An Arab Spring, a Russian Winter?

by Joshua Foust on 12/7/2011 · 18 comments

For PBS, I dig a bit into the protests in Russia. I don’t think they’re that big of a deal… yet.

So is Russia experiencing an Arab Spring, only in the Russian winter? It is way too early to tell. In Egypt and even Libya, revolutionary movements are being coopted by Islamists, and no one knows yet if those revolutions will wind up being net-gains for their respective countries. Protest movements in Russia are too nascent – are a few thousand Muscovite protesters that big a deal in a city of 10 million? – to draw grand conclusions at the present time.

However, we know from experience that these movements can appear weak and scattered and then rapidly snowball into something enormous and life-changing. We also know that outsiders, even outsiders living locally and reporting on events in real time, can have a limited understanding of the broad social currents that inspire mass uprisings against a government, and even less about how they’ll turn out. There would be something enormous behind the protests, or it could just be a media spectacle. After all, it’s not like Russia has never arrested dozens of activists at an opposition march before (or even on a regular basis).

Russian protests follow a fairly predictable pattern, and so far we haven’t seen much that hasn’t happened before. Despite the harassment meted out to opposition figures at these anti-government rallies over the last few years, the Russian public has remained remarkably complacent. Traditional Russian fatalism could inspire more shrugging and hand waving than outrage this time around, and things will proceed as they always do. Or it could reach a tipping point and inspire a total collapse of the ruling government.

No one likes “it could go either way” but we really do have to think in those terms, however fun it is to declare REVOLUTION and scream about how the world is all new again.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Inkan1969 December 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm

“Moon of Alabama” noted that several polls predicted United Russia’s election decline. I’m disinclined to believe claims of widespread fraud: Why would UR fake election results that were an embarrassment to it?

As for the protests, I hope at the least that they could be the start of constructing viable alternatives to United Russia. Maybe we can finally see diversity in Russian political activity.

Grant December 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm

There appears to be a number of videos showing ballot stuffing and alterations made at polling places, though those could be faked. More interestingly is that apparently exit polls (in Russian I’m afraid) allegedly suggest that United Russia actually had far greater losses. Add to that behavior from earlier elections and I’m more inclined to believe that United Russia just didn’t do a good job of building a vote-generating machine or stealing the election.

Nathan Hamm December 9, 2011 at 7:20 am

Or they arrogantly assumed it was unnecessary to steal the election wholesale.

Don Bacon December 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Nobody has claimed that OWS is a manifestation of the Arab Spring, and the Russia demonstrations seem similar. There’s a general feeling against government corruption and human rights problems, not directed against any particular political party.

Governments around the world are often unpopular with their citizens, and now citizens have not only seen what might be accomplished with public displays but they’ve also learned that social media can be an integral part of it. The jury is still out on what they actually can accomplish. The hope seems to be that someone might come along and fix everything, but of course that is unlikely to happen, as we’ve seen in the U.S.

R.Duke December 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Not sure if I agree with your statement entirely. If you’re saying that most of the anger isn’t directed at United Russia then there are several sources saying quite the opposite, many which say the anti-Putin statements have become a cheer for many of the protesters.

Don Bacon December 8, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Certainly there are questions about the election. That’s not unusual, almost everywhere. Even Russian President Dimitry Medvedev has said that there should be an investigation.

But my understanding is that there is in Russia, as in the U.S., widespread displeasure with corruption and human rights abuses at all levels, civic and commercial, and these feelings are what principally motivates the protesters.

One should not underestimate the power of the U.S. and its media friends in slanting and exaggerating the “news” that we get. Regarding Clinton, there is hardly a nation in the world she has not criticized during her ineffective tenure.

Inkan1969 December 8, 2011 at 3:09 pm

These protestors are actual people motivated by anger at corruption and human rights abuses?

The Moon of Alabama posters keep insisting that they and anyone that dares to oppose Putin are CIA plants.

Don Bacon December 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Probably the CIA agents are not in the majority in Russia. Which reminds me of a question on past events: Where did all those thousands of yards of green fabric spring up from suddenly in Iran? I assume the CIA is in Syria too — why not.

