Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Mass Actions and Middlemen of Communism and the Color Revolutions

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Mass Actions and Middlemen of Communism and the Color Revolutions

Article excerpt

From Prague and Berlin in 1989 to Cairo in 2012, the dramatic images of masses protesting until their authoritarian rulers gave up power have symbolized the power of mass demonstrations to bring down dictators and replace them with "democrats." The victories of some peaceful mass protests and the defeats of others, like those in Belarus and Azerbaijan, raise questions not only of how it came to be that, after years of repression, people took the risk of demonstrating peacefully, but also of why some demonstrations "worked" while others merely attracted regime repression.

Looking at the stories of those who were involved in the mass actions of the so-called "Third Wave" of transitions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the "Fourth Wave" transitions or (attempted) "Electoral Revolutions" in post-Soviet space, the difference appears to have been more than variation in elite weakness or the level of mass action. All had masses of people demonstrating peacefully and elites that had put down comparable demonstrations in the past. Yet those that succeeded had an additional--and crucial--element: "middlemen" who had access to the media to disseminate the story out and ties to both sides, in order to bring the two sides together. These "middlemen" became back channels of communication between political leaders and protesters, with the result that the demonstrations led to conversation rather than violent confrontation.

This is clear from the cases of peaceful mass actions followed by transitions discussed in this article: the Leipzig demonstrations in the GDR, which triggered the later, larger demonstrations that forced the elite to offer concessions and, ultimately, to inadvertently open the "Berlin Wall"; the Georgian Rose Revolution in 2003; and the much longer and multi-level mass action during the Solidarity period in Poland (1980-1989). In all these cases (and others in the two waves), people came to demonstrations as individuals because they had had "enough" of failed economies and political repression. In the successful cases in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space, people came because they felt they would not be alone and at risk, but rather part of a mass action that was too large for the regime to attack. How they came and why the demonstrations were peaceful and successful in bringing down the top leader--if not always bringing democracy or real change--have been matters of scholarly work and contention. But the role of middlemen as brokers and information channels has flown under the radar.

In the cases of the "Third Wave" transitions to democracy, the initial models were Spain and Latin America, where there were high-level negotiations between the opposition and the regime but little or no mass action (Bitar and Lowenthal, 2015). In these cases, leaders and opposition negotiated systemic change because both feared and wanted to prevent popular uprisings (Linz and Stepan, 1978 present this in a larger context). The initial transitions in Central and Eastern Europe have been portrayed as an extension of this "wave." But in reality, in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Bulgaria, it was large-scale demonstrations (the product of spontaneous individual decisions to act), coupled with the internal weakness of elites, that forced the resignation of communist elites. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany, mass demonstrations led to negotiations at different levels before, during, and after the demonstrations. In Poland, mass action--both public and underground--happened sporadically and in different ways over eight years, in large part because the Soviet Union remained strong enough to keep both the elites and the populace from risking pushing further until Gorbachev signaled that change was possible. Instead, smaller-scale mass actions came and went, changing their nature but not their opposition to the status quo (Castle, 2003: 33; Kenney, 2002: 304).

Those who have looked at the "Fourth Wave" have talked broadly about it as a series of democratic transitions brought on by mass demonstrations, often in reaction to fraud in elections where it had appeared the opposition could win. …

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