The fresh series of uprisings that have taken place around the world in the last month or so may appear unrelated, but a closer look reveals startling parallels.
Fighting between radical anti-government protesters and police has claimed at least 77 lives over three days. Source: Reuters
One of the myths of revolutions is that they are risings of the poor. In fact, the moderately poor peasants and workers who were the footsoldiers of many revolutions would have been quickly suppressed, if not for a vanguard of middle class and professionals who acted as leaders and organized and led their rebellions. From the lawyers and notaries and officials who led the Third Estate in Paris in 1789, to the bourgeois liberals and elite university students who led the European Revolutions of 1830 and 1848, to the vanguards of the Communist Revolutions in Russia, China, and Cuba, the cutting edge of revolutionary action has been undertaken by educated leaders who were outraged against leaders who they saw as incompetent, corrupt, and leading their nations into ruin.
As we have moved into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in societies that have become richer, more urbanized, and more widely educated than of those earlier centuries, the urban populations – white collar workers, professionals, small business managers and technical workers – have become not just the vanguard but the main force in modern revolutionary movements. Still, their grievances remain similar to those that motivated elites to turn against their rulers in earlier centuries: anger and anxiety that the life they desire is being snatched away by leaders’ corruption, self-serving policies, and actions that undermine rather than enhance opportunities for economic growth and national progress.
In the past few days and weeks, we have seen violent confrontations between urban crowds and governments erupt in four widely separated countries – in Venezuela, Bosnia, Ukraine, and Bangkok. Yet despite the geographic distances that separate them, these countries are remarkably similar in many ways.
Societies at a crossroads
All four are “middle-income” countries, among neither the world’s richest nor poorest societies. According to the International Monetary Fund, they range from 73rd in per capita GDP (PPP adjusted) - Venezuela’s global ranking - to 106th (Ukraine), with Thailand at 92nd and Bosnia 99th. In other words, of the 187 countries in the world ranked by the IMF, they are almost exactly in the middle. They have just arrived at the point where the vast majority of the population is literate, expects a government to provide a sound economy, jobs, and decent public services. Yet they are not yet economically comfortable and secure. That security, and a better future for themselves and their children, depends very heavily on whether government leaders will work to provide greater opportunities and progress for the nation as a whole, or only to enrich and protect themselves and their cronies. They are at a point where limiting corruption and increasing accountability are crucial to whether their country will continue to catch up to the living standards of richer countries, or fall back to the standards of poorer ones.
All four countries are also rated by Freedom House [Editor’s note - a U.S.-based NGO conducting advocacy and research on human rights, democracy and political freedom] as “partly free.” That is, they have governments that are elected and are expected to conform to legal procedures and respect human rights, but in fact harass political opponents and manipulate election outcomes, are often arbitrary in their enforcement of laws, and skew economic rewards to favor their supporters. Such partly free or transitional governments are prone to instability precisely because of the anxiety and uncertainty such conditions provoke. In fully consolidated democracies, state leaders would not dare act with such impunity to harass and undermine their opponents and grab excessive rewards; in full and unrestrained dictatorships, popular groups and opposition leaders would not dare accuse the leadership of failing to provide state services and economic opportunities equally to all, nor challenge the leaders so openly. However, in partly free states we are likely to see state leaders overreach; and at the same time we will see opposition leaders and popular groups more likely to take on the state and demand change in response to such over-reaching.
It should be no surprise that these four countries are also rated as highly corrupt: according to Transparency International’s corruption index, Thailand is 102nd, Ukraine is 144th, and Venezuela in 160th in level of perceived corruption. The 2012 TI scale rates Bosnia as somewhat more honest, at only 72nd in corruption; but in the last year perceived corruption has risen sharply, as one of the main complaints of protesters in that country are that the Bosnian government’s privatization of state assets in the last year was a spectacle of gross corruption.
