Popular Protest in Authoritarian Regimes: Evidence from Communist and Post-Communist States

Nebojša Vladisavljević. Journal of Southeast European & Black Sea Studies. Volume 14, Issue 2. June 2014.

Most scholars see modern authoritarian regimes as invariably closed, exclusive and repressive and, barring exceptionally favourable international context, as the political context extremely unfavourable for popular protest. Comparative regime analysis and democratization studies either ignore popular protests or consider them as little more than a reflection of other factors—structural causes, elite conflicts, shifts in the international context and the agency of external actors. Social movement scholars, on the other hand, had long examined the origins, forms and outcomes of popular protest in western democracies but have only recently started looking into popular mobilization in non-democratic regimes. Finally, studies of revolution largely focus on revolutionary movements in highly exclusive and repressive non-democratic regimes. As a result, popular protest in the ‘grey zone’ between such regimes and democracy remains largely unexplored.

This paper aims to tackle this problem by examining the rise, dynamics and consequences of protest politics in authoritarian and hybrid regimes. It argues that, while popular protest in non-democratic regimes is normally severely restricted or unregulated, it occurs frequently in some of these regimes. A regime type strongly shapes the prospects for the emergence of popular protest as well as its forms, levels and consequences. Protest politics follows a different logic in democracies and non-democratic regimes and there is also a considerable variation among different types of non-democratic regime in this respect. While regime change rarely follows from popular protest in authoritarian regimes, protest politics often leads to important changes in the personal composition and policies of elites, which considerably affect the regime’s structure and operation. The paper builds upon two distinct but related comparative politics literatures: comparative regime analysis in the historical tradition of Juan Linz and studies of social and revolutionary movements.

Evidence about the rise, forms and outcomes of popular protest comes from the late communist authoritarianism in Poland and Yugoslavia and from the post-communist competitive authoritarianism in Serbia and Ukraine. The two sets of cases are not meant to be representative of popular protest under communism and post-communism. Rather, they provide a foundation for the comparison of similarities and differences in protest politics in different types of non-democratic regime within a broadly shared historical, political and institutional context. The cases, therefore, involve authoritarian and competitive authoritarian regimes that experienced recurrent waves of popular protest with considerable political implications. Poland is an obvious choice due to repeated popular mobilizations and an unprecedented scale and influence of the Solidarity movement of 1980-1981, while the choice of Yugoslavia is not because of the elite-centred focus of the relevant scholarly literature. I reveal, however, that there were periodic waves of popular protest in Yugoslavia, which strongly influenced the evolution of the communist regime, its fall and the break-up of the state. Likewise, Serbia under Milošević may seem an odd choice since the literature focuses principally on the exigencies of state-building after Yugoslavia’s break-up. However, the paper provides evidence of large anti-regime waves of popular protest in 1991, 1992, 1996-1997, 1999 and 2000, which ended with regime change. Ukraine under Kuchma also experienced repeated popular protests between 2000 and the orange revolution of 2004.

The Logic of Popular Protest in Authoritarian Regimes

The statist tradition has strongly shaped research on popular protest. The state-centred approach stresses a set of causal mechanisms, i.e. ‘those processes whereby states (foreign as well as domestic) shape, enable, or constrain economic, associational, cultural, and even social-psychological phenomena’. Other factors also matter, but are less important causal processes and are often strongly mediated by political context (Goodwin, 36). Previously, research in the field focused largely on non-political factors, including grievances responsible for mobilization (Smelser), organizational resources and leadership of challenger groups (McCarthy and Zald), and the sources of consensus in social movements (Klandermans). Scholars who apply the state-centred approach in the study of popular protest employ several concepts to identify those dimensions of the political context they find important. Those who study links between the construction of administrative, legal, extractive and coercive organizations, and the emergence of contentious politics over several centuries, employ the term state (Tilly). Students of contemporary social movements use the concept of political opportunities and threats by which they mean elements of the political environment that encourage people to engage in protest or that discourage contention (Goldstone and Tilly).

