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Understanding civil resistance. Questions I am asked and wrestle with

22 Mar

z15502016QWhile I continue teaching and writing on civil resistance, some prominent scholars, opinion makers and students have lately asked a number of very pertinent questions regarding the practice of and corresponding analytical concepts about civil resistance — no doubt some of the queries were sparked by the recent popular upheaval in Ukraine. Since these questions often resurface in various conversations, I would like to take a shot at some of them, including:


Protest laying down1. How are nonviolent actions and violence defined in civil resistance? When does a nonviolent action stop and violence begin?

Nonviolent action in civil resistance is a politically purposeful act conducted outside the institutionalized politics that can be coercive, but it does not entail physical violence or bodily harm.  As a politically purposeful tool, a nonviolent action aims at 1) delegitimizing an adversary, 2) decreasing adversary’s effective control over the population, 3) weakening the loyalty of its key allies, and 4) increasing the scope and diversity of the participation by a) mobilizing disengaged parts of the society and b) deploying various other action-initiatives that people will be able and willing to join. The above political goals are intrinsically linked to a nonviolent character of resistance actions without which the goals cannot be achieved. Any violence by civil resisters would be bound to undermine — if not in short, then in the mid- and long-term perspectives — political goals of the civil resistance struggle. For example, the goal of the anti-communist opposition in Poland was set around the struggle to win the right to establish free trade unions. By itself, the goal was revolutionary in the tightly controlled “workers” country, but more importantly, the very nature of the goal made the use of violence redundant and even counterproductive. Instead, reaching the goal of legal trade unions that would be independent of the communist party entailed a political (nonviolent) mobilization of workers supported by other segments of the society. They would then choose suitable nonviolent actions — such as occupational strikes inside the factories — that were effective in minimizing the risks of repression (in contrast to open street demonstrations that were crushed in the past) and in increasing the economic and political costs on the regime where idle factories occupied by protesting workers became powerful examples for hundreds of thousands of other workers across industries on how to resist in order to achieve the goal of free trade unions.

Nonviolent action turns into violence when a political tool to delegitimize an adversary — disrupt the business-as-usual and solicit loyalty away from an adversary — shifts to becoming a purely material device used to physically harm the opponent. This would include, for example, throwing stones or Molotov-cocktails during the campaign.

2. If implied threats are used, people harm themselves on purpose or property is destroyed as part of a nonviolent campaign. Is this still nonviolent?

Threats of physical violence (e.g. against collaborators), destruction of property (e.g. cutting communication lines) or self-inflicted harm in order to express a protest are on the borderline of violent and nonviolent tactics. They are usually part of an overall nonviolent campaign that would include hundreds of other clearly nonviolent tactics beyond the ones mentioned above. For example, self-immolation by the Tibetan protesters is a relatively small — though a very dramatic and tragic — element in their self-preservation and self-determination struggle that includes a very rich repertoire of cultural resistance, including family and community-based actions to protect and develop Tibetan culture and language and traditions in defiance of the persistent campaign of Hanisation.

Still, even though the borderline actions are few and far between in an overall nonviolent campaign, it is worth delving more into their nature. One way to assess the character of these actions is to highlight the essence of a civil resistance struggle. The core value of civil resistance is life in and of itself — its preservation and bettering. Political struggle is carried out as long as a human being remains a political agency for action. Death, including by suicide, ends all political engagements. A destruction of property might not entail, in the process, bodily harm, but any benefits stemming from that action might be outweighed by massive reprisals if it is not executed strategically. Blowing up the railways in order to undermine the German war efforts during WWII might have led to considerable collateral damage because Germans held nearby villages — even though they might not have been directly involved in the sabotage —accountable for the actions of the partisans. On the other hand, the concealed sabotage of the German weaponry, which failed to shoot, drive or communicate once it reached the front, by the Danish factory workers was less risky, with lower chances of punishing repression once the weapons were loaded and sent where the German army needed them. Both cases show property destruction, but the first example leads to a loss of civilian life and the second one considerably limits that possibility. Consequently, the latter action can be said to remain within the realm of nonviolent resistance while the former is outside that realm.

