Bosnia, Thailand, Ukraine, Venezuala: Troubled Transitions of the Angry Middle Class
“He’s run away himself, his guards have run away, his personnel have scattered. A sad end for a president.” – Tweet by Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian Duma’s foreign relations committee, on former President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine.
Victor Yanukovich has joined such infamous fugitives as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Zine el Abadine ben Ali of Tunisia, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, and Anastasio Somoza; all once-powerful rulers who abandoned their capital cities to escape the anger and tumultuous protests of their own people.
Yet the Revolution in Ukraine is just one among recent episodes of violent urban protest that have spread around the world. After confrontations between crowds and governments in late 2013 in Brazil and Turkey, 2014 has opened with eruptions of urban violence in four additional countries – in Bosnia, Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela.
What in the world is happening? Is this a global spread of the Arab Spring? Will we see further civil wars, like that in Syria? Or will we see transitions to democracy similar to those of the eastern European revolutions of 1989-1991? Or perhaps inconclusive struggles that do not quite end dictatorship nor produce democracy, like the 2004 Orange Revolution that unfolded in Ukraine a decade ago?
In fact from Sao Paulo to Caracas, from Sarajevo to Kiev, and from Istanbul to Bangkok, we are seeing a similar phenomenon. These are movements of the angry emerging middle class in countries at a crossroads. They are movements of people desperate for change, and where clumsily and rigidly opposed by their leaders, they can lead to true revolutions. But they are not revolutions of the kind afflicting most of North Africa and the Middle East. These middle class movements will likely lead to confrontations and political change but not civil wars. They will lead to some democratic breakthroughs, but in other cases to stalemates or initiate a process of change that may take years or decades to be fully realized.
It is worth looking at the background to recent events in Bosnia, Thailand, Ukraine and Venezuela. Despite the geographic distances that separate them, these countries are remarkably similar in many ways.
All four are “middle-income” countries, neither among the richest nor poorest societies. According to the International Monetary Fund, they range from 73rd in per capita GDP (PPP adjusted), Venezuela’s global ranking, to 106th (the Ukraine), with Thailand at 92nd and Bosnia 99th. In other words, of the 187 countries in the world ranked by the IMF, they are almost exactly in the middle. They have just arrived at the point where the vast majority of the population is literate, expects a government to provide a sound economy, jobs, and decent public services. Yet they are not yet economically comfortable and secure. That security, and a better future for themselves and their children, depends very heavily on whether government leaders will work to provide greater opportunities and progress for the nation as a whole, or only to enrich and protect themselves and their cronies. They are at a point where limiting corruption and increasing accountability are crucial to whether their country will continue to catch up to the living standards of richer countries, or fall back to the standards of poorer ones.
All four countries are also rated by Freedom House as “partly free.” That is, they have governments that are elected and are expected to conform to legal procedures and respect human rights; but in fact have governments that harass political opponents and manipulate election outcomes, and are often arbitrary in their enforcement of laws and skew economic rewards to favor their supporters. Such partly free or transitional governments are prone to instability precisely because of the anxiety and uncertainty such conditions provoke. In fully consolidated democracies, state leaders would not dare act with such impunity to harass and undermine their opponents and grab excessive rewards; in full and unrestrained dictatorships, popular groups and opposition leaders would not dare accuse the leadership of failing to provide state services and economic opportunities equally to all, nor challenge the leaders so openly. However, in partly free states we are likely to see state leaders overreach; and at the same time we will see opposition leaders and popular groups more likely to take on the state and demand change in response to such over-reaching.
It should be no surprise that these four countries are also rated as highly corrupt: according to Transparency International’s corruption index Thailand is 102nd, Ukraine is 144th, and Venezuela in 160th in level of perceived corruption. The 2012 TI scale rates Bosnia as somewhat more honest, at only 72nd in corruption; but in the last year perceived corruption has risen sharply, as one of the main complaints of rioters in that country are that the Bosnian government’s privatization of state assets in the last year was a spectacle of gross corruption.