The problem with these upheavals is that they’re not turning out well for the U.S., on balance. Yet Clinton persists in feeding the flames of instability, all the while saying that the U.S. seeks stability.

Grant December 8, 2011 at 5:06 pm

To start the CIA doesn’t really like spreading instability any more than any other intelligence agency. They might do it on occasion if it looks like revolution could happen, but it usually isn’t worth the damage done to long-term intelligence operations.
As for Clinton I think you would be amazed to learn that a criticism for her and Obama is that they aren’t pressing harder on Russia. In diplomatic terms this is rather restrained language, probably because it doesn’t look likely to turn into an actual revolution and so the government doesn’t want the bad blood between the U.S and Russia.

Grant December 7, 2011 at 10:45 pm

I wouldn’t try to link it to the Arab revolutions. Revolutions seem to be limited to a region and general culture. If revolution does break out in Russia, I wouldn’t expect it to be a direct result of what happens in North Africa and the Middle East. Revolution certainly hasn’t happened across sub-Saharan Africa.

upyernoz December 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm

on the contrary, it kind of has. the only government to be tossed out so far has been cote d’ivoire (and the french intervention there was essentially the model they used in libya shortly thereafter), but there have been protests that organizers say were inspired by the arab spring in dozens of other countries (lesotho is the one i recently read about).

of coure, cote d’ivoire already had a rebellion, and all of the other countries that have had “arab spring inspired” demonstrations may have had those demonstrations if the arab spring had never broken out. but africans are clearly citing what has happened this year in the arab world as an inspiration for their own anti-government struggle. there’s no question about that.

Grant December 10, 2011 at 8:48 pm

That’s true, but many revolutions have inspired protests that did not evolve into revolutions. That is one of the critical points. Outside revolutions inspire those who already want to be inspired to go protest. It is when those who are not inclined to protest go out (the less politicized majority) and do so that you have a revolution at home.

upyernoz December 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm

but if you’re saying that if a protest movement only counts as being part of the “arab spring” if it inspires a revolution, then most of the arab spring is not the arab spring either. most of the protests in the arab world did not produce a change of government (e.g. morocco, algeria, bahrain, jordan the UAE, the west bank–with yemen and syria still up in the air whether they will result in a real revolution). it seems to me that the term “arab spring” means anti-government protests that could lead to revolutions, not necessarily revolutions themselves.

Grant December 11, 2011 at 5:55 pm

The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is obviously a bit subjective* and I will admit that many protests would not happen if it were not for the successes of protesters in Tunisia and Egypt. However I feel that a majority of the protests would have happened regardless of anything in Africa or the Middle East. Having visited Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Philadelphia I didn’t notice much focus on the Arabs. Some people I spoke with knew of the events and expressed support for them, but at least on the days I was there to watch I didn’t see any signs mentioning them and didn’t hear any speeches about them.

Outside the U.S, there actually are many protests every single day. It’s just that we usually don’t hear anything about them. There have been quite a few protests in Iraq before and after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, but it wasn’t until it briefly looked like there might be mass-protests that it got any foreign media attention.

In Russia it’s been argued that the main reasons for protests so far were as follows. A horrible economy that has only avoided disaster from oil and gas exports. The obvious corruption and unresponsiveness of the leaders. Lastly, Putin’s decision to run for president again. That last one I’m unsure of myself, but among the Russia-watchers that is one point that gets mentioned and opposition to Putin certainly seems more evident than mentions of solidarity with Arabs.

So you have a good point on the fact that at least some protests have been inspired by Middle Eastern events, but history, geographical/cultural distance and the fact that many protests are happening regardless of the Middle East still leads me to believe that the Arab Spring played at most a minor role outside of the region.

*Especially in nations where non-Arab groups might be strong supporters of the revolutions.

anan December 8, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Curious. Has there yet been anything like an “Arab Spring” in any global free democracy yet? I don’t know of one yet. The Russian protest movement seems to be small fries. The US has multiple contradictory populist movements [Ron Paul, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, New Gingrich fans, Obama worshipers] with no clear pattern. The Occupy movement seems bigger in Europe, but even there it isn’t that big by historic standards. The largest mass movements in the democratic parts of the world seem to be happening in Greece. But is there anything to that except for frustration about a deep depression and austerity?

