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Where does the key to political change lie in the post-Soviet space?

Twenty five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet world is caught in authoritarian stasis. How can grassroots movements find long-term success?

19 August 1991: protesters clamber on tanks in defence of the "White House", or Supreme Soviet. Two years later, the "White House" would have a very different meaning. (c) Sergei Subbotin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.This month marks the 25th anniversary of the failed August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. This last-ditch attempt to save the USSR turned out to be its final nail in the coffin, its coup de grace. Within days, consecutive Soviet republics proclaimed independence and four months later, after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus had declared the Union null and void, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as head of a state which had ceased to exist. 

This abortive coup was sparked by divisions within the Soviet elite, which had fragmented during the late 1980s under the pressure of perestroika. Though the implosion of the Soviet Union was, in part, fueled by grassroots protest movements, this event has not been deemed a “revolution”. Instead, “revolution” is reserved mainly for political change in the post-Soviet era and the mass protest movements that have emerged across Eurasia.  

Where then does the key to political change in the post-Soviet space lie — in grassroots “revolutions” or divisions among elites? 

Unfortunately, these protest movements in post-Soviet societies have generally failed to produce long-lasting success. Ukraine has seen several “revolutions”, but remains plagued by many of its clinical problems. In 2011-2012, Russia witnessed unprecedented protest mobilisation, leading many commentators to conclude that the Putin regime’s days were numbered.

A few years later, president Putin enjoys a seemingly unassailable popularity and level of public support. Where then does the key to political change in the post-Soviet space lie — in grassroots “revolutions” or divisions among elites? 

Protest and change in the perestroika era

It is undeniable that the key to understanding the “wind of change” that swept the Soviet Union was the attempt to reform the Soviet system from the mid-1980s onwards. This has been coined the “Gorbachev factor” as the perestroika era policies and changes set the framework for the events of 1991. Yet, the unraveling of the system had already begun well before the coup made it irreversible.

This unraveling initially became visible among the younger Soviet generation. By the mid-1980s, informal youth associations, the so-called neformaly, were sprouting across the Union. Influenced by counter-cultural trends, the activities of the neformaly revolved around various issues — from environmental concerns and historical commemoration to sport. 

Popular Russian band Lyube celebrates the victory of the White House defenders in August 1991.

These groups received an additional impetus in January 1987 when Gorbachev attempted to circumvent the Communist Party’s reticence towards reform by introducing the policy of demokratizatsiya (democratisation). As a result, the number of neformaly grew considerably and youth began to increasingly mobilise politically. 

At the same time, nationalism became a force to be reckoned with. Several Soviet republics from the Baltics to the Caucasus saw popular movements arise that began articulating demands for more “national” autonomy. Openly contested elections to the republic legislatures in March 1990 yielded significant results for these movements, which soon evolved into movements for independence. 

A grassroots “revolution”

It was against the backdrop of these developments that the “Revolution on Granite”, Ukraine’s first “Maidan”, emerged in then Soviet Ukraine in October 1990.

This “revolution” was a characteristic embodiment of grassroots protest in the late Soviet era. It was spearheaded by youth and turned into a mass movement. The students who started it had organised in similar ways as their peers in the former Soviet satellite states, setting up their own structures independent of the Komsomol, the communist youth organisation. In conceiving their protest action, they were also directly inspired by their Chinese peers on Tienanmen square — signifying the importance of transnational influences throughout the region, though the protesters’ demands were framed in nationalist terms. Finally, revoliutsiiya na graniti provided a blueprint for future protest movements in Ukraine where consecutive “revolutions” would centre on the Maidan. 

The Revolution on Granite was successful in the short term as the students’ initial demands were met: military conscription was to be limited to the territory of Ukraine; the new planned Union Treaty was not to be taken into consideration; multi-party elections were set to be held and the then prime minister of Soviet Ukraine, Vitaliy Masol resigned. 

The core of the "Revolution on granite" was the student hunger strike on October Revolution Square, now Independence Square. Credit: YouTube.However, its long-term effect was more ambiguous. In the aftermath, the momentum shifted from grassroots to high politics, and in doing so, many of the protest's achievements were mitigated or even reversed.

More so, the young activists who spearheaded the “revolution” were excluded from the political process. Ultimately, it was the Soviet republics’ parliaments and establishments that pushed through independence. 

The end of the USSR, although fueled by mass protests, was not marked by “revolution”

In the end, August’s failed coup was a last-ditch reaction of a part of the Soviet elite to halt the disintegration of the Union. The people who came out on the streets were there in support of part of the elite who favoured change in the constellation of power.

For all intents and purposes, civil society had lost out. The end of the USSR, although fueled by mass protests, was not marked by “revolution”. 

The colour revolution as a model and anti-model

After the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, post-Soviet republics struggled with a spectrum of problems — ranging from endemic corruption and economic crisis to civil wars. Protests in these conditions were not uncommon, but rarely achieved mass proportions.