Ordinary people normally cannot seriously oppose the government, political parties, interest groups and corporations because they are largely outside the political process and have little access to the organizational, financial, media and other resources. Changes in the political context—such as elite conflicts, the emergence of influential allies, declining repression and the opening of partial access to participation—reduce this imbalance of power resources between challengers and political elites, and open up space for popular protest (Tarrow, 163-7). Once under way, collective action initiated on behalf of particular group creates opportunities for other, similar and unrelated, groups and their various claims. Initial protests often reveal that authorities are vulnerable, demonstrate advantages of protest to other groups, identify possible allies, alter the existing relationships of challengers and power holders, and activate other political actors who have stakes in the status quo by threatening their interests (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, 164). The stable dimensions of the political context shape the ways in which challenger groups organize, their protest strategies and levels of mobilization by providing incentives for challengers to take some routes rather than others. For example, decentralized states and those with inclusive strategies towards challenger groups provide various channels through which movements may affect the political process, and thus encourage moderate protest strategies and decentralized organization of movements (Tarrow, 175-8).

Findings from the study of contemporary social movements in western democracies do not easily fit non-democratic political settings (Vladisavljević). Considerable variation in the way different political contexts shape popular protest—and are in turn affected by it—cannot be captured without the concept of regime. A political regime reveals the formal and informal organization of the centre of political power and of its relations with society (Fishman, 428), which strongly shape identities, interests, capacities and behaviour of both regime elites and opposition forces. Therefore, it forms the core of stable political opportunities and threats. One way to explore the links between regime type and popular protest is to engage in sweeping historical and cross-national comparisons in order to identify in broad strokes repertoires and their consequences in contrasting political contexts—high- and low-capacity regimes and in democracies and repressive non-democratic regimes (Tilly).

Another, employed by scholars of revolutions, is to explore systematically how some political regimes encourage the formation of revolutionary movements, or social movements aimed at seizing control of the state, and how they shape their trajectories and prospects of success. Revolutionary movements, which emerge in exclusive and highly repressive regimes that do not fully control their territory, but succeed only in those organized in patrimonial (as opposed to bureaucratic) fashion, are relatively rare. Since high-capacity regimes prevail today, the space for revolutionary movements is decreasing (Goodwin, 25-30, 296). Having in mind that the number of very exclusive and repressive dictatorships remains relatively small, the state-centred research on popular protest should focus instead on protest politics in the grey zone between democracy and exclusive and/or weak dictatorships.

In these authoritarian and hybrid regimes, popular protest is either strongly discouraged or unregulated. They exclude many people from the political process but may be inclusive of important social and economic interests of various groups and/or of their ethnic, religious, linguistic or other identities. This interest incorporation and/or the recognition of identities makes revolutionary action unattractive, while selective (rather than indiscriminate) repression of political demands leaves hope that moderate strategies may be effective. These are also high-capacity regimes which render revolutionary action a very risky business with a low probability of success. Some studies relate to this political context but are mainly actor-centred and focus on strategic aspects of non-violence, aiming to provide expertise to democracy activists in non-democratic states (Ackerman and DuVall; Schock) or to explore protest dynamics in specific non-democratic regimes without broader comparative insights (O’Brien and Li; Roberts and Garton Ash).

Despite a wide variation regarding their institutional configuration and strategies towards challenger groups, democracies are by definition more decentralized and inclusive than non-democratic regimes and permit popular protest. There are only limited restrictions to the formation of challenger groups, activist recruitment, the use of formal organizations and media to mobilize popular support, while challengers can choose among various repertoires of action. The very access to power and recognition of political actors regularly pass through effective use of those repertoires (Tilly, 76). Exclusive strategy towards challengers in democracies only in some cases, and only with respect to some political issues, translates into sustained repression of protest. It often means little more than challengers are encouraged to use some institutional routes and protest strategies rather than others. Popular protest in mature democracies has become institutionalized and its institutionalization is an important indicator that a new democracy has become consolidated (Ekiert and Kubik).

The exclusive strategy of a non-democratic regime is of different order and normally serves as a powerful deterrent to potential challenger groups. Participation in popular protest, that is a public defiance of non-democratic rulers, involves great risks because it threatens their power. However, that popular protests occur less often in these regimes does not imply that sustained protest in non-democratic regimes is impossible, or even unlikely, but that it follows a different logic than that in democracies. There is a wide variation among modern non-democratic regimes in terms of the limits they set to economic, social and political pluralism, the structure of leadership and the role of ideology and mobilization (Linz and Stepan, 38-54). Those non-democratic regimes that are less centralized, exclusive and repressive, namely authoritarian and hybrid regimes as opposed to totalitarianism, post-totalitarianism and sultanism, provide some space and resources for the organization and action of opposition forces.

