Archive | Protest

The Limits of Western Influence over Belarus

We are pleased to welcome back Professor Lucan Way of the University of Toronto with our second Election Report on the recent Belarusian presidential election.


On Sunday, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka orchestrated his re-election to a fourth term with an official vote tally of 80 percent – a move that was followed by a large-scale crackdown on the opposition. Despite Belarus’s small size and proximity to Western Europe, Europe’s last Dictator has remained virtually unchallenged since gaining power in 1994. What can the West do? Some have recently suggested that the West could more effectively promote democracy in Belarus by taking a tougher stand.

Yet, the truth is that there are severe limitations on the West’s influence over Belarus. First, Russia’s extensive support for Belarus has severely blunted the impact of Western democratizing pressure. Thus, after Lukashenka forcibly shut down the legislature and imposed a dictatorial constitution in 1996, Western financial aid fell dramatically and European powers deprived Belarus of its observer status in the Council of Europe. But massive support from Russia almost entirely inoculated Lukashenka against these measures. Russian assistance, which has included heavily subsidized natural gas and vast revenues via the resale of Russian oil and arms, accounted for an estimated 20 to 30 percent of Belarus’s GDP. As a result, Lukashenka’s abuses only increased. In 1999, four major opposition figures disappeared, apparently at the hands of government-sponsored death squads and elections throughout the 2000s were marked by extensive harassment of opposition and massive vote fraud. During the 2006 Presidential elections, for example, a significant portion of the vote was stolen and police repression and censorship made it effectively impossible for the opposition to carry out a national campaign. The ppposition failed to gain seats in parliamentary elections in 2004 or 2008.

Given Belarusian dependence on Russian assistance, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has ironically been the biggest impetus for change in Belarus. Following years of uncritical support by Boris Yeltsin, tensions between Russia and Belarus increased markedly under Putin, who has sought to reduce Russia’s subsidization of Belarus. Tensions reached a climax this summer when Kremlin-controlled NTV broadcast a highly critical documentary of Lukashenka that was seen by as many as 40 percent of Belarusians. Lukashenka accused Russian companies of funding Belarusian opposition.

It is a vast exaggeration to say that the keys to the Belarusian Presidency lie in the Kremlin. Indeed, Russian criticism of Lukashenka appears to have had little direct impact on Belarusian voters. Yet, Russia’s relations to Lukashenka have strongly influenced the degree of Lukashenka’s vulnerability to Western democratizing pressure. Deteriorating Russian-Belarusian relations forced Lukashenka to seek financial assistance from the West and likely convinced Lukashenka to partially ease control over the electoral process. Thus, while Lukashenka continued to enjoy massive advantages during the most recent election campaign, the opposition was given greater freedom to campaign and far more access to TV and radio than it had enjoyed in 2006. These limited concessions to the opposition were clearly a response to Western demands. But such pressure would almost certainly have been ignored in the absence of tensions between Russia and Belarus.

Such changes, of course, hardly made the elections democratic. Thus, the government appears to have engaged in massive vote fraud and, after the election, assaulted and arrested a number of opposition candidates and detained over 600 opposition activists. (Lukashenka’s readiness to engage in such abuse was likely bolstered by the fact that on the Friday before the elections, Russia agreed to provide Belarus with duty-free crude oil in exchange for a closer economic union.)

The second and perhaps greatest impediment to effective Western pressure is the fact that the opposition has apparently failed to garner large scale mass support. Of course, given the degree of repression and authoritarian control in Belarus, it is quite difficult to adduce the actual extent to which the population backs Lukashenka or his opponents. Yet, few in the opposition claim majority electoral support and available independent polling suggests that Lukashenka has enjoyed much more support than anyone in the opposition. Existing and highly imperfect evidence suggests that Lukashenka is backed by about a third of the population—far less than the official election results but far greater than any of his opponents. This fact deprives the West of a key mechanism for regime change and makes it much harder for either the West (or Russia) to dictate events on the ground.

All of this is not to argue against continued pressure on Lukashenka. Europe needs to unambiguously condemn Lukashenka’s election fraud and post-election crackdown. Nonetheless, a weak opposition and continued (if uncertain) assistance from Russia put Lukashenka in the driver’s seat. Sanctions and isolation are unlikely to yield significant results in the near-term.