Much depended on the specific context — in some republics, protest became increasingly unlikely or even impossible due to the evolution of the political regime. The Central Asian republics soon transformed into new dictatorships while elsewhere, as in Belarus, the rise of strong authoritarian leaders managed to forestall both the worst effects of the transition and any possible challenge to their rule.

It was not until the early 2000s that the next wave of mass protests swept the post-Soviet space. These were the so-called “colour revolutions”: the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.

Characterised by organised youth and a contested outcome of elections, these non-violent protests resulted in a change of personnel at the top of the country.

November 2003: Opposition supporters wave old Georgian flags in front of the Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze's office in Tbilisi. (c) Sergei Grits / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.There was a crucial element of transnational influence involved as well. Young activists from Kmara and Pora!, who played significant roles in the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, were not only inspired by, but also in direct contact with activists from Serbia’s Otpor, the student movement which spearheaded the protest campaign against Slobodan Milošević and resulted in his downfall in 2000 during the so-called “Bulldozer Revolution”. The “colour revolution” thus had a concrete model.

The Rose and Orange Revolutions were seen as successful emulations of the Otpor model (though their long-term effect could indeed be questioned — in particular, in Ukraine). But initiatives to replicate the Serbian experience failed blatantly in Belarus and Russia. In the former, a youth group dubbed Zubr (Bison) aimed to challenge president Aleksyandr Lukashenka’s authoritarian rule in similar fashion as their Ukrainian peers. Allegations of fraud in the 2006 presidential elections indeed triggered protests, but they were swiftly suppressed by Lukashenka's regime. The “Jeans Revolution” in Belarus did not materialise. 

The Belarusian and Russian experiences clearly pointed to the weakness of the Otpor model: if a regime’s elite was united and determined to cling to power, it would prevail

Russia also saw an Otpor-inspired youth group emerge, Oborona (Defence), but it did not get off the ground due to low uptake and constant harassment. Instead, Russia saw the appearance of an “anti-model” to the colour revolution pre-emptively engineered by the regime. The regime-sponsored mass youth organisation Nashi (Ours) was set up to provide a youth support base for Putin and to counter any “Orange threat” in Russia. Its organisational structure and membership eclipsed anything a group like Oborona could muster. 

The Belarusian and Russian experiences clearly pointed to the weakness of the Otpor model: if a regime’s elite was united and determined to cling to power, it would prevail.

An era of global protest

In late 2008, the global financial crisis erupted and its fallout resulted in a wave of seemingly similar protests around the globe. What started with the “pots and pans revolution” in Iceland was seen to have morphed into the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. This phenomenon was hailed as a new form of protest movement — global, leaderless and organised horizontally using new media technologies. 

In 2009, Moldova witnessed its “Twitter Revolution”. While the protests in Chișinău seemingly enjoyed some superficial similarities with the colour revolutions, such as the involvement of youth and elections that were deemed fraudulent (claims unsubstantiated by a later recount), they also had striking differences. The protests were largely spontaneous, but marred by violence.

Social media were hailed to have propelled the protesters, but the absence of any organisational structures facilitated the government crackdown once violence broke out. The protest’s underlying cause of endemic corruption, though, would fuel further mobilisation in the country in subsequent years. 

Two years later, it was in Russia where mass protests broke out. Following parliamentary elections believed to be rigged, people took to the streets of Moscow and other cities. To add insult to injury, Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would not be seeking a second term as president — instead favouring a return of Putin to the post. The protest movement, which was centred on Moscow's Bolotnaya square, captured the imagination of observers who were quick to dub it the “Snow Revolution”.

Moscow, December 2011: people take to the streets in response to parliamentary election falsifications. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 misha maslennikov. Some rights reserved.At the time it was thought that the emergence of the largest protest movement in Russia since the 1990s marked a decisive shift in Russian politics. Commentators even flirted with the idea of an end to the Putin era.

However, the regime proved resilient. The protests were spontaneous though galvanised by oppositional politicians and bloggers like Aleksey Navalny. But there was no organised group of activists to provide a backbone of the movement. Instead, various groups professing differing views competed and vied for the opportunity to steer the protests. No social media coordination could offset that. In addition, the protests were over-concentrated in the capital and failed to resonate throughout the country, while its social base consisted mainly of the young and urban well-off middle class. 

Russia’s opposition figures continue to be divided among themselves, and the regime’s elite remain more or less united and determined to hold on to power

Then the regime struck back, with Nashi staging counter-demonstrations in support of Putin, and protesters and activists like Navalny were arrested under new repressive legislation — the infamous “Bolotnaya case” where protesters were put on trial and sentenced on trumped up charges of inciting violence and riots is but one example. The regime, meanwhile, unleashed its propaganda machine, mitigating Russia’s economic downturn with nationalist rhetoric. 

The protests lost their momentum. In later years, protest marches in Moscow and elsewhere have managed to bring significant numbers onto the streets, but they have failed to crystallise into a tangible force to challenge Putin’s rule. Russia’s civic activists and opposition figures continue to be divided among themselves, and the regime’s elite remain more or less united and determined to hold on to power. 

A successful grassroots “revolution”?