Are we really seeing anything new in any part of the world that isn’t governed by an autocratic regimes?

To change the topic, Joshua, what are your thoughts about the attack on Hazara in Afghanistan? Who do you think did it? Is Mullah Omar continuing to lose influence on his nominal “followers”?

Grant December 8, 2011 at 4:37 pm

You usually don’t have revolutions in liberal democracies. The reason for that being that the conditions that lead to revolutions in authoritarian states instead lead to different parties and candidates winning elections in liberal democracies. You would have to first see civil liberties and economic prospects degrade so much that it wouldn’t be a democracy any more but something worse than the U.S in the 19th century Gilded Age.

The conditions necessary for revolution (in my still being formulated opinion) are as follows. Other, more experienced thinkers have made far more refined lists but I feel that this is good enough for casual debate. There must be a sufficient economic or security shock to convince the people that the government* has made a horrible mistake. The majority of the country must conclude that going to the polls and voting would not result in real change. There must be a perception of widespread injustice, immorality and corruption. There must be a perception that the previously mentioned corruption goes back as far as can be remembered and that it is inherent in the system. The state must show poor ability to provide services. The military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies must not be totally united in defense of the state. The religious elites must not be supportive of the government. The revolution must be broadly peaceful. The middle class must make up a significant degree of the protests. Lastly, and in my opinion possibly the most critical of all, there must be broad cross-class agreement that the situation is unacceptable and that the government must go. Note that this does not mean the current leader and advisers but that the system itself must go.

Obviously these conditions are incredibly unlikely to occur and so we only see revolutions once or twice a generation. I won’t say that this is the exclusive list, but the ideologies that seem most likely to lead revolution are nationalism, religion and liberal/conservative (depending on the political ideology of the government under attack).

In nations like those in the democratic West revolutions are far less likely to occur because those protest movements usually don’t result in the system being attacked but in the supporters of the current regime becoming disheartened and the supporters of the opposition parties experiencing a rise in morale. You could see something of the sort in the vast gains made by Democrats in 2008 and the sharp reversal in 2010. Let’s look at the U.S and compare it to my list above.

There was a sharp economic shock in the U.S so the first required element is satisfied. However after that it doesn’t satisfy the other requirements. While voting was down in 2010 the Democrats experienced a surge of voting in 2008, the time when voting should have dropped even more harshly if this was a revolutionary environment. Therefore the public does feel that voting can lead to change. The drop in 2010 I attribute more to the general decline of voting in this country as a result of political apathy and moderate disdain for partisan language now common in elections.
Despite common conspiracy theories, the police in this country cannot be easily paid off by the rich and powerful can be prosecuted. Look at several former Republicans from the early 2000s who were prosecuted and convicted or forced to resign, a time when Bush was in office and if there was true corruption those prosecutions would have been quashed.
Services isn’t quite the same in the U.S because the state governments (effectively provinces) handle it but for most people there has been trash pickup, water, electricity, public transportation and bureaucratic work has been carried out. It isn’t always the best and people in low-income areas don’t have the same services that the middle and upper classes have but the services do exist.
The military, law enforcement and intelligence isn’t the same here because there isn’t a genuine revolution to oppose and law enforcement is far more devolved, but in the event of a violent attack they would uniformly protect the government and in the event of peaceful protests they would largely let politics decide it.
In the U.S there is no one religious body which speaks for the entire nation. Most of the country is Christian, but even among Christians there is significant divisions based on ethnicity, race, class and geography. Thus it isn’t likely for a universal group of religious leaders from all important religions to call on followers to oppose a certain leader, and even if they did most people in the U.S are suspicious of such blatant political efforts by religious leaders.
The revolution must be peaceful. As I mentioned before, there is no revolution in the U.S and so this is a moot point. Peaceful revolutions seem to have a much higher chance of success than violent ones.
The middle class must be heavily involved. This may not be so true of nations with far greater disparities in wealth, but for developed Western states something that is purely an effort by the poor has no chance of turning into a revolution. The middle class is the best source of opinion on how the nation feels about something and most votes come from them.
Lastly there is definitely no cross-class support for revolution. The Tea Party has been mostly co-opted by Republicans and so is under the control of the rich Republicans while Occupy is something that Democrats, especially richer Democrats, aren’t quite sure about and so it has not received financial or political support.