When political alignments become unstable and elite conflicts emerge in these authoritarian regimes, challenger groups may not only be capable of initiating mobilization, but also of sustaining it over time. The challengers may avoid repression partly by exploiting the sensitivity of political elites to the interests of broader social groups to which they belong, such as the working class or students under communism, and partly by opting for moderate demands and protest repertoires. They may exploit divisions within and among elites and gain influential (though not always visible) allies in the establishment. Under these circumstances, some of the organizations that are normally used for political control may facilitate mobilization. If popular protests overcome initial hurdles and become sustained, their political implications are likely to be considerably more significant than in democracies. The outbreak of popular protest may trigger conflict between hard-liners and soft-liners over the legitimacy of challengers’ demands and protest strategies, and thus undermine regime stability and/or initiate liberalization or democratization.

Democracies feature a relatively clear distinction between the system of government and sets of politicians who compete for power, but in non-democratic regimes the public tends to identify particular leaders and their policies with the polity as such. Clashes over personalities and policies, which inevitably arise during popular protest, may, therefore, undermine the stability of the political regime as a whole (see also Lipset and Rokkan, 4). Even popular protests that are not openly and self-consciously democratic may trigger regime change, that is a shift from authoritarianism to democracy or from one to another form of authoritarianism. Lastly, the dissatisfaction of the population with authoritarian rulers accumulates to high levels over time because there are no regular channels for the expression of people’s political preferences and grievances, such as free and fair elections and related freedoms.

Therefore, once initial protests demonstrate the vulnerability of authorities, elite divisions and/or declining capacity for repression, and thus raise popular expectations and signal that high risks associated with popular protest have been reduced, discontent accumulated from various sources (e.g. economic failure, social inequalities, industrial conflicts and arbitrary rule) may erupt through massive popular mobilization. Unless met with credible force, popular mobilization may lead to a major political change, such as regime change and state breakdown. Even if an authoritarian regime overcomes the popular challenges by deploying force or otherwise, political implications of popular politics may turn out to be significant. Such implications include considerable shifts in regime policies, elite composition, political institutions and governance.

Popular Protest under Authoritarianism in Poland and Yugoslavia

Communist party-states were normally more closed and repressive than many other modern non-democratic regimes. After a brief interlude of restricted political pluralism following the Second World War, East European communist parties suppressed their political opponents with the help of the Soviet Union, and embarked upon the construction of a highly centralized state apparatus, the command economy and the collectivization of agriculture. Due to extensive repression of the Stalinist regimes, popular discontent rarely turned into popular protest, but was indirect and largely expressed through non-political conflict and everyday forms of resistance, such as peasants’ resistance to compulsory collections and deliveries, and to collectivization, by way of violence and intimidation targeted at local authorities, a massive pattern of evasion, absenteeism from work in industry and resistance to forced secularization (Bokovoy; Ekiert and Kubik, 22-3).

Communist Poland and Yugoslavia stood out from other East European states. Despite early totalitarian tendencies, they retained limited social pluralism that put limits to the regime-led mobilization of society, especially regarding ideology, and shaped the communists’ leadership style. In this context, de-Stalinization produced a more complex institutional framework and elite relations, and more personal freedoms and cultural tolerance. If authoritarianism involves economic and social, but limited political pluralism, and a leader or a small group who exercises power within highly predictable boundaries, without guiding and elaborate ideology and with little mobilization, then late communist Poland and Yugoslavia turned authoritarian while other parts of Eastern Europe remained post-totalitarian (Linz, 256; Linz and Stepan, 38-9, 256-6). In contrast to other communist states, the waves of popular protests occurred recurrently and had considerable political implications. There were also important differences between the two states that strongly shaped the forms and outcomes of popular protest. Poland was an ethnically and religiously homogeneous, unitary and centralized state, run by essentially externally imposed rulers, while Yugoslavia was a complex multinational federation ruled by an autochthonous and popularly accepted regime.

