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Which Non-Violent Revolutions Will Succeed?

20 September 2020

The old calculation was simple and brutal: if you want to overthrow a tyrant, you must use violence. There was an occasional exception, like Gandhi’s use of non-violent protest to gain India’s independence, but people wrote that off as being due to the fact that the British empire, being ruled by a democratic government, was too soft.

Tell that to the descendants of the tens of thousands of Irish, Kenyans, Malaysians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Afrikaners and sundry others who were killed for trying to leave the British empire. It would be truer to say that Ghandian non-violence obliged the British to avoid massive violence in India (and Pakistan and what eventually became Bangladesh got a free ride out on the same ticket.)

And then, after bubbling underneath for four decades with a few partial successes like the American civil rights movement, non-violent tactics exploded into a kaleidoscopic range of peaceful revolutions in the later 1980s. From south and southeast Asia (The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh) to Iran and the Communist-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the technique seemed unstoppable.

Peaceful protest was drowned in blood in China in 1989, but it kept notching up victories elsewhere: the Soviet Union itself, most of France’s sub-Saharan colonies, South Africa and Indonesia in the 1990s; Serbia, Philippines II, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Lebanon in the 2000s; and Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine II and Sudan in the 2010s.

But all the non-violent uprisings of the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring’ except Tunisia’s ended up being crushed by military coups or civil wars. And none of the current crop, in Belarus, Thailand and Algeria, are heading for a rapid or easy victory. Indeed, they might all fail. What is happening to this technique that once swept all before it?

It’s more than three decades since this new technique startled the world, and dictators are not usually fools. They see what happened to their former colleagues who got overthrown, and start working out counter-strategies that weaken the determination and cohesiveness of the protesters.

For example, all but the stupidest dictators now know that while violence can scare individuals and small groups into silence, it is almost always a mistake to use it against very large groups. It just makes them angry, and they’ll usually be back the next day in much larger numbers.

Your real objective, as a dictator, should be to trick the protesters into using violence themselves. Then the thugs who love a street-fight will rise to leadership positions in the protests while most other people withdraw, disgusted by the violence – and then you can use massive violence against the violent protesters who remain.

Dictators have also learned to block the internet and mobile phones at the first sign of protest, or to mine electronic communications between the protest organisers to stop small groups from uniting into an unstoppably big crowd. Keep that up long enough, and you may just wait them out.

Harvard politican scientist Erica Chenoweth is the go-to expert on this, and she has two very useful numbers for us. The first is that whereas non-violent movements to overthrow illegitimate regimes used to succeed half the time, now they win only one time in three. The other, more encouraging, is that if they can get 3.5% of the population out in the streets, they almost always win.

By this measure, the Belarus movement is still within reach of success. 3.5% of Belarus’s population is about 300,000 people, and the Sunday demonstrations since early August, including those in cities outside Minsk, probably come close to that figure most weekends. People are not yet bored, cowed, or in despair.

The protests in Thailand against former general and coup-leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha have not yet spread significantly beyond Bangkok, and the mostly student protesters are certainly not even 1% of the population. The movement continues to expand, but its long-term prospects are doubtful.

As for Algeria, the recent election of a new president closely linked to the last one (whom the protesters forced to resign last year) has brought the students back out into the streets in force. The Covid-19 lock-down robbed the movement of its momentum, however, and it is unlikely to regain it.

So maybe one success in three for regime change, just as Erica Chenoweth predicts. But her most important insight is that the 3.5% number probably applies to any popular protest movement, including those in democratic countries. The goals of those movements need not be limited to overthrowing dictators.

As she told the Harvard Gazette last year: “(3.5%) sounds like a really small number, but in absolute terms it’s really an impressive number of people…Can you imagine if 11.5 million (Americans) were doing something like mass non-cooperation in a sustained way for nine to 18 months? Things would be totally different in this country.”
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Tell…ticket; and “Dictators…out”)

An October Surprise

5 August 2020

An ‘October Surprise’ in the United States is now almost inevitable, because that will be Donald Trump’s last chance to get re-elected legitimately. He might try to cling to office even if he loses the vote, but it would be a lot easier and neater if he actually won a majority in the Electoral College on 3 November.

