The Peaceful Erosion of Despotic Regimes

The most important theorist of nonviolent revolutions is the late political scientist Gene Sharp. A conscientious objector during the Korean War who spent nine months in prison, Sharp became a close student of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles. His work set out to extract the lessons of the Indian revolt against the British. He wanted to understand the weaknesses of authoritarian regimes—and how nonviolent movements could exploit them. Sharp distilled what he learned into a 93-page handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a how-to guide for toppling autocracy.

Sharp’s foundational insight is embedded in an aphorism: “Obedience is at the heart of political power.” A dictator doesn’t maintain power on his own; he relies on individuals and institutions to carry out his orders. A successful democratic revolution prods these enablers to stop obeying. It makes them ashamed of their complicity and fearful of the social and economic costs of continued collaboration.

Sharp posited that revolutionaries should focus first on the regime’s softest underbelly: the media, the business elites, and the police. The allegiance of individuals in the outer circle of power is thin and rooted in fear. By standing strong in the face of armed suppression, protesters can supply examples of courage that inspire functionaries to stop carrying out orders, or as Sharp put it, to “withhold cooperation.” Each instance of resistance provides the model for further resistance. As the isolation of the dictators grows—as the inner circles of power join the outer circle in withholding cooperation—the regime crumbles.

This is essentially what transpired in Ukraine in 2014. When the country’s president backed away from plans to join the European Union, a crowd amassed in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan. The throngs initially had no avowed intention or realistic hope of overthrowing the kleptocratic president, Viktor Yanukovych. But instead of letting the demonstrators shout themselves hoarse in the thick of subfreezing winter, Yanukovych set about violently confronting them. This tactic backfired horribly. A movement with limited aims became a full-blown revolution. Oligarchs quietly slunk away from a leader they had long subsidized. Lackeys who had faithfully served the regime resigned, for fear of attracting the public’s ire. In the bitter end, Yanukovych found himself isolated, alone with his own family and his Russian advisers, destined for exile.

—Franklin Foer, The Atlantic

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