In Poland, social pluralism survived to a much greater extent than in other countries of the Soviet bloc. The Catholic Church retained a degree of autonomy from the party-state. Private landholding comprised over four-fifths of the arable land while the private sector retained an important role in retail trade and services. The post-war shift of Poland’s borders westwards, the expulsions of ethnic Germans and the annihilation of Jews during the war turned it into an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state. Since the Polish national identity developed historically principally against Russia and the Soviet Union, the external imposition of communism and its preservation within the Soviet bloc weakened the Polish authorities in relation to the homogeneous society (Linz and Stepan, 258-9). De-Stalinization after 1956 produced institutional, cultural and economic legacies that repeatedly produced political crises and provided space for the organization of challenger groups and their protests (Ekiert and Kubik, 21). The onset of de-Stalinization, along with suppressed workers’ protests in Poznan in 1956, brought leadership change, the relaxation of repression, less pressure on the Catholic Church, some autonomy in academia, media and professional organizations, and partial opening towards the West in science and culture.

In 1968, students and intellectuals initiated demonstrations over a recent return to censorship and the use of force against a peaceful student protest. The authorities suppressed the demonstrations and removed unreliable cadre from universities and the party-state. In 1970 and 1976, a sharp increase in basic goods’ prices triggered massive violent protests in large industrial centres on the Baltic coast. Workers stroke, demonstrated, set police stations and party headquarters on fire, while the repression by the police and the army resulted in hundreds of casualties, mass arrests, but also in the return of prices to earlier levels and subsequent substantial increase in workers’ living standards. By 1976, the workers, intellectuals and students confronted the authorities independently of each other, with demands that reflected their own group interests. The suppression of the 1976 protests, however, triggered their cooperation. Intellectuals on the non-regime left and those linked to the Catholic Church established extensive links, as well as intellectuals around KOR, a dissident group, and some workers’ representatives (Laba).

Poland’s regime gradually turned authoritarian in the 1970s and the 1980s (Linz and Stepan; Staniszkis). Its institutional complexity exceeded considerably the Soviet bloc standards, with a more active assembly—involving the communist party and controlled peasant and Catholic political groupings—multicandidate elections, several youth organizations, and the autonomous Catholic Church and related organizations. The party and local government reforms favoured younger politicians, but also weakened the party’s control over society. The protests in 1970 had triggered the fall of Gomułka as the party’s general secretary and the rise of Gierek and his associates. The change of generations in the party-state and the growing influence of younger educated officials resulted in declining ideological pressures and pragmatic policies (Ekiert, 219, 226-7). The new leadership turned to investments in technology, markets and loans in the West, and achieved high rates of economic growth and substantial improvements in living standards. Still, overambitious reforms and great pressure on the country’s economic resources, created by the strategy to artificially raise workers’ living standards and thus avoid protests, gradually led to economic crisis in 1979.

In August 1980, a sharp increase in basic goods’ prices—along with high expectations raised by earlier economic reforms and patriotic passions after Cardinal Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II—triggered the largest and most significant protest wave in communist Eastern Europe. Workers’ strikes and protests first erupted in large industrial centres on the Baltic coast, just like in 1970-1971, but spread out fast to other parts of Poland. Workers’ demands were economic and social, such as the demand for the return of prices to earlier levels, but also political. Workers now rejected violence, organized themselves outside regime organizations and employed some of the strategies that had emerged in the 1970-1971 protests, such as the sit-in strike, the interfactory strike committee as a way to unite people against the party-state and the demand for independent trade unions (Laba, 82). Facing mighty adversaries, the workers and the intellectuals questioned neither the rule by the communist party nor Poland’s position within the Soviet bloc, thus earning the events the title of ‘self-limiting revolution’ (Staniszkis).