‘October Surprise’ is the American political term for a fake crisis, usually involving foreigners, that is ‘discovered’ by a president trailing badly in the polls in the last few weeks before an election. All other issues are forgotten, Americans rally around the flag, and the incumbent wins on a surge of patriotism. Or that’s the theory, at least.

The same thing happens elsewhere too, of course, and not necessarily in October. That’s when it needs to happen in to win a US presidential election, but there’s a ‘July Surprise’ happening in Belarus right now (because the election there is set for 9 August).

Last week Alexander Lukashenko, the strongman who rules Belarus, ‘discovered’ Russian mercenaries in his country. They were unarmed and on their way to Istanbul, but Lukashenko says there is a plot: “So far there is no open warfare, no shooting, the trigger has not yet been pulled, but an attempt to organise a massacre in the centre of Minsk is already obvious.” Only I can save our country! Vote for me!

Trump will need something like that because otherwise the coronavirus is going to kill him politically. This was not true as recently as early June, because up until then the United States was not performing especially badly in dealing with the pandemic.

It LOOKED a lot worse because of Trump’s bizarre behaviour – the endless, shameless lies, the narcissism, the suggestions that people should inject bleach, etc. – but in terms of Covid-19 deaths per million people the American fatality rate was still lower than any other major Western countries except Germany and Canada.

The United States was late to go into lockdown, but so were they all, at least compared to most Asian countries. Until recently, if you were a Trump supporter, you could still believe he was doing a good job.

It was Trump’s rush to end the lockdown, not all the earlier nonsense, that did the real damage. He believed that he would lose the election if the economy didn’t revive, but by opening up too fast he managed to revive the pandemic at the same time.

The numbers tell the tale. This week America will record its 160,000th death from Covid-19. That’s almost a quarter of all the coronavirus deaths in the world. Much worse, US deaths are still going up while deaths elsewhere in the developed world have fallen steeply. That’s almost entirely due to Trump.

Take Canada, for example. It’s very similar to the US in economy and demography, but different in social and political terms. Canada has universal health care and a much less drastic divide between the rich and the rest, for example, which probably explains why America’s cumulative death rate per million is 484, while Canada’s is only 237.

The history is therefore an American death rate twice as high as Canada’s: not great, but not utterly awful. By now, however, Canada has managed to get its deaths down to ten a day, whereas America is back up around a thousand a day. Even allowing for Canada’s much smaller population, that is ten times worse. This is what coming out of lockdown too early did to the United States, and it is all down to Donald Trump.

The pandemic is raging again in the United States, and there may be a quarter-million deaths there by election day in November. US ‘deaths per million’ are going up three per day, which means that the US will overtake Chile (now 509) in less than two weeks, Italy (582) in a month, Spain (609) in five weeks. It might even catch up with the UK (682) by election day.

Most of those newly dead Americans will be over 60, so probably Trump supporters. Their relatives and friends are bound to to notice eventually. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in the polls has already widened to 10%, and there is probably no good news Trump could engineer in the remaining ninety days that would be big enough to turn that number around.

His only hope, therefore, is to manufacture some really bad news: a restaged ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident with China, perhaps, or a terrorist ‘threat’ so humongous that it gives Trump a pretext to declare martial law nationally. Or maybe he will arrange the premature certification of a magical new Covid-19 vaccine so he can roll it out just before the vote. If it kills a lot of people later on, who cares? He won.

Trump knows that if he loses the election he will spend the rest of his life in court, possibly even in jail. An October Surprise is practically guaranteed. It isn’t over yet.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The same…me”)

Belarus: The Beginning of the End?

2 August 2020

“Stop calling me a mustachioed cockroach,” said Alexander Lukashenko. “I am still the president of this country.” But that doesn’t sound very presidential, does it?

