After Ukraine: Assessing Conditions For A Popular Uprising

Following the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych over the weekend, we are publishing extracts from a landmark article, Mass Uprisings: Why, How, And Where Next?, which we published in Business Monitor Online on July 12, 2013. The feature was based on studying dozens of attempted and successful popular uprisings since 1980.

Below, we list in abridged form the factors that trigger popular uprisings or mass demonstrations. Of the eleven factors we identify, Ukraine appears to have ticked seven on the list:

Undemocratic or quasi-authoritarian governments: A mass uprising is more likely in countries where the government is formally undemocratic, or is officially democratic but acts in an increasingly authoritarian manner… [TICK]

Chronic economic weakness and mismanagement: Unsurprisingly, long-term economic weakness and perceived mismanagement of the economy are key sources of public discontent. These feelings will be augmented if there are huge wealth disparities and if the elite is seen as particularly corrupt and self-serving... [TICK]

Sudden deterioration of economic conditions and people's livelihoods: Outbursts of public unrest can be triggered by a sharp fall in living standards... [NO]

Steady improvement in living conditions: Somewhat paradoxically, in authoritarian states uprisings or a desire for major political change have taken place amid rising living standards. This is because once the public has attained a certain level of economic well-being, their demands may shift away from 'bread and butter' issues to matters such as greater political representation and accountability...[NO]

Desire to end isolation: Most popular uprisings are driven by domestic political and economic factors rather than foreign policy issues. However, in countries where a government's policies have led to international isolation, and that isolation has taken a heavy toll on people's livelihoods or prestige, then foreign policy can become a source of grievance with the government… [TICK. The protests against Yanukovych began last November, when he refrained from signing an association agreement with the EU, raising fears about Ukraine's drift deeper into Russia's orbit.]

Disputed election results: In recent years, we have seen mass protests triggered by the perceived or actual manipulation of election results by incumbent governments. The perception that authoritarian or even some democratic governments are willing to cheat to retain power can thus lead the public to overturn the results with a show of force on the streets... [NO. Yanukovych was elected in 2010, and did not face re-election until 2015.]

Charismatic opposition leaders: Although mass protests can take place without any central organisation, they are arguably more likely to succeed when they have a charismatic leader (even if that person is only a figurehead)... [MIXED. Ukraine's uprising had several opposition leaders of varying public appeal; arguably the most charismatic was former boxer Vitali Klitschko.]

Foreign support: Mass protests are also likely to be successful if they have the backing, whether covert or public, of foreign governments, NGOs, and the diaspora (which may include exiled dissidents)... [TICK. The Ukrainian protestors had the de facto support of the EU and US.]

Critical mass: Unless opposition protests are substantial, governments can typically ignore them. However, if opposition demonstrations swell to the hundreds of thousands, and occupy a key district in the capital, thus disrupting economic activities, the government will become compelled to take notice... [TICK. Although protests had peaked long before Yanukovych's removal, they had lasted for three months in total, and had taken over the main square in the capital, Kiev.]

Capital city protests: The situation in the capital city (or main commercial city, where this differs from the capital) is crucial, for this is where the government, businesses, and media are headquartered… [TICK. But there were also widespread anti-government protests in other cities, with some regional authorities refusing allegiance to Yanukovych's administration.]

The student/youth demographic: In many uprisings, young people have played a crucial role in driving political change. Students led the way in China's Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, several West African countries in 1989-1990, protests in Iran in 1999, and, to a lesser degree, the Serbian uprising of 2000… [NOT REALLY. Ukraine's new uprising had support from a wide age range, and was not led by the youth bracket.]

Assessing 'Power Centres'

Our featured article also assessed various 'power centres' that underpin a government or regime:

  • Regime/government
  • Legislature
  • Judiciary
  • Military
  • Business organisations
  • Media
  • Religious leaders
  • Intelligentsia/students
  • Middle classes
  • Labour union

In the case of Viktor Yanukoych's ousting, he lost the support of virtually all influential groups.

After The 'Revolution'

We concluded our feature article by noting that "overthrowing the government is often the easiest part of political change. It is the beginning of the change, rather than the change itself. The hard part is establishing new political systems and implementing economic reforms. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy, and from a statist economic system to a free market one, is often chaotic and painful, and as a result, people start missing the stability provided by the ancien regime. Thus, the latter begins its political revival, often under a new name and new leaders. Old establishment parties have remained powerful or have made comebacks in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Mexico, Serbia, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere, and in some cases have been returned to power by voters after having been removed in 'revolutions' or mass uprisings only a few years earlier."

In the case of Ukraine, Yanukovych's election in 2010 marked the return of the old regime after the 'Orange Revolution' of 2004-2005. The question is whether the latest uprising will lead to genuine positive change.