Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Why do democratic revolutions succeed?

One of the notable things about democratic revolutions is that despite the "overpowering will of the people," they so often fail. In the face of a determined dictatorship, peaceful demonstrators will just about never succeed in overthrowing the government. In some sense, this is a tautology; peaceful = not overthrowing, by definition. But this observation also reveals its mirror image: that peaceful demonstrators only succeed if the government is willing to let them; that is, if the government is sufficiently weakened, divided, or driven by conscience not to fire on the demonstrators.

This was the case in Eastern Europe. Demonstrators or small steps toward democracy were crushed time and time again: 1953 in East Germany, 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and 1981 in Poland. Suddenly in 1989 everything was different. It wasn't that the people were more discontented or bold; it was that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev let up a little, and they took advantage. The Brezhnev Doctrine was replaced by the Sinatra Doctrine. Even in September 1989, as crowds marched in the streets of East Berlin demanding democracy, the Communist Party could have quashed it with force. But they vacillated after Gorbachev was no longer backing repression by force. Kurt Masur intervened and convinced the guards not to fire. The government of East Germany effectively threw themselves out of power by inaction. In contrast, earlier that year China did not hesitate, and the Tiananmen revolution failed.

It seems that a similar story can now be told about Ukraine. Apparently, senior Ukrainian intelligence officials managed to prevent the government from firing on the protestors.
As protests here against a rigged presidential election overwhelmed the capital last fall, an alarm sounded at Interior Ministry bases outside the city. ... More than 10,000 troops scrambled toward trucks. Most had helmets, shields and clubs. Three thousand carried guns. Many wore black masks. Within 45 minutes, according to their commander, Lt. Gen. Sergei Popkov, they had distributed ammunition and tear gas and were rushing out the gates.

Kiev was tilting toward a terrible clash, a Soviet-style crackdown that could have brought civil war. And then, inside Ukraine's clandestine security apparatus, strange events began to unfold. ...senior intelligence officials were madly working their secure telephones, in one instance cooperating with an army general to persuade the Interior Ministry to turn back...
Read the rest... It's a fascinating story.

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