These four countries thus have populations sufficiently well-off to be aspiring to still higher living standards, aiming at life closer to that seen in rich Western countries; yet are saddled with governments that are only partly free and highly corrupt.
Moreover, all of these countries have rulers that are in their ‘second phase’ and thus wearing out their welcome. In Thailand, the leader is Yingluck Shinawatra, who is acting as successor and stand-in for her brother, the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was driven out for corruption. In Ukraine, the leader is Viktor Yanukovich, serving his second term after having been ousted in the Orange Revolution of 2004, only to return to power when the Orange revolutionary leaders fell out among themselves and left a government in disarray. In Bosnia, the leadership is still held by European appointees who were long ago expected to have departed and yielded full authority to a locally-elected regime. Finally, in Venezuela the leader, Nicolas Maduro, is the stand-in and chosen successor of the deceased populist leader Hugo Chavez. In short, none of these countries enjoys a leader with fresh and recent popularity in their own right; rather all have leaders whose position is already strained and who were tolerated only as long as they appeared to be moving their country in the direction of greater progress and opportunity.
Each leadership thus got into severe trouble when they acted in a way to betray those expectations. Yingluck promoted an amnesty bill clearly designed mainly to bring her brother back to Bangkok and to power; Yanukovich embraced a financial deal with Russia that turned his country away from a widely desired set of agreements that would have strengthened ties wth Europe. The Bosnian authorities undertook a privatization of public assets that reeked of corruption and lack of accountability; Maduro persisted in policies that are causing ruinous inflation and responded to protests by turning on opposition leaders. In each case, the response from opposition leaders and their urban middle class supporters was to demand that the government change course; and if that was refused their demands escalated to seek the resignation of the leader and new elections.
Not surprisingly, the leaders in these nations refused those demands. Yet the opposition refused to give up. They began campaigns of peaceful protests that occupied public spaces or even government buildings. The governments then responded with force, escalating the confrontations and bringing even more people – now concerned that government actions were veering out of control and becoming more and more dictatorial – into the streets to demand accountability and regime change.
Will these countries now spin out of control, and descend into civil war, as happened in Libya and Syria? Fortunately, that is very unlikely, for two reasons. First, unlike Libya and Syria, who have relatively young populations with median ages 26 and 21 respectively, these countries are much more mature. In Thailand, Bosnia, and Ukraine, the median age is 37-40. In such mature societies, where there may be small groups of rebellious youth who will lead violent protests, it is unlikely that large masses of people will rush into battle and violence. That is characteristic only of countries with much larger numbers of readily mobilized youth. Venezuela is relatively young at median age of 27; it is thus the one country among these where large-scale mobilization of youth for battles against the government is possible.
Second, and more important, none of these countries has a long-standing dictatorial leader who can command the loyalty of hardened military forces to act against their own people. What is most likely therefore is some sort of backing down on both sides, some stalling or movement toward compromise, or the resignation of governments if protests continue to grow. Negotiated compromise is thus the most likely outcome. Any government that seeks to survive by force of arms is likely to find that such repression backfires and inflames greater opposition, which may then indeed become violent and demand more radical change.
That risk now looks greatest in the Ukraine, where the government’s forces have fired upon and killed dozens of protestors and injured hundreds more. Yet these actions, rather than strengthening the government’s position, have produced resignations from the ruling party and condemnations and calls for sanctions from the international community. The final outcome is likely to be further weakening of the Yanukovich regime, and Yanukovich’s eventual departure.
Events in Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, and Bosnia thus form yet another wave of people’s revolutionary movements, like the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia. These uprisings are demanding greater accountability, and challenging regimes seen as corrupt, out of touch, and obstacles to a better future. They are not likely to collapse into civil war or autarchy as occurred in the Arab Spring. Rather, they are signs of more mature societies demanding greater progress, and—with some restraint and international mediation – should produce compromises and negotiated settlements that move their countries forward.