The anatomy of revolution

EU should stand on the right side of history and support democratic forces in Eastern Europe and the Arab world.

From Eastern Europe to the Arab world, protesters demand change and are committed to fight for them [EPA]
From Eastern Europe to the Arab world, protesters demand change and are committed to fight for them [EPA]

Quoting from the times of the French Revolution, a young Serbian woman recently said to me, “The revolution eats its children.” This triggered a huge debate in a group comprised of other 20-something-year-old graduate students from Syria, Egypt, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tunisia, Georgia and other countries which are close to the European Union.

“Why is the EU supporting Morsi?” “Should non-democratic parties be allowed to take part in democratic debate?” “How do you make democratic change – or more simply, the aspiration for freedom and pluralism – irreversible?” These are the questions which hundreds of thousands of people are asking around the world, from public squares in Ukraine, Thailand, Turkey, and all those who in the past few years have overthrown their authoritarian governments.

EU or not?

The Serbian student was referring to the revolution her country went through. She must have been around 10 or 11 years of age at the time. In 2000, after a bloody war which destroyed former Yugoslavia, and another war in Kosovo, the Serbs decided to do away with their blood thirsty criminal leader and toppled Slobodan Milosevic through mass protests. Today, Serbia is the most depressed country in the world, according to a recent opinion poll, and is governed by Milosevic’s former spokesperson, Ivica Dacic.

So it is quite ironic, that Dacic managed to broker an agreement on “normalising” relations with Hashim Thaci, who in 1999 was the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army which carried out guerrilla warfare to get independence from Serbia. Leaving aside the complexities of this process, one result is that the EU on December 17, agreed to start talks with Belgrade to enable Serbia to join the EU. It will take time, and preparing to join the EU will be painful for Serbia, which will have to carry out deep reforms to consolidate democracy and, sooner or later, give Kosovo up for good. But it shows that, in some parts of the world, joining the EU is still seen as a good thing.

Counter-revolutionaries may have the means to clamp down on protest, but it is very hard to destroy the seeds of change once they have been planted.

No such luck for the protesters in Ukraine who have been demonstrating en masse for the past few weeks against their government’s decision not to sign a trade agreement with the EU. The country’s President Viktor Yanukovitch tried some horse-trading between Brussels and Moscow to get the best financial deal to avoid the country going bust. Now Kiev is under Putin’s thumb, having received financial assistance until the next presidential elections in 2015.

But the protests are far from over. In many ways, the crisis is more complicated than the Orange Revolution of 2004, and it is not clear how it will end. The government is playing all its cards to prevent a negotiated solution. The president was legitimately and democratically elected in free and fair elections monitored by the EU. So it is difficult for Brussels, which has been trying to persuade the parties to come to the negotiating table and whose leaders have been showing much solidarity with the protesters, to support Yanukovitch’s overthrow.

Arab awakening

The EU may still inspire some countries and be able to support them. Outside Europe, mass protests have been moved by very similar aspirations – dignity, ending the corruption of governments, freedom of expression and association. The Arab awakenings led many to herald another democratic “wave”, after the ones which spread in Central Europe with the end of the Cold War, and in Eastern Europe in the 2000s. Then observers worried that the Arab Spring had turned into a winter – the counter-revolutionary moment.

Rather than seek historical parallels with 1989, 1848, or the French Revolution and counter-revolution, the rather obvious, but too frequently unsaid, point is that that the uprisings do not necessarily lead to democratisation. The demands for justice, freedom and dignity are best expressed through democracy. But many contest this idea. In those cases where there is a broad consensus on the forging of new democratic institutions, the road is very difficult. Tunisia and Egypt have both been struggling to define their new state, with the relationship between religion, individual rights and the state representing the battlefield between different conceptions.

In many of these countries the EU can do far less than in Serbia, or even Ukraine, to help. But, here too, it has made many mistakes. It has flattered itself into believing that it was a source of inspiration in non-European countries, forgetting that dignity and freedom are universal aspirations, not European ones. It has not been sufficiently able to mobilise political and economic resources to support those forces in society which are committed to building the first blocks of democracy around those aspirations. It has too often confused its preoccupations with security and stability at the expense of allowing fluid processes of change to build in the region. It has been essentially silent on the bloodshed in Syria.

Silver lining?

External actors can do little; the EU should aspire to be on the right side of history, which would be quite an achievement considering Europe’s historical track record in the Arab world. Beyond this – and here we come back to the dramatic question raised by the young Serbian about the longer term impact of revolution and change – there is one lesson to be drawn from the tumultuous past three years and from Ukraine’s streets today.

Counter-revolutionaries may have the means to clamp down on protest, but it is very hard to destroy the seeds of change once they have been planted. Serbians might be the most depressed nationality in the world, but they can outvote their government, and even the warlords of the past have changed their tune. Three years from the start of the Arab uprisings, many are cautioning against optimism about change. There may not be an unavoidable march towards democracy, but there are aspirations and people committed to fight for them. This is the new “spectre” haunting the world.

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels. 

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