A rapid growth of Solidarity, the newly formed independent trade union with a membership of nearly ten million members and its formal recognition by the party-state facilitated the formation of a broad social movement of the intellectuals, working class, public services’ employees and farmers. Under the pressure, the official organizations, such as professional associations, controlled political parties and the communist party, democratized from within and elected new leaderships (Ekiert and Kubik, 40). The self-organization of society against the party-state lasted until December 1981, when the army, led by general Jaruzelski, declared and implemented martial law. Popular resistance to the party-state gradually reappeared in a different form, through extensive underground education, publishing and distribution systems, largely tolerated by the authorities. After 1984, there was gradual but substantial relaxation of repression and of restrictions within the official organizations. In 1988, under pressure from a new wave of strikes and Gorbachev’s new foreign policy, negotiations between authorities and Solidarity started. The roundtable agreement led to partially democratic elections, Solidarity’s electoral victory, the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe, and to the beginning of an end to communism.

The sources, forms and consequences of popular protest in Yugoslavia differed in important respects from those in Poland, which reflected a different context within which an authoritarian regime operated. The Yugoslav communists came to power in an indigenous revolution by leading a mass-based liberation movement from the Axis powers and fighting their nationalist competitors in civil war in a complex multinational society. They remodelled Yugoslavia into a soviet-style multinational federation, consisting of six republics based on the constituent nations—Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro—and granted ethnic minorities extensive collective rights. Limited social pluralism, in the form of dominant private landholding in agriculture and private initiative in parts of services, remained after the suppression of pre-war political parties. The Stalin-Tito split in 1948 then pushed the regime beyond the limits of Soviet-style regimes and resulted in an increasingly functionally and territorially decentralized, culturally relaxed and inclusive authoritarianism, with greater personal freedoms and extensive links with the West.

While the literature on the former Yugoslavia is largely elite-centred (see Dragović-Soso), I show that popular protests played a major political role in the 1980s. These protests had important antecedents. Between 1958 and 1969, there were nearly 2000 strikes, mostly short ones because authorities largely agreed to satisfy workers’ demands for higher wages and other benefits (Jovanov, 77, 186). In 1968, students organized demonstrations of several thousand and a seven-day strike at Belgrade University, with demands for greater freedoms. In a speech to students, Tito, Yugoslavia’s ultimate arbiter, accepted some demands but later encouraged repression against leading protesters (Popov, 15-56). Within months, hundreds of ethnic Albanians, a majority group in Kosovo, demonstrated across this Serbia’s autonomous province and in north-west Macedonia demanding the status of Kosovo to be elevated to republic, and even union with neighbouring Albania. The communists suppressed demonstrations, but gradually boosted the province’s autonomy. In 1981, minor student protests over socio-economic issues turned into large demonstrations of Kosovo Albanians with nationalist demands. After violent clashes with the police, the government declared a state of emergency during which tens of protesters died and hundreds ended in prison (Kola).

Constitutional and party reforms (1967-1974) radically weakened the federal centre and strengthened the republics and Serbia’s autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. Yugoslavia became a full consociation, based on power sharing between high officials of the republics and autonomous provinces, who also represented constituent nations and largest national minorities. Complex corporativist institutions, initially based on workers’ ‘self-management’, now covered much of the economy, services and political process, and local governments gained more autonomy. Overall, Yugoslavia now featured a peculiar mix of social, economic and institutional pluralism—characteristic of non-communist authoritarian rather than post-totalitarian regimes—and of radically decentralized consociational federalism. A rapid expansion of economic crisis after Tito’s death and growing political instability, triggered by elite conflicts, the change of political generations and the relaxation of repression, opened space for popular protest in the mid-1980s (Vladisavljević, 35-9, 43-50).

The wave of popular protests that swept Serbia and Montenegro in 1988-1989, which is sometimes called the ‘antibureaucratic revolution’, originated from protests of Kosovo Serbs and industrial workers who joined forces with parts of the establishment to produce a major political change. Kosovo Serbs initiated protests in mid-1980s exploiting a policy shift of the federal government that, fearing the rise of a secessionist movement, had abandoned the promotion of Kosovo Albanian aspirations and became more sensitive to complaints of Kosovo Serbs, who had experienced discrimination and sharp demographic decline. Between 1985 and 1987, some Kosovo Serbs repeatedly petitioned federal and Serbia’s authorities, organized popular protests and forged emerging activist networks into a social movement. Belgrade-based dissident intellectuals and Slobodan Milošević, the newly selected communist leader in Serbia, supported their protests but the movement remained autonomous.

