Farid Guliyev is a doctoral candidate in political science at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany. Nozima Akhrarkhodjaeva is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen.
Large-scale protests, like Euromaidan or the Arab Spring, tend to occur in waves clustered in time and space through the processes of cross-country political contention or diffusion, defined by Della Porta and Tarrow as “the spread of movement ideas, practices, and frames from one country to another”. The Euromaidan protest was a sustained demonstration against what was perceived as highly corrupt and personalistic rule of Yanukovych, who was impeached by parliamentary majority after fleeing the capital Feb. 22. The events in Kiev drew attention of opposition activists in Azerbaijan, Russia and Belarus. Several weeks after Yanukovych’s ouster, Mustafa Nayem, one of the protest organizers tweeted: “The biggest danger for Vladimir V. Putin is that Ukraine’s revolution will eventually spread toward Russia.”
Yet, the Euromaidan protests did not spark similar political activism in other post-Soviet semi-autocratic regimes. Why not? After all, only nine years ago, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was activated by a regional, if not global, tide of electoral revolutions.
There are two key insights from social movement literature that may explain why Euromaidan is not (likely to be) spreading.
1. An unappealing model and violence
To start with, Euromaidan does not offer an innovative and appealing template for regime opponents elsewhere. The previous Orange Revolution followed the electoral revolution model in which the stolen elections served as the focal point for anti-regime actors. Due to these easy-to-replicate, modular features, the electoral revolution model was a ready toolbox of successful protest frames and repertoire of contention that could be easily adopted and adapted by oppositionists in other settings.
On closer inspection, the Euromaidan movement deviates from the generic electoral revolution model in three important ways. First, integrity of elections was not an issue at stake this time. The demands raised by Euromaidan protesters changed over time shifting in emphasis from the outrage over Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a European Union association agreement and his acceptance of loans and energy subsidies from Russia to demands to respect dignity and end corruption of senior officials, the president and his “Family”. Since participants came from different walks of life, the protest movement was formed from heterogeneous and broad-based groups including ultra-nationalists from the Svoboda party and Pravy Sektor.
Second, in contrast to the 2004 revolution, political opposition parties joined the Euromaidan rallies at a later stage, were more fractured and lacked a unified leadership.
Third, Euromaidan was characterized by the extreme level violence which scared off potential foreign followers. As Sidney Tarrow noted: “Although violence impresses people, it has a severe limitation in the formation of movements, for it restraints and frightens off sympathizers.” Unlike the bloodless protests in 2004, Euromaidan invokes in people’s psyche images of burning cars, bonfires, thick smoke, Molotov cocktails and violent clashes leaving a hundred people dead and about a thousand injured.
Euromaidan is not the first major protest to deviate from the electoral revolution model. The violent anti-government demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 forcing president Kurmanbek Bakiev out were not directly related to the electoral cycle either, the fact that led Joshua Tucker to aptly call the Kyrgyz protests the first “post-colored revolution” in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine’s Euromaidan and Kyrgyzstan 2010 indicate the emergence of an alternative, non-electoral, form of collective action in post-Soviet Eurasia.
2. Authoritarian learning and negative framing
Not only was the Euromaidan violent and unappealing, the conditions on the ground had changed drastically as well. Over the years, the ruling regimes in Azerbaijan, Belarus and Russia adjusted their repression strategies and adopted new ones to squash any signs of a color revolution. All three regimes were “late risers” during the color revolution wave. As Mark Beissinger shows, state elites in “later risers” have an advantage over those in “earlier risers” in that they know about actions and strategies used by protesters in the initial wave and therefore can adapt.
Institutional screws were tightened as post-Soviet autocrats took preemptive measures. Russia played a leading role in spreading various diffusion-proofing strategies. Examples include Russia’s restrictive legislation on non-governmental organizations in 2006 and the 2012 law requiring foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents”. Such measures foreclosed the success of anti-Kremlin mass rallies on the Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. And as Julia Ioffe rightly noted, “much of the stringency and verticality of the Russian political system is a direct result of [reaction to] Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.”
