A popular protest that goes off the front pages is in danger of fizzling out — look at the dwindling numbers of farmers still hunkered down around Delhi. Similarly, the 20-month clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir gives the impression of having succeeded so far. While predictions are hazardous so long as the clampdown persists, the new rules may well come to be accepted as a fait accompli. And when did you last hear of the Lok Pal, the main demand of the anti-corruption agitators in 2011? Over and over, history has shown that the denouement of protest movements is unpredictable. Naïve Kashmiri separatists — who had assumed that easy victory would be theirs because the Soviet collapse had made many governments look vulnerable — would not have expected that their people would suffer as never before in the three decades to follow, and then be denuded of the autonomy they had.
The reality today is that, after a dramatic interregnum of regime collapses, state power has asserted itself. Even sustained street revolutions fail now in country after country — Myanmar, Belarus, China’s Hong Kong, and of course Russia. Compare that with 2000-12, the period of the Colour Revolutions in Yugoslavia and Ukraine, Georgia and then Kyrgyzstan, and of the Arab Spring, which led to the ouster of longstanding strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, and to widespread protests elsewhere across the region.
The Colour Revolutions were largely peaceful, yet managed to throw out unpopular rulers guilty of electoral fraud. But we see the mirror opposite now in Myanmar, where the army has intervened because it did not like the election results! Protestors in the country have been willing to face bullets, while 30,000 people have suffered arrest in Belarus — all to no effect. State brutality has helped rulers like Alexander Lukashenko cling to power, while their predecessors 15 years ago simply upped and fled.
Sanctions that once worked in Yugoslavia, for instance, have failed to deliver in Iran and Russia. Both the ousted and present regimes in Myanmar have been subjected to sanctions, the first for its treatment of Rohingyas; to no effect on both occasions. Indeed, some sanctions have damaged the economies of the countries imposing them, causing loss of support for such measures in some European countries.
Perhaps the explanation for the change in scenarios lies in shifting power balances. In a brief unipolar moment, influencers from the United States helped bring about regime changes in Central Europe and the Caucasus. Russia at the time was still gathering its wits after the fall of the Berlin Wall and its aftermath, unable to control events in its near-abroad. That’s no longer the case. Both Russia and China want to ensure that the history of US-blessed democracy movements and regime change is not repeated.
Moscow has put Alexei Navalny in jail and thwarted America in Syria. Turkey’s Recep Erdogan annoys the West but gets kid-glove treatment from President Vladimir Putin, who has also stepped into the Myanmar situation after successfully backing Lukashenko in Belarus. Putin also engineered regime change in Kyrgyzstan, and is indirectly meddling in Libya. Beijing, on its part, is no longer willing to tolerate the “umbrella revolution” in Hong Kong, and cares little for Western reactions to its clampdown in Xinjiang.
It certainly seems easier to start revolutions than to influence their course. That explains why many regime changes have not led to a better fate for the citizens who threw out oppressive rulers. Kyrgyzstan has seen repeated unrest and violence since its Tulip Revolution of 2005; Libya is the playground of militias and mercenaries; Egypt has simply swapped one authoritarian leader for another; and Yemen is enmeshed in civil war. Syria is a devastated land, and the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon has left behind an ungovernable country. Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in Ukraine but returned to power, only to be ousted again. As has happened through history, revolutions eat their own children.
And if you are looking for irony, Azerbaijan managed to hold out against protesters whereas neighbouring Armenia saw its government ousted in 2018. But it is Azerbaijan that recently won a mini-war with Armenia. So which protest, where democracy, whose revolution, and what price success?