Workers’ discontent with a sharp fall in living standards appeared through growing number and duration of strikes since mid-1980s (Fočo). In 1987, a two-month-long miners’ strike unfolded in Istria and workers organized angry demonstrations in Skopje and Ljubljana, while in mid-1988 industrial workers organized several large and highly publicized protest marches and demonstrations in the capital and regional centres. They held Tito’s pictures and Yugoslavia’s and party flags, but chanted slogans against high communist officials. Simultaneously, Kosovo Serbs triggered a new protest wave outside Kosovo demanding the reduction of autonomy of Serbia’s provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Their protests in Vojvodina and Montenegro revealed a broad support of the locals for their demands and great popular discontent with regional officials who opposed the constitutional reform. The protests were then taken over by rapidly expanding local networks—by all who supported Kosovo Serbs and others who harboured grievances against their high officials, especially trade unionists, local officials and state enterprise managers.

In contrast to these grass roots protests, regime organizations under Milošević’s control organized large rallies in central Serbia in support of Kosovo Serbs, aiming to undermine high officials in Vojvodina and Kosovo who opposed constitutional reform. The popular participation accelerated rapidly: on 4-5 October 1988, thousands of workers, discontented with a sharp fall in living standards, demanded the resignation of the federal prime minister and broke into the federal assembly building in Belgrade; 5-6 October witnessed demonstrations of tens of thousands in Vojvodina, popularly labelled the ‘Yoghurt Revolution’, which ended in the fall of Vojvodina’s leadership; on 7-10 October, industrial workers and students organized large protests in Montenegro, broken up by the police, but reappeared with greater crowds on 10-11 January 1989, supported by defectors from the regional establishment, bringing about the resignations of Montenegro’s high officials; on 17-21 November 1988, protest marches and large demonstrations of Kosovo Albanians unfolded in response to the October events and the approaching constitutional reform in Serbia; a miners’ hunger strike started in Kosovo on 20 February 1989 and general strike three days later, to which the federal government responded by martial law and the suppression of protests, including violent ones in March; 28 February witnessed demonstrations of several hundred thousand in Belgrade in response to support of Slovenia’s leadership for Kosovo Albanian protesters.

The ‘antibureaucratic revolution’ dealt the last blow to the communist establishment. By opening space for opportunistic politicians (such as Milošević) to jump on the bandwagon of popular demands, and thus gain ample popular support, it also aided the rise of non-communist authoritarianism in Serbia. Moreover, the protest wave raised nationalist passions across Yugoslavia and altered the balance of power between the republics and provinces in a radically decentralized multinational federation at a time when the communist power structure was rapidly disintegrating, which heightened conflict at both elite and mass levels. The break-up of Yugoslavia, previously almost unimaginable for both the political class and the population at large, gradually came to be seen as a distinct possibility.

Authoritarianism in Poland and Yugoslavia, in contrast to post-totalitarianism in much of Eastern Europe, opened space for sustained popular protests in the 1980s. Its communist features facilitated mobilization of some groups (but not others) and shaped their protest strategies. The main challengers originated from groups with the strategic position in ideology and social structure of these states. Communist parties were highly sensitive to workers’ protests because they undermined the claim of Leninist parties to rule in the name of the proletariat. A sizeable working class and the concentration of large industrial works around large cities, which originated from economic development based on heavy industry, contributed to the potential of workers’ protest to trigger political instability. The protests by students were also dealt with carefully. Students represented the key link between the intelligentsia and the youth and were considered as the key carriers of the new values (Lilly). Finally, the Yugoslav communists were committed to collective rights and territorial autonomy for ethnic groups, and thus largely tolerated grass-roots (but not elite) demands and protests harbouring ethnic grievances.

Moderation stands out in popular mobilization in Poland and Yugoslavia in the 1980s. Protesters pragmatically demanded political change but not also regime change. They rejected violence for strategic reasons, that is to avoid regime repression, having learnt from previous protest waves under communism and past historical experience. In Poland, protesters and their leaders were aware of domestic and foreign policy constraints, and thus focused on society’s self-organization against illegitimate party-state. In Yugoslavia, most participants in protests genuinely accepted communist rule as legitimate, which was revealed in the protests’ extensive regime symbolism and repeated expressions of loyalty to the party-state and the Yugoslav federation. They demanded changes in specific policies, institutions and personalities, but worked partly within official channels. In the milieu of a radically decentralized multinational Yugoslavia popular mobilization unfolded on the boundaries of the official organizations, in conflict with some party-state officials and in cooperation with others. In both states, protest strategies had come a long way from those focusing on narrow and group-specific interests and violent reactions to regime repression to broader political demands, non-violence and broader alliances in confrontation with authorities.