These four countries thus have populations sufficiently well-off to be aspiring to still higher living standards, aiming at life closer to that seen in rich Western countries; yet are saddled with governments that are only partly free and highly corrupt.
Authority on shaky foundations
Moreover, all of these countries have rulers that are in their ‘second phase’ and thus wearing out their welcome. In Thailand, the leader is Yingluck Shinawatra, who is acting as successor and stand-in for her brother, the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was driven out for corruption. In Ukraine, the leader is Viktor Yanukovich, serving his second term after having been ousted in the Orange Revolution of 2004, only to return to power when the revolutionary leaders fell out among themselves and left a government in disarray. In Bosnia, the leadership is still held by European appointees who were long ago expected to have departed and yielded full authority to a locally-elected regime. Finally, in Venezuela, the leader, Nicolas Maduro, is the stand-in and chosen successor of the deceased populist leader Hugo Chavez. In short, none of these countries enjoys a leader with fresh and recent popularity in their own right; rather all have leaders whose position is already strained and who were tolerated only as long as they appeared to be moving their country in the direction of greater progress and opportunity.
Each leadership thus got into severe trouble when they acted in a way seen to betray those expectations. Yingluck promoted an amnesty bill clearly designed principally to bring her brother back to Bangkok and to power; Yanukovich embraced a financial deal with Russia that turned his country away from a widely desired set of agreements that would have strengthened ties with Europe. The Bosnian authorities undertook a privatization of public assets that reeked of corruption and lack of accountability; Maduro persisted in policies that are causing ruinous inflation and responded to protests by turning on opposition leaders. In each case, the response from opposition leaders and their urban middle class supporters was to demand that the government change course; and if that was refused their demands escalated to seek the resignation of the leader and new elections.
Not surprisingly, the leaders in these nations refused those demands. Yet the opposition refused to give up. They began campaigns of peaceful protests that occupied public spaces or even government buildings. The governments then responded with force, escalating the confrontations and bringing even more people – now concerned that government actions were veering out of control and becoming more and more dictatorial – into the streets to demand accountability and regime change.
Maturity of population is key
Will these countries now spin out of control, and descend into civil war, as happened in Libya and Syria? Fortunately, that outcome is very unlikely, for two reasons. Firstly, unlike Libya and Syria, which have relatively young populations with a median age of 26 and 21 respectively, these countries are much more mature. In Thailand, Bosnia, and Ukraine, the median age is 37-40. In such mature societies, though there may be small groups of rebellious youth who will lead violent protests, it is unlikely that large masses of people will rush into battle and violence. That is characteristic only of countries with much larger numbers of readily mobilized youths. Venezuela is relatively young at median age of 27; it is thus the one country among this quartet in which large-scale mobilization of youth for battles against the government is possible.
Secondly, and more importantly, none of these countries has a long-standing dictatorial leader who can command the loyalty of hardened military forces to act against their own people. What is most likely therefore is some sort of backing down on both sides, some stalling or movement toward compromise, or the resignation of governments if protests continue to grow. Negotiated compromise is thus the most likely outcome. Any government that seeks to survive by force of arms is likely to find that such repression backfires and inflames greater opposition, which may then indeed become violent and demand more radical change.
That risk now looks greatest in Ukraine, where the government’s forces have fired upon and killed dozens of protesters and injured hundreds more. Yet these actions, rather than strengthening the government’s position, have produced resignations from the ruling party and condemnations and calls for sanctions from the international community. The final outcome is likely to be a further weakening of the Yanukovich regime, and Yanukovich’s eventual departure.
Events in Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, and Bosnia thus form yet another wave of people’s revolutionary movements, like the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the so-called Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia. These uprisings are demanding greater accountability, and challenging regimes seen as corrupt, out of touch, and which represent obstacles to a better future. They are not likely to collapse into civil war or autarchy as occurred in the Arab Spring. Rather, they are signs of more mature societies demanding greater progress, and – with some restraint and international mediation – should produce compromises and negotiated settlements that move their countries forward.