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
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
"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
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. …