Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.
January 5, 2023
Article Source: Grid News
By Joshua Keating
What would success look like for the protests in China and Iran?
An activist who helped bring down a dictator on how China’s government learns from dissent, why Vladimir Putin might be more vulnerable than we think and why the climate movement could be a force for democracy.
It’s been a year of dramatic demonstrations in authoritarian regimes around the world, and several of the most-watched protest movements are now at critical junctures.
In China, where protests in cities across the country erupted late last month, sparked by draconian anti-covid measures, the government has now reversed course and is easing up on many restrictions. Some China experts view this as a victory for the protesters and proof that people power can force change, even in the most authoritarian of countries — though the pivot from “zero-covid” is far from the more fundamental political transformation that some protesters were calling for.
In Iran, where protests against discriminatory laws and dress codes targeting women have been roiling the streets since September, the government has hinted at concessions including disbanding the much-despised morality police and amending the law requiring women to cover their hair in public. But it’s not clear whether the regime is really serious about these measures or whether the changes will satisfy a movement that, as one expert told Grid, has “targeted the heart of the Islamic Republic” rather than any specific grievance.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the public protests that erupted in response to the invasion of Ukraine in February and the government’s mass mobilization order in the fall appear to have died down. But questions remain about the strength of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, given clear signs that opposition to the war is growing among the Russian public.
These and other ongoing examples of public dissent have raised a question: When and how do protests against authoritarian governments actually achieve results?
To assess these movements, and the state of the global struggle against authoritarianism more broadly, Grid contacted global democracy activist and researcher Srdja Popovic. In his 20s, Popovic was one of the founders of Otpor!, the student movement that played a key role in organizing the mass protests that overthrew Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He went on to form the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) an organization that has provided support and training for pro-democracy activists in dozens of countries around the world. Speaking by Zoom from Oslo, Norway, Popovic discussed the strategies that make nonviolent movements effective, why Putin may be more vulnerable that he appears and why the climate movement may be the future of pro-democracy activism.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What’s more important to the success of a protest movement in an authoritarian country, the movement itself or the political context in which it operates?
Srdja Popovic: There’s this very old debate about “skills” versus “conditions.” And I’m always on the side of skills. What’s important is whether the movement can build a strategy, make clear demands and build an organization that can sustain oppression. This matters more than the conditions. You can have all the best conditions in the world for social change: a weak government, a failing economy, international isolation, an educated middle class, but still movements can fail as we’ve seen in places like Zimbabwe and Venezuela, because they lack the skill to make their point.
G: Obviously public opinion matters to some extent in authoritarian countries, but it doesn’t play the same role as in democracies. So what’s the mechanism by which movements can effect political change in governments that, to a great extent, don’t need to care what people think?
SP: What’s important is looking at whether the group is calling for change — whether it’s a democratic change, changing the whole government or changing a policy — whether these groups understand the pillars of support, whether they know which institutions should be pressured and in which order. It’s whether they understand which tactics are sustainable for the place that the fight is taking place.
Let’s take a look at the effectiveness of the Burmese uprising against the generals. You have a brutal government, almost no public square and hundreds of thousands of people being arrested, detained, killed. So, the level of oppression is really high, even compared to China. But at the same time, what you have there is a strategic movement that understands what they really want. So, they’ll do strikes and boycotts, they’re looking at the military junta and the way that the junta is weak in terms of money. So they start looking at the businesses affiliated with generals. They call out the largest brewery in Burma, which is affiliated with the generals, and persuade Kirin in Japan to divest from this brewery. Then they go after the largest tobacco company, same story. Now they’re looking at oil and electricity, which is No. 1. If they can get international companies to divest, the military in Burma wouldn’t be able to suppress people because they wouldn’t be able to pay salaries.
In Iran right now, you see huge numbers of protesters, but you don’t see the movement, you don’t see the organization, you don’t see the list of demands. So, whatever their numbers are, the regime and the Revolutionary Guard will possibly be capable of putting it down.
The difference is that in China, we have a government that tries to prevent chaos, so they will take a look at what people want and give them some kind of concessions, as opposed to saying “no way” and going hard on them and risking a larger uprising.
The Iranian regime, on the other hand, is very detached from its population. They weren’t ready for this.
G: There’s often a tension in these movements between accepting concessions and calling for more fundamental change. In China for instance, they’re lifting some covid restrictions, but at least some protesters are calling for more than that: democracy, freedom of speech, etc. So what’s the challenge for these activists at a moment like this?
SP: If you read Will Dobson’s book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” you’ll see how some regimes learn and some don’t learn. The masters of learning are China. They learned from the Arab Spring, and they’re continuing to learn, and they’re learning in the prevention direction. Less and less authoritarians want to use brute force. It’s not because they have a personal problem with killing people and detaining people. It’s because for the last 10 or 15 years, it is authoritarian soft power that won them a lot of victories. If you cannot contain your population and have to throw your people in jail, that doesn’t say you’re strong, that says you’re weak, and they understand this, so they like to avoid kinetic force as much as they can.
As for concessions, the road to success, according to Saul Alinsky, is paved with small victories. So yes, it is very difficult to imagine overall constitutional change in Iran, but it is very possible that the government will have no means of containing the protests without removing restrictions.
The big problem for the Iranian regime is demographics. The country is ruled by 70-plus-year-old men. The country is populated by 23-year-old women. Big problem! The elites cannot understand the population. They can’t understand TikTok. That’s not their world. They say they’re going to discipline all these girls in madrassas. But look, the girls in madrassas are showing their middle finger to [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s picture.
So now they have a real problem because they can’t put this back in the box. People who have tasted freedom in the streets in their early 20s, they never forget it. This is why most of the movements that win, like Otpor!, were made by people who previously participated in student protests like myself. You cannot kill a whole generation.