For Western nations that are more likely to go through revolution I would suggest you look at Italy and Greece (though Greece is more Balkan than Western). Both have large amounts of corruption, economic shocks far worse than the U.S, less reason to have faith in elections and far more politically active citizens.

Incidentally, even if the Western states were authoritarian (removing the democratic impediment to revolution) there still wouldn’t be Western revolutions as a result of the Arab Spring. As I mentioned above, revolutions seem to be very regional in nature. These hypothetical revolutions would have their own causes, though admittedly they would share the same economic stress as the Middle East.

*I would normally say state, but the use of the word is a bit different in the U.S (states are more like provinces here and state government is less important than federal -national- government).

anan December 8, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Italy doesn’t seem to have a major occupy movement, although it is bigger than in the US. Italian populists seem to be more rational [and pro business, pro technological innovation] than American version of “occupy” despite a more severe crisis than in the EU or US.

Greek populist movements seem a bit more irrational. But even there the rapid growth rates of capitalist countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America [and relative prosperity in Canada, Australia, Germany etc.] are public knowledge. A majority of disaffected Greeks are unlikely to support anti-capitalist policies that drive businesses outside of Greece.

By historical standards, we are seeing unusually few international populist protest movements at the present. The few that are happening are in less than a ten Arab countries and Iran. We aren’t seeing substantial protest movements in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, Morocco, KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Afghanistan, Russia, or almost anywhere else. Even in countries severely hit by the global financial crisis [UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Venezuela.] Even in countries beset by violence such as Mexico, South Africa, Venezuela, Pakistan.

Are we seeing anything more globally than the usual democratic activism [with a boost from social media]? Are we over hyping because of a slow news cycle?

Grant December 9, 2011 at 12:35 am

I think you might be missing the geopolitical value of those nations, the history of revolutions as well as the regional nature and the difference between military defeat and security.

Iran actually doesn’t seem to be facing imminent revolution. Instead the different conservative factions seem to feel that they have driven the liberals away from any chance of power and are attacking each other instead. Obviously any chance of Iran holding democratic credentials was shot after the elections but it seems more likely that the conservatives will hold more fights between the pragmatic, more secular groups (more like Ahmadinejad) and the hard line religious ones (obviously led by Khameini). It’s telling that Khameini recently made a statement suggesting that Iran might not have a president in the future and it’s no secret that he’s trying to get his son the job of Supreme Leader despite not having the religious credentials.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are both South Asian nations strongly separated from the Middle East. Indeed, with the exception of Islam they don’t really have ties to the Middle East. Therefore they don’t satisfy the regional tendencies of revolution. Incidentally Pakistan is currently going through still more political chaos and instability that has plagued it for decades and I think you could call the 2007 protests against Pakistani president Musharraf to be revolutionary in nature. It certainly managed to end the eight year military rule and restore civilians to some power. As for Afghanistan, it is going through yet another bloody part of a (so far) thirty-two year long civil war. Not even getting into the complexities of Pakistani, Afghan and Bangladeshi politics (if you like we can discuss them more here) the setting is not conducive for revolution.

Iraq is not democratic (at least not by European and American standards) but there are political parties that opponents of government policy can identify with and currently Iraq seems to have more assassinations of political opponents than anti-government action. In other words the political leaders want to dominate the Iraqi state, not completely destroy and remake it.

In Morocco there is more democracy (though again it isn’t strongly democratic by Western standards) and some concessions have been made to the opposition, concessions that appear to have stalled revolution for the moment.

In Saudi Arabia (which I assume you mean by KSA) there were protests but they were unable to attract cross-religious/ethnic/class support which a revolution absolutely needs, especially in nations like Saudi Arabia where the system exclusively raises one group while oppressing another. Another case is South Africa prior to the 1990s, something else we can touch on if you like. Besides that the Saudi government has complete control over the military and used force and vast spending to crush the protests. Obviously this isn’t a permanent solution but it has managed to stop protests for the time being.