547742_571900669547272_354267135_n3. If the activists set the nonviolent battlefield so as to provoke the authorities to use violence, is that still considered nonviolent?

Nonviolent action is often designed — as Martin Luther King Jr. said — to dramatize the already existing injustice. Violence of the adversary against nonviolent action is therefore an extension of the repressive system that is in place. Nonviolent action does not so much provoke but expose to a larger public the violence that the community is being subject to.  A smart nonviolent action is the tool to show the real face of injustice in a dramatic way. This is done to draw massive media attention and, consequently, awaken a large part of the population that over years and decades might have become numbed to or complicit in the existing injustice.

Nonviolent action that exposes violence in a vivid fashion remains in every sense nonviolent as it was before violence was evoked to crush it.

4. Can civil resistance authentically sustain itself on its own for long and succeed against a materially powerful adversary without some kind of external assistance?

The question is set on the (wrong) premise that a nonviolent contestation is material and, consequently, only a materially stronger force prevails. If the material resources (money, manpower, capacity to repress) matter for the outcome of the struggle then the natural question is how resource-deprived, seemingly powerless and until now victimized people can become their own liberators, as well as a sole force able to bring down immovable repressive structures. Surely, the thinking goes, they must have received material help from outside (from other governments with resources) that aided them in their success. The major problem with the premise and derived from its conclusions is that in reality the nonviolent struggle is hardly ever driven by material “boosters” from outside. The resilience of mass-based civil resistance movements that can withstand repression, government propaganda and attempts of co-optation while continuing mobilization and disruptions come from individual and collective fortitude and will. Those who maintain their power through material force, including firepower, can hardly understand a different force. The Ukrainian activists that were kidnapped and tortured during the Maidan revolution told the media that their captors — while beating them up — wanted to know how much money activists received from the foreign embassies in Kyiv, how the money transfer was organized and who was behind it. They could not comprehend that a three-month-old Maidan and other ongoing protests, often in freezing winter temperatures, could have been organically propelled and sustained over time by the voluntary participation and actions of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who donated their time, money, goods, and services and took the risk simply because they deeply identified with and shared the values and ideals that Maidan represented.

The government that projects its power through the tools of oppression, bribery, and propaganda has major difficulties in grasping that political authority of a movement can, in fact, be derived from entirely different (nonmaterial) sources: a genuine representation of people’s grievances and expectations, an organically-created sense of an individual and collective responsibility for the movement and people’s free volition to join the movement that undergirds authentic consent and participation.

With the authentic grassroots force comes people’s commitment to the movement, and with that commitment the movement can self-generate needed resources. The most successful civil resistance movements were also the most effective fund-raisers. The Polish solidarity movement was an extremely effectual resistance force because it mobilized millions while its self-organizing skills were propelling the most successful grassroots fund-raising machinery in Polish history. The assistance from other governments for civil resistance movements in the distant and recent past has never been a decisive factor in the ultimate victory of the nonviolent campaigns. Some activists realize that an external help from governments can in fact do more harm than good as it helps the regime brand the movement as a foreign stooge that represents other governments’ interests rather than the interests of the local population. This is one more reason why activists develop their own domestic sources of material and financial support to reinforce their grassroots legitimacy and occupy a better position to defend themselves against the regime’s attempts to discredit them.

enhanced-buzz-2970-1385130500-25 5. Is a successful nonviolent fight against a democratically elected leader a civil resistance or a coup?