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“There Was No Twitter Revolution Inside Iran.”

Before one of the major Iranian protests of the past year, a journalist in Germany showed me a list of three prominent Twitter accounts that were commenting on the events in Tehran and asked me if I know the identities of the contributors. I told her I did, but she seemed disappointed when I told her that one of them was in the United States, one was in Turkey, and the third—who specialized in urging people to “take to the streets”—was based in Switzerland.

That is Golnaz Esfandiari, writing in Foreign Policy. Another tidbit:

A number of opposition activists have told me they used text messages, email, and blog posts to publicize protest actions. However, good old-fashioned word of mouth was by far the most influential medium used to shape the postelection opposition activity. There is still a lively discussion happening on Facebook about how the activists spread information, but Twitter was definitely not a major communications tool for activists on the ground in Iran.

And this:

To be clear: It’s not that Twitter publicists of the Iranian protests haven’t played a role in the events of the past year. They have. It’s just not been the outsized role it’s often been made out to be. And ultimately, that’s been a terrible injustice to the Iranians who have made real, not remote or virtual, sacrifices in pursuit of justice.
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Southern European Syndrome

As American once again debates the significance of a House special election result, things on the other side of the Atlantic are also heating up, and not just because of volcanic ash. Europe is witnessing the emergence of disturbingly familiar pattern which I’m going to try to label Southern European Syndrome (with no disrespect intended for Iceland or Ireland). But here’s the basic pattern for now:

  1. A country gets into trouble with international financial markets and starts having increasing difficulty borrowing
  2. Said country then enacts austerity measures, including pay cuts for civil service workers and reduced expenditures on pensions
  3. People in said country then take to the streets and protest

A lot of how the story ends probably depends on this final stage. The world was capitivated when this played out to tragic consequence in Greece earlier this month. However, this pattern is repeating itself in other countries as well. I returned to Spain last week to find that the government had announced wage cuts of 5-15% for public sector workers amid a host of other deficit reducing measures; unions announced a strike for early June but then postponed it.

I then arrived in Bucharest, Romania yesterday to discover that the government here has called for a 25% cut in public sector wages and that there was a large scale protest called for today at Piata Victorei, from 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM. According to media accounts, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 angry protestors took to the streets (reports and pictures can be found here here and here). Here’s a picture from the media coverage:


One question that has emerged about the protests in Spain is whether they are genuinely designed to prevent the austerity measures from taking place, or if they simply represent a face-saving attempt by unions not to appear to be passively giving in to what they in the end may know to be inevitable. As The Economist duly noted this week, “democratic governments can impose only so much hardship before people rise up”. So the question of where and when people are going to decide to rise up – or step three of the syndrome I outlined above – seems crucial for us as political scientists to think about.

It was with this in mind that I headed up to Piata Victorei a little more than an hour after the protest was scheduled to end. Here’s what I found; note that the building in the background is the same one in the picture above:


Pretty much nothing. Clean up crews, some newspaper reporters conducting interviews, but that was about it. Now I don’t know exactly what this tells us about the potential for more protest in Romania or elsewhere in the future, but it was fascinating to see just how quickly the whole thing had already to seemed to disappear.

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How Republican Is the Tea Party Movement?

I noted the recent Politico/TargetPoint “exit poll” of Tea Party activists who gathered in Washington DC on April 10. In their analysis, Politico and TargetPoint note:

Despite a heavily Republican presidential voting record, Tea Party attendees are reluctant to embrace the GOP today. They are distinctly not Democrats, but they are also not extreme Republican partisans.

I was curious about this in light of Mark Blumenthal’s earlier post on the partisan leanings of Tea Partiers. Using national survey data in which people were asked about whether they supported the Tea Party, Blumenthal shows that over 80% identify as Republicans, once self-identified independents are asked a further question about the party they lean to.