Acting as a “black knight” and using a mix of carrots and sticks, Moscow provided a model for other authoritarian rulers to emulate. Putin’s administration was the leading force in the movement to promote legislation against Western democracy assistance programs worldwide. The Kremlin’s NGO laws were later copied by other post-Soviet autocrats. For example, in the aftermath of protests in early 2013, the Azerbaijani authorities started a campaign to crackdown on foreign NGOs. By the end of the year, new amendments to the law on NGOs introduced the requirement to appoint Azerbaijani nationals as deputy-chiefs in locally operating foreign NGOs that looked like a copycat of Russia’s law on foreign agents.
Moreover, protest participation was also discouraged by a more subtler, cognitive mechanism. Putin’s administration employed media frames to influence public opinion. Framing refers to the process of selecting some aspects of a perceived reality to make them more salient to communicate and advance a particular interpretation or moral evaluation of a problem. Framing becomes negative when used to portray an issue or an event in an unfavorable light with the aim to discourage popular support and/or provoke emotional disapproval.
Before the elections of 2007-2008, the Kremlin “produced a torrent of xenophobic, conspiratorial propaganda which attributed the upheavals on Russia’s borders to Western incitement and vilified the Russian opposition as marionettes.” Amidst the flaring of Euromaidan protests, Russia employed a full range of tools to frame the Euromaidan events as an illegitimate action led by extremist foreign-trained forces and fomented by the shadowy western powers.
A week after the start of the Euromaidan demonstrations, on Dec. 2, 2013, Putin’s initial reaction was that the rallies in Kiev had nothing to do with Ukraine’s EU integration aspirations but were “an attempt to shake the current … legitimate authorities” by “very well prepared and trained militant groups”. He said the events “don’t look like a revolution, but rather like ‘pogrom’”. On Dec. 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “There’s no doubt that provocateurs are behind this. The fact that our Western partners have apparently lost touch with reality is a great sadness to me.”
After the impeachment of Yanukovych on Feb. 22, which pro-Russian media portrayed as a “fascist coup,” the rhetoric began to question the legitimacy of the interim authorities by calling them “radical nationalists” supported by western governments. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, accused Western powers of backing what he called “fascist thugs” in Ukraine.
Russian citizens’ views depend to a large extent on what they see on TV screen. All TV channels were involved in negative framing of the Euromaidan events. Polls conducted by Levada Center between March 7-10 indicate that 37 percent of Russian respondents believe that Ukraine has been taken over by radical nationalists, whereas 62 percent said there is currently anarchy and no legitimate authority in Ukraine.
Because Russia reaches out to a significant segment of Belarus’ media landscape through ownership of two of the three most viewed TV channels, Belarusians are exposed to the same media frames as their counterparts in Russia. Belarusian TV channels portrayed the Kiev protests as being instigated and financially supported by the external forces, including the E.U. and the United States, while protesters were referred to as “radicals and extremists”. Lukashenko himself referred to the events in Ukraine as “terrifying and catastrophic” and ruled out the possibility of a Maidan-type of revolution in Belarus.
In Azerbaijan, a major opposition party leader said, “Maidan can find a fertile soil in Azerbaijan”. However, the Azerbaijani government did not seem to be alarmed. Perhaps not coincidentally, in mid-February, a pro-government deputy alleged that foreign embassies were preparing a revolution in Azerbaijan, while a senior official from the presidential administration tweeted asking who could have come up with “this strategy” toward Ukraine clearly alluding to the meddling of foreign powers. Predictably, a ruling party MP said that Yanukovych’s downfall was unconstitutional.
Although demands raised by protesters in Kiev resonated well with grievances held by people across post-Soviet states, Euromaidan did not spill over the borders. It lacked an appeal of an easily transferable peaceful model. Moreover, opposition activists’ room for action was severely circumscribed by the institutional constraints and unfriendly discursive environments in which they have to operate.
Considering this, faced with the agility of autocrats to learn and adapt, pro-democratic forces across the post-Soviet states should reconsider their protest strategies and try to develop less violent and more creative ways to frame and organize collective action.