Civil resistance differs from a coup in at least two aspects. First of all, although both are extra-legal struggles, a coup is also an extra-constitutional takeover of power by a small group of power holders (political insiders) often as a direct result of violence or threat of violence. In turn, more often than not, the force behind civil resistance that can successfully challenge a violent regime without resorting itself to violence is a nationwide movement that represents grievances of the majority of the population. Because of its national representation — in terms of the composition and goals of the movement — combined with its largely nonviolent nature, the civil resistance eventually draws to its side key allies of the regime, e.g. sprawling bureaucracies, business communities and security forces. In that sense, civil resistance of national proportion is the manifestation of the fundamental constitutional credo that the people (nation) are the sole source of power and sovereignty in the country (see, for example, the first articles of the constitutions of Venezuela, the Russian Federation, Poland, Turkey or Ukraine). In civil resistance, the power is exercised in the extra-legal way, meaning beyond and above the established political procedures. However, in contrast to the coup, which is the usurpation of power by the actions of the few political insiders, mass-based civil resistance is the practical expression of a basic constitutional value — that only the people can claim and reclaim political power.

Finally, in contrast to a coup, where the only goal is a takeover of power by a deposition of the incumbents, civil resistance can bring about a major political change through at least three processes: a nonviolent coercion powerful enough to lead to the disintegration of the regime, a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition movement (by far, historically, the most common pattern of power transfer in civil resistance struggles), and finally, a conversion of the regime that sides with the movement and adopts its demands.

Ukraine-protests6. Why was it considered to be a nonviolent force that brought down Yanukovych when during the decisive days of resistance, just before his escape from Kyiv, media were showing people who used violence against his security forces?

During the 92 days of the Maidan revolution, 112 activists are now reported to have been killed. Close to 200 demonstrators are still missing, most of them presumably dead, their bodies buried in local forests surrounding Kyiv. 17 police and interior security troops have died during the same period. Violence was used by a small minority of the protesters, but minority violence was neither effective in protecting civilians nor in inflicting serious damage to Ukrainian security forces. Yanukovych fled not because of violence, but because he could no longer rely on his political allies and more importantly on the army that he planned to use to crash Maidan. His interior minister’s plan called for 22,000 police and troops to turn Maidan in Kyiv into Central Europe’s Tiananmen Square. He managed to assemble up to 5,000 police/interior security forces but he still needed the army. When the orders came, the army disobeyed the orders for mobilization. It did that not because it was scared of the violent opposition minority, but because it perceived the revolution as genuinely grassroots, representing grievances and ideals of the majority of Ukrainians. And this, in turn, was the result of nonviolent actions and mobilization of millions of Ukrainians from November 2 until Yanukovych fled Kyiv on February 21, hence the title of my co-authored article Ukraine Explained: A Nonviolent Victory.

The Maidan revolution in Ukraine was largely nonviolent and self-restrained. When violence broke out (three days in the second half of January and three days in the second half of February), it was limited and carried out by a few hundred, while millions that were engaged in various forms of resistance remain nonviolent. For comparison, the Tunisian revolution that lasted 28 days (3.5 times shorter than the Maidan revolution), is considered by most observers to have been nonviolent — 20 police and army troops died. Millions remained expressly nonviolent. President Ben Ali fled, not because he lost 20 security members, but because, like Yanukovych, he could no longer rule the country while his political and security allies no longer obeyed his orders.

7. Nonviolent restraint is useless when one is being attacked by armed thugs and has no way to run. Violence is needed to repel violence.  How then is civil resistance reconcilable with a life-and-death situation?

In a situation where an individual’s life is in immediate danger because of an armed attacker who is ready to shoot and kill on the spot and there is nowhere to retreat, the use of arms can be the only way to survive. However, what works in a dark alley in one-on-one combat is not necessarily applicable to a collective struggle driven by its own dynamics. The resistance of the many against an armed regime or a group is not about one encounter that decides the outcome of the battle, but about repeated interactions pursued on multiple levels (local, regional, national) among members of a movement, between activists and the general public that they try to mobilize, and a movement and the regime’s pillars of support (e.g. the business community) or oppression (security forces).

The dynamics of civil resistance in collective struggles brings to the fore the phenomena that are not present in the situation of a one-on-one encounter, for example, an adversary’s repression against unarmed people backfiring on the regime, or disruptive collective nonviolent actions undermining the control of the regime, exacerbating its internal divisions or causing loyalty shifts among its supporters in the movement’s favor.                                            

8. Is peaceful resistance against an extremely ruthless dictator idealistic? 

Because of its peaceful character, civil resistance is often considered, in moral terms, as an ethically superior force vis-à-vis a nakedly brutal material power. In that sense, many equate civil resistance with an idealistic fight, particularly if waged against a brutal tyrant. For example, commentators would reflect on the idealism of the Syrian peaceful resistance when it took on the ruthless Assad regime in March 2011.