Unfortunately, the P/TP exit poll does not ask this further question of independents. However, Alex Lundry of TargetPoint kindly ran me some numbers. He looked at any question where respondents could pick a party or not pick one and assigned a score of +1 for each GOP pick, -1 for each Democratic pick, and 0 when they picked neither. The 5 questions were: party identification, which party has better ideas for fixing government, the generic congressional ballot, and presidential vote choice in both 2004 and 2008. So the scale ranges from -5 to +5, with 0 as a “neutral” point. Here’s how the activists were arrayed on this scale.


It’s true, as P/TP suggest, that this sample of activists are not “extreme Republican partisans,” in the sense that they’re not clustered at +5. But the vast majority, about 80%, are on the Republican “side” of this scale.

This doesn’t mean that Tea Party activists automatically and everywhere favor Republicans. (Indeed, that would be true even if this poll had a better measure of party identification, as party identification does not determine one’s vote in every circumstance.) But their tendency, and it appears to be a strong one, is to favor the Republican Party. The question is whether the future, and in particular the 2010 election, provides them any better alternative.

P.S. TargetPoint provides a quiz where you can determine your own affinity with the Tea Party movement.

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Annals of Biting the Hand that Feeds You

The “UNR Students for Liberty” held a rally Monday, full of pizzas, ponies, balloons, bouncing castles and music.
The goal of the rally was to abolish the ASUN, by collecting signatures to put on a petition for next year’s election. They say the student body is wasteful and takes money from students, an estimated $5 per credit.
“We feel those funds are stolen,” Barry Belmont with the Students for Liberty said. “They are forcing kids to pay and in essence, taking the money from them.”
The ASUN actually paid for the rally. The “Students for Liberty,” a recognized club, filled out all of the required paperwork to receive funds. Monday’s rally cost an estimated $3,000. They say they spent nearly $1,000 alone on pizza.

More is here.

[via Inside Higher Ed]

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Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel?

Despite its fundamental role in legitimizing the modern state system, nationalism has rarely been linked to the outbreak of political violence in the recent literature on ethnic conflict and civil war. To a large extent, this is because the state is absent from many conventional theories of ethnic conflict. Indeed, some studies analyze conflict between ethnic groups under conditions of state failure, thus making the absence of the state the very core of the causal argument. Others assume that the state is ethnically neutral and try to relate ethnodemographic measures, such as fractionalization and polarization, to civil war. In contrast to these approaches, we analyze the state as an institution that is captured to different degrees by representatives of particular ethnic communities, and thus we conceive of ethnic wars as the result of competing ethnonationalist claims to state power.

So begins newly published research by Lars-Erik Cederman, Andreas Wimmer, and Brian Min in World Politics. They argue that specific actions by state authorities—namely, the exclusion of large ethnic groups from power—motivates ethnonationalist conflict. They contrast their findings with other work (e.g., this article by James Feaeron and David Laitin) that finds little effect of ethnic diversity on civil war. Cederman et al. rejoin:

…these scholars argue that ethnic grievances are too ubiquitous to explain the rare event of civil war. Without denying the relevance of feasibility mechanisms, our findings show that ethnicity should not be discounted as an explanatory factor in the study of civil wars. We demonstrate empirically how the logics of contention and mobilization lead ethnically defined actors who are excluded from state power into armed conflict. Roughly half of the conflicts fought since the Second World War can be linked to this dynamic of ethnopolitical struggle for state power.

I’m not adjudicating among these contending claims here. I’ll simply note that getting the story right is obviously important for conflict resolution and prevention. If civil wars arise mainly in weak or failed states—without regard to the ethnic diversity they contain—then fostering state reconstruction and development is a crucial task. If civil wars arise mainly from specific patterns of ethnic exclusion, then the crucial task is pressuring state authorities to be inclusive.

A gated version of the paper is here. An earlier, ungated version is here.

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Hello, Pot? This is the Kettle Calling: Iranian Edition

In the “have they no sense of shame” category, Iranian Press TV is reporting that in response to the violence in China’s Xinjiang province:

In a telephone conversation with Secretary General of the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki voiced Iran’s support for “the rights of Chinese Muslims”. Mottaki is also expected to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi over the issue.

Hat tip to Nico Ptiney at the Huffington Post, which has been providing amazing live-blogging coverage of events in Iran over the past month.

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