People Power Primed: Civilian Resistance and Democratization

By Ackerman, Peter; Duvall, Jack | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

People Power Primed: Civilian Resistance and Democratization

Ackerman, Peter, Duvall, Jack, Harvard International Review

Tisovets, a popular ski resort in the Carpathian Mountains, is a tiring four-hour drive in a four-wheel-drive from Lviv. The journey was exceptionally challenging for Ukraine's newly elected president, Viktor Yushchenko, and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. Meeting there on January 5, 2005, they reviewed the events that led to their elections. The democratic movements that propelled them to power had to overcome obdurate regimes, defeat corrupt individuals, and confound the disbelief of international observers.


"The people of Ukraine and Georgia have demonstrated to the world that freedom and democracy, the will of the people, and free and fair elections are more powerful than any state machine, notwithstanding its strength and severity," the two presidents announced in a joint statement. This confident assertion would not have surprised President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, or President Voyjaslav Kostunica of Serbia and Montenegro--whose countries were also transformed by "people power." Yet the ideas Yushchenko and Saakashvili endorsed in Tisovets still flout the world's conventional wisdom.

Commentators outside of Ukraine seem unable to believe that ordinary Ukrainians were behind the Orange Revolution. An Oxford professor attributed the victory to US support for Ukrainian opposition groups, coming from businessman George Soros and US agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy. One New York Times article identified the American Bar Association's training of Ukrainian judges as the key factor. Russian pundits cited the training of young Ukrainian activists conducted by veterans of Otpor, the Serbian student group that helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic.

That outside analysts gravitated to external factors was no doubt vexing to the two men who had spearheaded the Orange and Rose Revolutions. In their Carpathian Declaration, Yushchenko and Saakashvili had an unambiguous response: "We strongly reject the idea that peaceful democratic revolutions can be triggered by artificial techniques or external interference. Quite the contrary, the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine happened despite such political techniques or outside interference."

So the road to Tisovets was not paved with US money or built with Serbian advisors. It took Ukrainian and Georgian drivers to maneuver the sharp turns and hard terrain that they and their people knew best. Still, the basic knowledge of how to drive had already been conceived, by many people in many countries.

What is People Power?

"People power is a form of consciousness." "People power is a eupbemism for mob rule." "'People power' is about restoring the 'mvisible institution of morality.'" None of these phrases, plucked at random off the Internet, comes close to defining the historical phenomenon of people power. Most references in news coverage are just as errant. The term was coined in the Philippines to describe the outpouring of popular opposition to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, yet it was a split in his military forces, facilitated by the protests that immobilized Manila, that actually compelled Marcos to resign.

Protest by itself cannot pry a ruler from office because power does not come from a public show; it comes from applying force. When directed strategically by a civilian-based movement, protest is only one of many nonviolent tactics, including strikes, boycotts, blockades, and hundreds of other acts of economic and social disruption that can dissolve the political or military support beneath a ruler. The power in "people power" is best understood as the yield from detonating these nonviolent weapons.

Mohandas Gandhi was the first in the 20th century to discern what ordinary civilians could do--or refrain from doing--to change their country's course. "Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled," he said. …

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