The United Arab Emirates are more decentralized than other Arab states, something that is implied in the name. To be honest I’m not qualified to comment much on it as I know too little about the nation. It could be a result of the pseudo-liberal policies pursued by some of the emirates, it could be the vast presence of foreign workers increasing solidarity among the native population or it could be something else.

Qatar I honestly don’t know. It might have something to do with the energy Qatar has shown in the Arab League and regional affairs in support of revolutionaries, if the Qatar economy hasn’t been badly hit the local people may not be so opposed.

On Oman that may have something to do with pseudo-liberal policies and the personal energy of current Sultan Al Said. Under a less capable man or as opinions among the people change it could get more volatile. Also I don’t know how much the Omani economy has been damaged recently.

The U.K, Ireland, and Spain don’t qualify for the purposes of this because, as I mentioned, democracies usually don’t face revolutions. Italy might but for the moment it is giving its technocrat leaders a ‘wait and see’ approach. The most that has happened is what could be expected, a different political party winning power. Yes, Spain does have a king with significant power but it is still more democratic than many other nations in the world. Venezuela is less democratic in my opinion, and also far less well run but there is still at least some democracy and I don’t think revolution is likely yet.

In your mentions of Mexico, South Africa, Venezuela and Pakistan I think you miss the key difference between military defeat and personal insecurity. Military defeat is a disgrace to the entire nation that suggests that your leaders at the top didn’t do what they should have. Look at the shock waves sent by the Israeli defeat of Arab nations in 1967. Political Islam and religious terrorism might have appeared without it, but the damage done to secular left wing theories probably accelerated it. As a note though, this is from military defeat. If the people feel that they are increasingly under threat from a another nation or an insurgency they will probably increase their support for the government. The difference being in whether they think they are in danger or if they think they have been defeated.
In comparison, growing threats of crime leads to people demanding that the government increase its strength as well (a case of Hobbes ‘Leviathan’) and take harsher approaches. Also it’s entirely possible in democratic nations that the people will vote in hard line candidates who express harsher attitudes towards criminals (sometimes sadly leading to simplistic, idiotic policies). So high crime rates create demand for stronger government, not replacing it.

The nations that are experiencing revolution are influential ones throughout the region. Libya played kingmaker (and king breaker) in African politics for decades. Egypt is one of the Arab heavyweights that affect security considerations across the region. Syria could reshape Middle Eastern politics depending on how it goes. Bahrain is geographically important to pro and anti-Iran countries, which is probably why Saudi Arabia helped crush protests there. Yemen could very well breakdown and create incredible chaos on the border of Saudi Arabia. I will admit that Tunisia isn’t considered as important as it was during the Cold War, but the exception doesn’t disprove the rule.

Lastly, revolutions usually don’t go global. The liberal movements in Europe during the 1830s and 1840s didn’t spread to Asia or Africa. The Latin American revolutions didn’t occur until, at the earliest, 1791 and most wouldn’t happen until twenty to thirty years after the American Revolution. Communist revolutions in the 1910s and 1920s were mostly Eastern European affairs. The exception to this is the nationalist uprisings against European powers. That occurred across the world because of the global nature of the European holdings and even then it isn’t as though nations in different regions rose up at the same time. In other words, Communist ideas about worldwide revolutions and liberal ideas about all people seeking freedom and accountability don’t match the facts. As I’ve shown, revolutions are local matters that usually don’t spread outside of a region and if they do it is several decades later.

Incidentally here is what I think a government must have in order to prevent revolution. The state must be sufficiently well ordered to supply services and keep relative law and order. The military, police and intelligence must be dedicated to preserving the government. The government must avoid major economic downturn or intolerable military defeats. The middle class must be more worried about keeping their jobs or sufficiently satisfied and not inclined to risk their property on something drastic and uncertain. Religious leaders must at least be willing to coexist with the government. The elites must believe that the protesters are a threat to the wealth of the elites and that the protesters are simplistic rioters. Appearing to be lawful, moral and receptive is not totally necessary but it helps.

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