Lukashenko has been the president of Belarus for the past 26 years, and Sergei Tikhanovsky, the video blogger who called him that, is now in one of Lukashenko’s jails. But Tikhanovsky’s wife Svetlana is running for president in her husband’s place in next Sunday’s election (9 August), and she may do well enough to force ‘Europe’s last dictator’ into a second-round run-off vote.

Tikhanovsky struck a popular note when he called Lukashenko a mustachioed cockroach: his mustache is definitely the ‘Eastern European dictator circa 1936’ model, and like cockroaches, you just can’t get rid of him. The YouTube star adopted a bedroom slipper as his symbol (because Belarusians squash cockroaches with their slippers, presumably), and started driving around Minsk with a giant slipper on the roof of his car.

A dubious online poll claimed that Lukashenko would only get 3% support for the forthcoming election (seeking a sixth term), and graffiti and T-shirts saying ‘3%’ started appearing around town. Tikhanovsky took hope, declared he was running for president, and was arrested two days later – but suddenly Lukashenko looked vulnerable, and other serious candidates started coming out of the woodwork.

Former banker Viktor Babariko declared he was in the running, and was promptly jailed on fraud charges. Former ambassador to the United States Valery Tsepkalo, founder of a high-tech business park, was denied registration as a candidate and sufficiently intimidated that he has taken refuge in Russia with his two children. But none of them has really dropped out.
Instead, three women have taken their places. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is now the opposition candidate for the presidency, with the public support of Tsepkalo’s wife Veronika and Babariko’s representative Maria Kolesnikova. And while Tikhanovskaya is unlikely to get over 50% of the votes on Sunday, Lukashenko may also fall short (there are also three minor candidates running).

Then it would get really interesting, since in the second round Tikhanovskaya would inherit most of the minor candidates’ votes. She might even win, because compared to the other ‘hard’ regimes of Europe, Lukashenko doesn’t have a lot to work with.

He can’t rely on the nationalism that keeps Viktor Orban in power in Hungary. Belarus was never independent before 1991, having spent two centuries in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and another two in the Russia and Soviet empires. Belarusians don’t even hate or fear their neighbours.

Neither can Lukashenko rely on the religious fervour that reliably delivers half the popular vote to the hard-line Catholic party in Poland and to the hard-line Islamic party in Turkey. Belarusians are not particularly fervent; indeed, over 40% of them say they have no religion at all.

He has few successes to offer on the economic front: Belarus has barely half the per capita GDP of Russia on its eastern border, only a third of that of Poland to the west. He dismissed the Covid-19 pandemic as “psychosis”, promoted drinking vodka as a cure – and Belarus now has twice as many cases as Poland, although its population is only one-quarter the size.

Dictatorships that try to operate behind a facade of ‘free’ elections have to maintain a certain level not only of fear but also of competence, and Lukashenko’s credibility is starting to crumble. An anti-regime rally in Minsk on 19 July attracted around 10,000 people. A rally in the same city on 30 July, only 11 days later, attracted 63,000.

So he really could lose in a run-off election, unless there is massive vote-rigging – but then it would probably also get really violent, because Lukashenko has no intention of retiring at the tender age of 65. If he goes down, he will go down fighting.

He’s already laying the groundwork for that kind of repression. Last week his secret police raided a health spa and arrested 33 Russian ‘mercenaries, allegedly members of the Wagner group, who he claimed were planning terrorist attacks to disrupt the elections. There are another 200 of them still loose in the country and intent on terrorism, he claimed.

It’s nonsense, of course: Vladimir Putin doesn’t want other post-Soviet dictatorships to be overthrown by popular votes. The Russian mercenaries were probably just in (deniable) transit to Libya, Syria or Sudan, where they have lots of work. Lukashenko is spinning the terrorism tale to justify a violent crackdown on the opposition if it looks like it’s going to win.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is not demanding to become president if she wins. She just wants the 700 opposition supporters and activists arrested since May (according to the Belarus human rights group Vyasna) to be released, and then a truly free election. It’s not too much to ask.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He…all”)

Power of Mockery

5 August 2012

The Power of Mockery

By Gwynne Dyer

How much do tyrants fear mockery? Consider the case of Belarus, often called “the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” where President Alexander Lukashenko has just fired his air force and border security chiefs because they did not stop a Swedish light plane from dropping teddy bears into the country.

