests, deficient education and health, and stubbornly high levels of inequality. But the progress is indisputable.

A peace process is also under way -- the centerpiece of the Santos government and the chief issue in his re-election campaign. From the outset, Santos's every move has been calculated to achieve what he hoped would ultimately be his legacy -- a peace accord with the FARC and an end to decades of armed conflict. This highly coveted prize has eluded every Colombian president over the past quarter-century. But when Santos took office, conditions seemed more propitious than ever -- ironically, thanks in large measure to Uribe's effective offensive against the FARC.

Since November 2012, Santos's able negotiating team has reached agreement with the FARC leadership on several key questions, including how to deal with long-standing battles over land and addressing the production and shipment of illicit drugs -- an important source of revenue for the FARC. The remaining issues, however, are particularly tricky and contentious: the FARC's role and participation in Colombian politics and the terms of justice for its past crimes.

The process has moved along, but much slower than the government initially projected. Polls consistently show that while Colombians want to end the nation's terribly costly war -- and would prefer to end it without further bloodshed -- they oppose what they view as impunity for the widely despised FARC. Many remain skeptical about whether the rebels are negotiating in good faith and whether this round of peace talks can succeed where so many previous attempts have failed.

Moreover, there has been a disconnect between talk about the peace process -- which polls show is not even among the top five concerns for most Colombians -- and more quotidian yet pressing issues like health and education. In the campaign, Santos has surprisingly neglected to tout his government's enviable record on economic and social progress or to explain how he plans to build on such accomplishments in a second term. The result has been a campaign dominated -- on both sides -- by an issue that for many Colombians seems distant and is viewed as relatively inconsequential.

For Uribe, the direction Santos has moved since becoming president -- first his rapprochement with Uribe's bête noire, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and then the peace process with the FARC -- are acts of personal betrayal. Uribe believed that his successor would faithfully carry his agenda moving forward. As soon as Santos shifted ground, Uribe launched a relentless campaign to discredit him and deny his re-election ambition.

More than anything else, the peace process has infuriated Uribe and sustained his feud with Santos. And so he chose a proxy to bring Santos down. Among Uribe's close associates, Zuluaga was the candidate who had the best chance of beating Santos. Many of Uribe's attacks against his former defense minister have been intemperate and baseless, with warnings about the possible "Castro-Chávezisation" of Colombia. Uribe has also charged -- largely without foundation -- that security gains under his administration have been reversed under Santos.

But Uribe is nothing if not wily and shrewd, a consummate politician. An inveterate Twitter user, he has his finger on the pulse of Colombian public opinion. True, he is a divisive figure, and there is some "Uribe fatigue." But his followers are loyal, passionate, and ready for a restoration behind Zuluaga. As gratuitous as Uribe's attacks have been, they have clearly resonated with broad swaths of the Colombian public.

This widespread wariness about the way the peace process has unfolded help accounts for the election results. Zuluaga -- with Uribe at his side, doggedly pounding away -- has lambasted what he sees as Santos's excessively soft approach in dealing with the rebels. He has insisted that the FARC cease criminal activity before any further negotiations take place and has vowed that, as president, he would suspend the current process.

Santos, who knew the peace process was a huge gamble, lacks Uribe's popular touch. Having served as minister in three administrations, however, Santos may be Colombia's best-prepared president. He commands key policy issues, from security to the economy to the social agenda, and is the scion of a political family (his great uncle was president in the 1930s). Yet despite his pedigree, he has struggled to consolidate his political leadership. His polling numbers are over 60 percent negative. And, as Sunday, May 25's results confirmed, just slightly more than a quarter of all Colombians favor his re-election.

It is doubtful that in the less than three weeks before the second round, the campaign will be elevated. Instead, it is reasonable to expect that what most analysts agree was an unusually dirty campaign will degenerate even further. Colombians are bracing themselves for another round of scandals, mudslinging, accusations, and personal attacks between the Santos and Zuluaga campaigns (with Uribe as the principal political operative of the latter). Meanwhile, both contenders are scurrying to get support from the three other vanquished candidates on the right, left, and center.

The biggest casualty of first-round voting was public confidence in Colombia's politics. As a measure of apathy and disenchantment with the degradation of the electoral process, abstention was at a record high. Despite significant levels of violence and criminality, Colombia has been known for its comity in the political sphere. Its former presidents have traditionally transcended partisan squabbling. This campaign, however, has been far from ennobling. There were charges, for example, that Zuluaga commissioned a hacker to spy on the peace talks and that drug traffickers had bribed a key Santos campaign advisor. There are bound to be serious, long-term institutional costs for South America's oldest democracy.

Indeed, no matter who wins on June 15, it is likely that the next administration will find governing extremely difficult. Santos would start his second term with scant public enthusiasm and would face a formidable opponent in Uribe and his supporters in the Senate. Zuluaga, on the other hand, would have Uribe at his side, but would need to work with a congressional majority that has supported Santos. Absent reduced tensions and some measure of reconciliation, it is hard to be optimistic that much will be accomplished under either scenario.

For Washington, which considered a second Santos administration nearly a foregone conclusion, the current uncertainty is worrying. Although the United States must figure out how to work with either candidate, it had planned to cooperate with Santos to implement an eventual accord with the FARC. (The FARC hasn't yet officially weighed in on what it might do if Zuluaga were elected.) But having provided Colombia with some $9 billion in security aid since 2000 -- far more than any other country in the Western Hemisphere -- the United States has a huge stake in one of its few strategic partners in Latin America

After Santos was elected resoundingly in 2010, he remarked that since Uribe had built a runway, Colombia could now fly. In many respects, Colombia has taken off. But Santos has encountered turbulence halfway into his flight plan. And behind it is his tenacious predecessor who is intent on being the pilot once again.