Idealism of civil resistance is then contrasted with the realism of armed resistance — after all, a violent regime understands, and thus is afraid of only one thing: superior violence. In practice, however, when faced with a brutal dictatorial regime, civil resistance is in fact the most realistic of all possible alternatives, be it surrender, negotiations, conventional politics or armed resistance.

Violent or unarmed resistance is undertaken because the population is not ready to surrender. There is also an acknowledgment that other traditional channels of bringing about a political change — through courts, party politics, elections, grand political bargain or negotiations — are not a viable option for the repressed. In a highly violent environment, the overarching goal of the resistance is to provide an effective protection for the civilian population and to launch a successful campaign to bring a ruthless regime down.

The three-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising (March 15) offers a vivid example of the realism and utopianism of the selected resistance methods. Strategically, the armed resistance against a militarily stronger force proved to be a major failure in achieving its two main objectives: neither protected the population (more than 120,000 lives perished, more than 5 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 3 million are refugees) nor ended the tyranny (Assad remains in power). In fact, it was the armed resistance that turned out to be idealistic and emotional at is core, verging on utopianism. The underlying reasoning was, in fact, based on a number of misconceptions, both about armed and civil resistance, which I articulated earlier in one of my blog posts. Civil resistance, while it lasted, proved to be more strategic, calculated and realistic even though not many recognized this at that the time. In my co-authored piece on the resistance in Syria, published in fall 2013, we wrote about four misguided beliefs rooted in the seemingly  “realistic” necessity for the armed insurgency against the Assad regime and concluded that “the real gains of civil resistance [in Syria] were never assessed, before being overcome by the myth of the power of the gun, and later by [misguided] hope that external military intervention could resolve the conflict.”

Why violence did not work against Yanukovych

27 Feb

971562_1435740883306047_1825525317_nIn response to my previous blog on why the Yanukovych regime fell some asked about the role of violent radicals in the movement and others made the claim that they played a significant if not a decisive role in weakening and even bringing down the regime. In the media there is also a similar theme running through the news  that it were the violent radicals taht stood their ground, made Berkut or the Ukrainian interior security forces retreat and forced Yanukovych to relent. Some media even suggested that Volodymyr Parasiuk, a young activist single-handedly forced Yanukovych to run for his life. Parasiuk gave a fiery speech on the maidan just after the political opposition signed the agreement with Yanukovych on February 21 in which – in a very emotional way – he rejected the deal and gave Yanukovych an ultimatum – either he resigns by 10:00am next day or Parasiuk and others from the maidan will come after him – with arms. Yanukovych fled the Ukrainian capital on the same day the speech was given.

Despite the media catchy images of burning tires and flying Molotov cocktails and parading protesters in the medieval-like gears, spears and shields Yanukovych was forced out of power not because of violent protests. His regime crumbled because of the power dynamics that the masses of unarmed and organized Ukrainians stirred:

Here are a couple of reasons why violence did not bring down Yanukovych:

