Non-violent revolutions do not always remain non-violent, as the examples of uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria in the Arab Spring have shown. However, 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 US 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 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s continued rule and the protesters’ call for free, fair and competitive elections. However, which differences are important?
The immediate outcomes of non-violent 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 former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, while former Panamanian president Manuel Noriega survived a massive non-violent protest movement, despite crippling economic problems and divisions within the ruling elite.
Recent research by the sociologists Erica Chenoweth, Maria Stephan and Sharon Erickson Nepstad shows that one factor more than any other determines whether non-violent struggles succeed: protesters’ decision to adopt non-violence itself. Indeed, Chenoweth and Stephan have shown that peaceful protests are more than twice as likely as violent confrontation to bring about complete or partial regime change.
However, the outcome of civil resistance also depends on the precise methods used. Challenging the regime’s legitimacy and withholding skills and material resources from it are important, as is creating free spaces for dissent and maintaining the movement’s unity and clarity of purpose.
Most importantly, as Nepstad has shown, a protest movement aimed at regime change needs to win over critical parts of the police and armed forces.
Conversely, a government that secures the unconditional loyalty of its troops will be able to crush even the most sustained popular protests. Yet it can do so only at the cost of much bloodshed and a half-hearted or ineffectual crackdown makes the protesters’ triumph much more likely.
Given this, what are the prospects for Russia’s current protest movement? So far, it has gotten many things right. It has focused on a single demand: fair elections. It has united liberals, communists, nationalists and otherwise apolitical citizens in a broad coalition, despite these groups’ mutual disdain and a colossal potential for rifts.
Like the 2000 Serbian uprising against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the Russian movement has produced an astonishing upsurge in grassroots creativity and political wit. A good example is the recent “nano-protest” in the Siberian city of Barnaul, where police officers were forced to write up a report on a group of Lego figures brandishing slogans. These toy protests have now spread to other cities.