Popular protests strongly shaped the policies and personal composition of the party-state, as well as political institutions and state-society relations. Poland’s workers were the most successful in Eastern Europe in protecting their living standards through protests, and nearly all the country’s leaders after 1956 left their offices under popular pressure (see Ekiert, 217). Popular protests and crises that followed thwarted control of Poland’s party-state over society, triggered protests of new challenger groups and produced a complex institutional framework. Resistance to the regime in the early 1980s and its subsequent resurgence strongly contributed to the fall of communism. In Yugoslavia, the communists suppressed popular protests in 1968, but the protesters’ demands strongly shaped the policies and institutions of the regime and state. In the late 1980s, protesters did not create a common anti-regime front, but became new and increasingly important factor in the complex relationship between the political class and society, and among different segments of multinational society. The rapidly expanding popular mobilization in 1988-1989 contributed to the end of communism, the rise of populist authoritarianism and the collapse of multinational state.

Popular Protest under Competitive Authoritarianism in Serbia and Ukraine

The fall of communism did not result in democracy in many states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The mix of domestic and international pressures for democratization—after the Cold War ended and within the ‘third wave’ of democratization—and of the authoritarian leanings of political elites produced hybrid regimes, those that mix democratic procedures with authoritarian rule. Still, Serbia under Milošević and Ukraine under Kuchma featured repeated waves of popular mobilization, which shaped their institutions and policies and, ultimately, triggered regime change. This regime type is called competitive authoritarianism and denotes civilian regimes with regular multiparty elections, which are competitive but unfair. Democratic institutions exist, but rules are violated very often: there is no level playing field between the regime and the opposition (Levitsky and Way, 5-12). This hybrid regime type provides considerably more space and resources for the opposition forces to organize and contest the power of authoritarian rulers than ‘full’ authoritarianism, including elections, the legislature, the judiciary and local governments. Simultaneously, it creates considerable grievances among opposition parties, civil society groups and other citizens. Regime elites often constrain the operation of opposition parties by intimidating their candidates and activists, or excluding them from elections, by restricting their access to media and campaign funding and by regular exploitation of state resources for partisan purposes, not least the use of tax authorities and of ‘extra-legal’ repertoires to gain compliance—patronage, corruption and extortion (Levitsky and Way, 8-12, 20, 27-8). The explosive mix of substantial resources available to the opposition and ample grievances that these regimes produce makes them inherently unstable.

A gradual shift to competitive authoritarianism in Serbia, still a republic in the Yugoslav federation, ended with the first multiparty elections in December 1990. In contrast to much of Eastern Europe, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), a refurbished communist party, and its leader Milošević, trashed their rivals. Apart from unfair elections and uneven starting positions between the ruling party and the opposition, including massive anti-opposition propaganda in the regime-controlled media, a great asymmetry of power between the regime and opposition originated from the ‘genetic’ legitimacy the former gained among its core supporters at a time of rapid disintegration of communism and the spread of nationalism in a complex multinational federation (Vladisavljević). Extensive support of Milošević to Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia during Yugoslavia’s break-up and its aftermath contributed to the election victory, while the economic sanctions by the United Nations that followed directed the population’s discontent with a drastic fall in living standards partly towards pro-western democratic opposition.