The plane, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm called Studio Total, crossed into Belarusian air space from Lithuania on 4 July, and dropped hundreds of teddy bears on little parachutes on the outskirts of the capital, Minsk. The teddies bore labels calling for freedom of speech and respect for human rights, which is only what Lukashenko’s opponents within the country demand (before they are carted off to jail).

Lukashenko, who has won every “election” in Belarus since 1994, was furious. “”Why didn’t the commanders intercept that flight?”, he raged last week. “Who did they sympathise with?” In reality, his commanders weren’t paying much attention to air defences because nobody is going to bomb Belarus, but he couldn’t accept that explanation. His power rests on people believing he is too strong to resist, and the teddy bears said the opposite, very loudly.

Meanwhile, some hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the east, a trial opened last week in Moscow. Three young women, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – Masha, Nadia and Katya to their friends – face a charge of hooliganism that could send them to jail for seven years for singing a song in church. Their real offence is that it was an anti-Putin song.

Masha, Nadia and Katya belong to a punk rock band called Pussy Riot. It’s a loose collective of around ten young Moscow women, feminists in a very macho country, who dress up in brightly coloured clothes and balaclavas (ski masks) and use music and performance art to criticise the repression and conformity they see around them. They are funny, brave, and sometimes offensive. They are not criminals.

In an action that one band member later called an “ethical mistake”, five of them entered the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow last March, stepped onto the altar, and delivered a cheeky, shrieky song begging the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Putin. A companion videotaped them, and the performance lasted exactly 51 seconds before the security guards intervened and the police were called.

The cops came and took down three of the band members’s names (the other two escaped), but they made no arrests, did not confiscate the videotape, and did not open a case against anybody. Only nine people had seen the performance, and most of them were guards. It just wasn’t worth pursuing – until the video appeared on YouTube two weeks later and went viral.

This all happened during the election campaign that saw Vladimir Putin return as Russia’s president after eight previous years in that job and four more as prime minister (to get around the constitutional limit of two terms as president). Pussy Riot chose to make their protest in Moscow’s cathedral in response to Patriarch Kirill’s public statements that it was “un-Christian” to demonstrate and that the Putin era is “a miracle of God.”

It is alleged that Kirill called Putin demanding legal action against the blasphemers. He was certainly very cross: his spokesman, Vsevolod Chaplin, declared that “God condemns what (Pussy Riot) have done. I’m convinced that this sin will be punished in this life and the next. God revealed this to me like he revealed the gospels to the Church.” But the decision to make a horrible example of the young women was Putin’s, not Kirill’s.

People accused of non-violent crimes are hardly ever held in custody in Russia before their trials, but Masha, Nadia and Katya were refused bail and have already been in prison for five months. Nobody has been allowed to visit them, though two of the three have small children. The state-controlled TV channels (i.e. almost all of them) have waged an endless propaganda war against them, portraying them as foreign agents.

The trial verges on the ridiculous. On Thursday a lawyer for one of the cathedral guards (who has “suffered deeply” and lost sleep over the incident), described the punk band as “the tip of an iceberg of extremists, trying to break down the thousand-year edifice of the Russian Orthodox Church by…guiding the flock through trickery and cunning not to God, but to Satan.” And behind it all, of course, was the “world government”: the Satanic West.

The girls of Pussy Riot – they deliberately call themselves girls (“devushki” in Russian) to emphasise their innocence and powerlessness – have done more by mockery to unmask the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime than all their more earnest colleagues together. At a greater personal cost than they ever imagined, they have raised political consciousness in Russia and made the regime look both cruel and foolish.

Vladimir Putin is no fool. He realises that things have gone too far, and on a visit to London last week he tried to throw the machine into reverse. “There is nothing good in what (Pussy Riot) did,” he told reporters, but “I don’t think they should be judged too severely.” The court, no doubt, will take this an order. But the damage to the Putin regime is already done.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The cops…viral”; and “It is..Kirill’s”)