  • A disciplined retreat by Berkut from Kyiv on the night of February 20 and throughout February 21 was not the result of the violent challenge they faced from the radicals in the movement. Under the cover of this very violence Berkut was engaged in systemic killings of the unarmed protesters – often from the safety of their snipers’ positions. The killings – the largest since the mopping operations by the Stalinist death squads of the Ukrainian nationalists after the Second World War – were the illustration of Berkut’s military capabilities used against largely unarmed people rather than the sign of its hesitation, retreat or defeat because of violent protests.
  • Berkut’s withdrawal from Kyiv was initiated after Verkhovna Rada ordered it to do so in the evening of February 20. This happened even before the agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition was struck under the auspices of three foreign ministers from the EU countries. The decision of Verkhovna Rada was the result of defections of 36 members of parliament from the ruling Party of Regions who joined the opposition in passing the new law. These members of parliament shifted sides not because the actions of the radicals threatened them. They did not. Some members were deeply troubled by Yanukovych’s desire to bury Kyiv under the rubles of buildings and corpses of unarmed Ukrainians only to maintain power. Others felt the increasing heat that the conflict was taking on their own businesses. The spread of economic boycott was now reinforced by the reality of the international economic and travel sanctions that would have serious consequences for the businesses of the members of the Party of Regions.
  • Since at least early January when faced with mass-based rejection of his rule Yanukovych and his allies tried to ensure the loyalty of the army by forcing the officers to sign the loyalty pledges. At the end of January the regime attempted to incorporate four elite divisions of the Ukrainian national army into interior security forces that would turn the military –  whose primary mission is to protect Ukrainians against external threats – into the police that fights its own people. After apparent opposition within the military Yanukovych withdrew this plan only to have his defense minister and the newly installed, loyal to the regim,e chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff ordered on February 20 the same four elite army brigades to come to Kyiv to lead the crackdown of the maidan. The deputy chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff resigned in protest. One army brigade in Dnipropetrovsk – in one of the Yanukovych regime’s strongholds- responded to the order and mobilized the soldiers on the same day. However, more than 100 protesters went out on the railway tracks and stopped the train that carried the troops. When the troops disembarked and boarded the buses the protesters blocked the main roads in the city preventing the troops’ departure. Eventually the soldiers returned to the barracks without the attempts to shoot their way through the human blockades – which – given their firepower – they could have done easily if only they wanted. Three other brigades have never left their garrisons. If they had followed the order and have come to Kyiv the fate of maidan would have been sealed. Now, were the troops’ actions and their apparent refusal to follow the orders of the newly installed chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff the result of the violent protest? Were they concerned about engaging armed radicals? Doubtful. The issue was that the army did not perceive the movement against Yanukovych as being driven by the isolated band of extremists committed to violence but rather as being representative of the civil society at large. The army defied the orders because they saw the movement as a genuine representation of the people’s grievances expressed in a largely peaceful thus legitimate way. They saw any military action against unarmed masses of people as a high treason of the Ukrainian national interest. Therefore the army defected.
  • Violent radicals were in fact also seen as poor military strategists that had little understanding about the effective armed struggle. The ‘afghan veterans’ (Ukrainians who served in Afghanistan during the war in the 1980s) that were part of the maidan self-defense units were quite aware of the ineffectiveness of violent resistance. This was the reason – as explained by the representatives of the Afghan veterans – for them not to join the violent protests and leave the square on February 18.
  • Some also argue that it was protesters’ violence against the police in the second half of January that forced Yanukovych to offer concessions. The issue is that the concessions were a smoke screen and were never genuine. Even the opposition saw that clearly and therefore did not accept Yanukovych offer of the power-sharing agreement. The negotiations – one of Yanukovych apparent ‘concessions’ – that ensued after the violence flared on both side were in fact used as a cover by Yanukovych to prepare for the violent repression few weeks later.
  • In strategic terms, the contribution of the Ukrainian violent radicals to the victory over Yanukovych was as insignificant as the Black Phanters’ role in the victory of the civil rights movement in the US or the armed resistance of the African National Congress forcing concessions from the apartheid regime. In each case, the opponents were neither weakened by the opposition violence nor forced to give up their power. In fact they often used  violence perpetrated by the radical groups against a peaceful movement (e.g. justifying the crackdown on the activists). The  repressive structures were eventually defeated by the continued nonviolent mobilization and defiance of the millions of people as it was the case in Ukraine.

There are no solid evidences whatsoever that would link protestors’ violence to Yanukovych’s departure or for that matter to the departures of many of his associates from Kyiv on February 20 and February 21. The burden of proof rests on those who argue that violence contributed to the Yanukovych downfall to substantiate their so far unsupported by facts claims.


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