Soft Revolutions of Home-Grown Rage

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Soft Revolutions of Home-Grown Rage

Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

Sometimes citizens just take their country back.

From the Philippines' "people power" revolution of 1986, to the toppling of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, and now the ouster of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the ability of crowds in the street to alter the course of their nations remains one of the heartening mysteries of human experience.

Such soft revolutions aren't inevitable. Iraq exists, after all. In the past they have required a series of underlying preparatory factors, including the presence of some free civic life, a loss of heart by the instruments of repression, and an international consensus for replacement of a regime.

Today, to that add something more: a march of freedom that has discredited totalitarianism almost everywhere on earth.

"These are ... the kinds of events that genuinely astonish, and give rise to the notion that things can change," says Arthur Helton, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

For years, change didn't appear to be in the wind in Yugoslavia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Milosevic morphed easily from a communist strongman to a post-Communist authoritarian who stayed in power via manipulation of nationalist passions.

Past protests didn't daunt him. He crushed a student uprising in Belgrade in 1991, among others. He remained unassailable at home even as his disastrous wars lost Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and turned Yugoslavia into a shadow of its former self.

But the world around him changed. The same thing happened to Milosevic that occurred to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in the 1980s: He became an anachronism. His people, worn down by years of economic privation and international sanctions, no longer responded to his invocation of perceived enemies.

And they had means to show their displeasure - the ballot box. Over the years Milosevic evolved into a kind of soft dictator, someone who stayed in power through careful manipulation of quasi- elections and other trappings of democracy. In the end that approach became his downfall.

As in the Philippines, and more recently in Chile, in Yugoslavia people got into the habit of voting - and once they did they decided their vote was not something to be so obviously manipulated.

"When there is exposure of corruption in that process now it awakens indignation," says Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House in New York.

People-power revolutions today depend on the creation of civic space, notes Mr. Karatnycky. Sometimes that means they revolve around an electoral process. But even where there is no voting - as there was not in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall - the organization of independent media and opposition parties can begin the process of a dictator's downfall.

People need a symbol, a group, to coalesce around. In Poland it began with the Solidarity trade union. In Poland and the Philippines the Catholic Church played a large role.

In Yugoslavia, it was Vojislav Kostunica, whose mild, lawerly demeanor finally gave the country's fractious opposition parties someone they could rally behind.

For people power to succeed, disquiet needs to have spread throughout a society. Such was not the case in China at the moment of Tiananmen Square. The figure of the lone student blocking a tank resonated in the West more than in the Chinese countryside.

"Tiananmen failed because [protests] happened only in urban areas, and China is still primarily a rural society," Karatnycky says.

Then, at a crucial time, all these elements come together, and the instruments of repression lose heart. In a protest, the most important moment is not when a crowd comes together. It is when the people with guns refuse to fire.

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