G: What’s standing out to you as distinctive about these protests in China? How would you compare it to other recent pro-democracy movements?
SP: It’s very typical of the dynamic for the last 10 years that the largest changes and challenges for authoritarian governments haven’t come from political issues. Democracy hasn’t been at the center of it. In this case, it was covid restrictions, whereas it was stupid handling of covid that brought [Belarus President Alexander] Lukashenko almost to his knees and made [Brazil’s Jair] Bolsonaro lose the election. It was the issue of corruption, not democracy, that brought the largest number of Russians onto the streets around [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny. It was more, even, than the recent mobilization.
In autocracies, these nonpolitical issues mobilize people, and when people are mobilized they develop horizontal connections. Regimes like the Chinese or the Iranians are very afraid of people solving problems in their community together, because that means they don’t need the state.
And I think the Chinese government understand this well. It was only a matter of time. You cannot keep a billion people in quarantine while the rest of the world is not in quarantine. This is a very risky game.
G: What about Russia? What are the prospects for real political change there?
SP: Russia is a very, very specific case. This is a government which has done the best at preventing any type of protest, containing any type of discontent, persuading everybody and their mother to leave the country. This is a country that unlike China or Turkey, which are very vulnerable to middle-class protests, doesn’t give a s— about the middle class, because they draw their revenue from oil.
Then Putin went ballistic with this invasion of Ukraine, and I think he did the best favor to democracy that you can imagine after destroying it for 15 years, with his soft power: all the Berlusconis, all the Le Pens, all the media he set up, and puppet governments in places like Serbia. All these things, he did every well. But now everybody connects these two things: Russia and imperialism. And also, oil with autocracy.
My point is, Russia is now very vulnerable on several different fronts. Empires always collapse when they are not able to maintain the periphery. Even autocracies like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are leaving the [Russians] now. That’s a big problem. Now [when it comes to Ukraine], Putin looks like the bully who was beaten up by a small girl in front of his peers in school yards. In the world of autocrats, if you’re not able to maintain the perception of invincibility, you’re dead.
G: So you think Putin could really be in trouble?
SP: I think in the long term there is no way to rebuild his credibility. Sure, he can maintain his grip on power in this bizarre country where 400 tycoons own 51 percent of the national wealth. But it will be very interesting to see how it plays out. The bigger threat for him now are these right-wing hawks. They will go after him if he cannot win the war. And he cannot win. So this is his internal threat, from guys that are worse than him on the right, because he did really well at beating up on the center and sending all the Navalnys to concentration camps.
At the same time, another vulnerability is that a) war is expensive, b) there is no victory in this war and c) there will be more protests around mobilization.
It’s very similar to Serbia. When war was on TV every night in 1992, Milosevic was very popular. When military police started ringing people’s doors for the draft, it was very different. Eighty percent of the people in my hometown, Belgrade, would rather leave the country than fight in his war in Croatia. So, 1993 was the first year he officially lost the popular vote. Of course, he made arrangements that allowed him to stay in power, but he had lost the population because of mobilization and inflation and some other things, which are now coming to Russia.
G: How are you thinking about the role of technology and social in protest movements these days? You mentioned TikTok in Iran before, but we also see the Chinese government using AI and people’s social media accounts to identify them. And of course governments can also use it to spread misinformation.
SP: It’s a double-edged sword. Technology brought a lot of freedom and horizontal connections and capabilities to spread movements in a fast and safe way. It brought a lot of learning from group to group, which is also very important. It also makes any kind of abuse of human rights very difficult because now everybody with a phone can be a reporter. But at the same time, because authoritarians were so scared of it, starting from 2011, they are now far more effective in both containing their populations and spreading their war internationally.
When you take a look at the impact of social media on global democracy, you’re looking at the reverse version of Hollywood during the Cold War. Hollywood helped the West spread stories, which hurt isolated communist countries behind the Iron Curtain, because it gave people a vision for the world that they could be living in: the TV sets they could own and cars they could drive if they got rid of the Communist government. Now, in the same way, social media can destroy the center point of democracy and turn everything into a conspiracy. Look at Brazil, where many people think Putin is doing a great job killing Nazis in Ukraine.
But then also, take a look at the youth generation in the U.S., and you see the level of support for Ukraine there, it’s all [thanks to] TikTok. Then you see the role of social media in Jan. 6 and the character assassination of [Anthony] Fauci. It’s very difficult to weigh these things.
G: Last question: Any movements around the world or countries you’re keeping an eye on in terms of potential political upheavals or democratic gains?
SP: I’m always interested in the countries I feel strongly for and have worked with, like Burma. I think the world has so much to learn from how the Burmese activists are tackling the junta. Another place with real potential for change is Sudan, which is still struggling with a military coup but once again is a people-power movement led predominantly by women.
But globally, I’m interested in whether we will see more of environmentalists getting in line with the need to defend democracy, because the climate change movement is really the most promising movement in the world. It’s widespread, and it comes from the generation that will overtake the world.
It is only a matter of time until the struggle for environmental change and putting a cap on fossil fuels, which we’re already seeing in organizations like Fridays for the Future in Europe, will come to the table to Western governments saying, “OK, it’s not only that you’re using heroin — oil and gas — it’s that you’re buying it from very bad dealers: Khamenei and Maduro and the rest.” It’s a long list. If they can do it with Russia, it’s very likely the next mobilization will be around Venezuela or Iran or the next oil-dependent autocracy, so you will see a cascading effect.
It’s the question of whether young people will be able to connect the movement for divestment from fossil fuels with who we are buying it from. This matters more for the reversal of losses in global democracy than just, say, changing the regime in Burma.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.