While Putin “restabilised Russia” in the aftermath of Bolotnaya, revolution erupted once again in Ukraine.

In late November 2013, mass protests spearheaded by students broke out against then president Viktor Yanukovych's decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. In response, Yanukovych cracked down violently on the students. This, however, backfired, leading to the “Revolution of Dignity”.

In contrast to Moldova and Russia, the revolution in Ukraine was successful in the short term — it halted the country's authoritarian backslide under Yanukovych

The uprising drew upon previous traditions of the Maidan, such as the role of youth and the young urban middle class as well as a level of self-organisation, mobilisation and participation of civil society unseen elsewhere in the post-Soviet space. On the other hand, the level of violence unleashed during the events was a uniquely new feature. 

December 2013: people protest in front of barricades at Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. CC BY-2.0 Sasha Maksymenko / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In contrast to Moldova and Russia, the revolution in Ukraine was successful in the short term — it halted the country's authoritarian backslide under the Yanukovych regime. A key factor was the division among the country’s elite, which aided the collapse of Yanukovych’s hold on power. However, within months of the revolution’s climax in February 2014, the old oligarchal system started to regenerate itself. More than two years after the tragic conclusion of the revolution, an oligarchic clan once again controls the state while endemic corruption remains rife throughout the country. 

In this sense, the not-so-frozen armed conflict in the east of the country and the recurring tensions with Russia function as a distraction from the core problem. In Ukraine, elites may be divided, providing opportunities for revolutionary upheaval, but they are still capable of restoring the oligarchic system in its aftermath. 

Whither the revolutions and the fate of protests?

Overall, post-Soviet “revolutions” have always witnessed some specific activity and contribution of youth. This is not so surprising — the desire for change and the energy to act upon it is something more frequently found among a younger generation coming of age. Nevertheless, though youth activism can spearhead a revolution, a protest movement only becomes a mass phenomenon if it can reach a critical mass of active participants. Other social strata and groups should therefore join in collective action for a movement to have any chance of success. 

These “revolutions” have tended to be middle class phenomena. They are driven by a young urban stratum perceiving a relative deprivation in their way of life, caused by either economic downturn or the impediments of a corrupt state system. Although there have been significant working-class protests led by miners or more recently by truckers opposing unlawful taxation, these did not transform into “revolutions”. In fact, various governments and regimes that have been challenged by protest have often been able to exploit such class divisions in their societies. 

The use of nationalism has been instrumental here. Protest movements are often depicted as instigated or steered by foreign powers and protesters are slandered as paid agents and thus traitors. It is a tactic that works strikingly well to drive a wedge between relatively well-off young middle class protesters and a generally more impoverished and state-dependent working class. 

While “revolutions” capture the imagination of its participants and observers, it should come as no surprise that political change in the post-Soviet world is often imagined as a coup

But protesters rely on nationalism as well. The conspicuous abundance of national flags is something characteristic of many protests in the post-Soviet space. Protesters want to be seen as patriots (and not traitors) in a practice dating back to perestroika.

The national framing of protest movements thus questions the validity of a global phenomenon. The protests of the late Soviet era were, in part, influenced by transnational exchanges as were the colour revolutions of the early 2000s. This diffusion of protest repertoires and activist expertise was facilitated by geographical proximity, a limited distance in time and even more by prevailing similarities in the overall political, economic, social and even cultural conditions. In the era of “global protest”, protests have more often than not erupted due to local triggers and specific national conditions.

The use of new media technologies in which information and, more significantly, visual depictions of protest can reach all corners of the globe within minutes has clouded the judgment of activists. Social media is not so much a technological innovation that incites mobilisation, but a new form of information dissemination. In fact, its function should be seen not that differently from the samizdat of the late Soviet era. Information is important, but organisation is crucial to the kind of mobilisation needed for a successful protest movement. The fact that authoritarian governments can easily use the same information channels and technologies against protesters only compounds this problem.

Finally, even though mass protests are an indication of political instability and a significant motive force as such, the key to political change in the post-Soviet space still seems to lie with the elites. Whether they are divided (and engaged in a power struggle aimed at changing the constellation of power) or united and determined to hold on is crucial — and this includes their propensity to use violence.

So while “revolutions” capture the imagination of its participants and observers, it should come as no surprise that political change in the post-Soviet world is often imagined as a coup. The fall of Yanukovych in February 2014 was depicted by pro-Russian media as a “fascist coup”. While this was clearly done to discredit the Revolution of Dignity and downplay the significance of grassroots protest, there have nevertheless been recurrent instances of “coup talk” in Ukraine in recent years. Conversely, Kremlinologists frequently see a “palace coup” as the most likely means in which Putin would be deposed.

On the anniversary of the failed August 1991 coup, this a fact is worth reflecting on. Elites are key to political change, and protests and “revolutions” will only succeed in the long term if they manage to bring about change in the elites.

About the author

Tom Junes is a historian and post-doctoral researcher focusing on protest movements in eastern Europe. He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia and currently a visiting fellow at European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.


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