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The grand pro-democracy narratives of 1989 are over

“The problem we are facing today is less oppression and more lack of identity, apathy, division and no trust,” says Srdja Popovic, the Serbian guru of political activism.

Squint, and 2019 seems to be a rerun of 1989, that iconic year that became synonymous with people-powered revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, as now, demonstrations have taken place on the streets in different countries, in Hong Kong and Prague, Santiago and Beirut, Belgrade, Tbilisi and Basra, all clamouring for change. 

But there is a crucial difference. The protests we associate with 1989 seemed part of one clear, historical narrative: the battle of democracy against authoritarianism, of open versus closed societies. They appealed to a version of history where democracy would prevail.

Today’s protest movements don’t coalesce this way. While those in Prague and Chile have taken place in democracies, the protests in Hong Kong have unfolded in a place where democracy is being rolled back. Common themes, such as corruption and inequality, reappear, but they do not amount to a coherent ideology. The demands of protestors are often local and tactical. Nor do they have a clear geopolitical aim. When I met protestors in Tbilisi, Georgia, this past summer, they expressed their desire to be part of Europe. But what does that mean exactly, when rulers such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have learned how to be both inside and outside the EU, remaining a member state while taking control of the country’s judiciary and media?

I began to understand how the narrative of grand, pro-democracy protests had come undone when spending time with Srdja Popovic, the Serbian guru of political activism, in 2017. As you read this Popovic, who is 46, might be in Asia or Latin America, eastern Europe or the Middle East. Inside meeting rooms in an unremarkable chain hotel, studious-looking men and women of all ages – human rights lawyers and teachers, students and small-business people – might be sitting in a semicircle of desks, in the middle of which stands Popovic.

Popovic is known for his step-by-step manuals for “non-violent direct action campaigns” that teach people how to overthrow dictators peacefully and are downloaded in their tens of thousands across the world (the largest single location is Iran). He trained activists in Georgia, Ukraine and Iran, who participated in the “colour revolutions” between 2003 and 2009 (Rose, Orange and Green respectively). Popovic then tutored leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, who would become the activists behind the Arab Spring protests between 2010 and 2011. For Popovic, these movements are part of a greater historical process: successive “waves of democratisation” that started in the late 1980s and continued to the 2000s.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 in the name of “democratisation”, and the failure of the Arab Spring a decade later, undermined the notion that democratisation would be inevitable. Most importantly, rulers themselves have become more flexible in adapting their ideology, making it harder for protest movements to define what exactly they are opposed to and the alternative vision they want to promote.

The Chinese Communist Party is not so communist any more. The Kremlin mixes overtures to Soviet greatness with Western reality TV shows and shopping. When the leadership embraces different identities so slickly, how is the opposition meant to find a space to project theirs? “The problem we are facing today is less oppression and more lack of identity, apathy, division and no trust,” says Popovic. “There are more tools to change things than before, but there’s less will to do so.”

Popovic has remained indefatigable, however. Anyone who attends one of his workshops will experience the sense that revolutionary change is imminent, even if some of the lessons have changed over time. Sometimes, Popovic finds himself teaching his students not so much how to overturn authoritarian regimes, but how to defend democracies. Increasingly, he is asked to work in countries where democracy was considered – until recently – a political certainty.

Popovic measures success not so much by how many regimes he has helped topple, but how many activists have overcome apathy and are now able to build networks and coalitions. It is perhaps these less immediately tangible factors that the various protest movements in 2019 have in common. From China to Latin America, protesters are using digital tools to build coalitions; governments, meanwhile, deploy cyber-attacks to break them up. Though there is no single political vision unifying the protests, they have a psychological factor in common: the stubborn insistence that you can take things into your own hands.

The historian Marci Shore focuses on this psychological dimension in her 2016 book about the Ukrainian revolution, The Ukrainian Night. Shore identifies what she calls the “revolutionary soul”, a transformative psychological experience where one learns to trust, understand and die for others.

In a time when it is hard to envision a different political reality and where rulers look to instil polarisation and cynicism instead of impose an ideology, the very process of protest becomes an act of political solidarity in and of itself. 

Read the rest of our world in revolt series here

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question