POTSDAM – Nonviolent revolutions do not always remain nonviolent, as the examples of uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Syria in the Arab Spring have shown. But peaceful movements for regime change often do succeed. They have toppled illegitimate rulers, as with the post-Soviet “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and ended apartheid in South Africa, for example, or, before that, the Jim Crow system in the American South. Non-violent movements broke British rule in India and Malawi, and brought down authoritarian regimes in Chile, the Philippines, and Portugal.
On the surface, most of these cases seem so different from present-day Russia as to be irrelevant to the success or failure of the current protests against Vladimir Putin’s continued rule and the protesters’ call for free, fair, and competitive elections. But which differences are important?
The immediate outcomes of nonviolent movements for political change are not decided by macro-factors such as levels of education, unemployment, or the presence of a modern middle class. After all, civil resistance has succeeded in poor, backward countries, like India, and failed in rich, educated ones, like the Gulf states.
Nor do short-term windows of opportunity play a decisive role: no serious economic crisis was needed for Chileans to oust General Augusto Pinochet, and Panama’s Manuel Noriega survived a massive nonviolent protest movement, despite crippling economic problems and divisions within the ruling elite.