Still, waves of popular mobilization repeatedly shook the foundations of Milošević’s regime. Large demonstrations unfolded in March 1991. The opposition parties’ protest of about a hundred thousand people over state-controlled media’s anti-opposition propaganda ended up in the regime crackdown on the opposition and independent media, which in turn triggered large student and opposition protests. The protests ceased only after the resignations of the interior minister and the state television director, and the reopening of independent media. In June 1992, large parallel demonstrations of the opposition and students unfolded for several days, reaching a hundred thousand participants at one point, in reaction to Milošević’s role in triggering the UN sanctions and ceased only after he promised early elections. The next protest wave of opposition supporters, students and others broke out in November 1996. Although the SPS won the parliamentary election, massive fraud that robbed the opposition of their municipal election victory triggered three-month-long protest marches and demonstrations in Belgrade and other large cities, reaching several hundred thousand participants on occasions. The regime crisis ended only when Milošević accepted the opposition victory through the OSCE mediation. A smaller protest wave erupted after the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, ending with a hundred-thousand-strong protest in the capital. Ultimately, Milošević fell from power after demonstrations of several hundred thousand in Belgrade in October 2000, triggered by massive fraud in presidential election that the opposition candidate Koštunica won.

Opposition parties and coalitions, their leaders, activists and supporters formed the backbone of resistance to the regime. The Serbian Renewal Movement, the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Serbia bore the brunt of repression by the regime, which in turn relied upon small coalition partners of the SPS and on extremist opposition—the Serbian Radical Party. There were several attempts to form a common opposition front against the regime, such as the DEPOS coalition in 1992, the coalition Zajedno (Together) in 1996-1997 and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia in 2000. However, resistance to the regime extended well beyond opposition parties and involved civic associations, independent media, the youth movement Otpor (Resistance) and many individuals outside those parties, associations and organizations, who demanded not just a change in government but also democracy. The influence of the latter was especially significant during the waves of anti-regime popular protest.

The pressure from opposition forces and mobilization waves, and shifts in the international context, contributed to the transformation of inclusive populist regime into increasingly exclusive personalist rulership with neo-patrimonial features. In the early 1990s, the regime relied on the ruling party, with a large and committed membership, rejuvenated leadership, ample financial resources, wide clientelist network and close links with the largest trade union. In contrast, the opposition was fragmented along programmatic and personalist lines, with inexperienced cadre, limited organizational capabilities and financial potential, restricted access to media and weak links with trade unions. As the SPS’ electoral support and Milošević’s popularity gradually eroded, the electoral manipulation and exploitation of the public sector resources against the opposition grew. Trying to justify major policy shifts and to shore up his personal control over the ruling party, Milošević gradually removed potential opponents within the SPS and relied on a small clique of friends and courtiers surrounding his family. The SPS, thus, ended up as a worn out, poorly run electoral vehicle for Milošević. A politicized economy, extensive corruption, hedonist lifestyles of the ruling clique and repressive and arbitrary rule—responsible for the murders of publisher Ćuruvija in 1999 and of former president Stambolić in 2000—shrank the regime’s social base and facilitated the building of a common opposition front with growing popular support (Vladisavljević).

These changes in the regime’s structure and operation, still within the boundaries of competitive authoritarianism, had a considerable influence on the capacities and behaviour of opposition forces. In the early 1990s, the organizational, financial, cadre and clientelist resources of the ruling group, as well as their ‘genetic’ legitimacy, prevented a substantial political change, but popular protests still temporarily undermined Milošević, eroded his electoral support and strengthened the opposition’s organizational capacities. In the mid-1990s, authorities were weakened and ordinary people pushed vacillating and quarrelling opposition leaders into large sustained demonstrations over electoral fraud. While remaining in power by ultimately conceding the municipal elections defeat, Milošević lost credibility in the country and abroad, which he had gained by helping to stop the Bosnian war. The opposition gained control over the resources of large cities, and civil society groups and independent media grew fast. Ultimately, the regime’s neo-patrimonial transformation, the army’s withdrawal from Kosovo after NATO bombing and broad international support for the opposition undermined Milošević and strengthened his opponents. The regime, seriously weakened along organizational, financial, cadre and electoral lines, now confronted a strong opposition and huge number of committed citizens, discontented with regime repression and their living standards, in the international context favourable to regime change.

In Ukraine, a competitive authoritarian regime emerged after the Soviet Union’s break-up, that is under Kravchuk, and consolidated after Kuchma was elected president in 1994. Authoritarian rule unfolded within a formally democratic framework and involved intense competition within and outside the centre of political power surrounding the president. Authorities harassed opposition candidates, but the opposition was not banned. In addition to authoritarian institutions, the president relied on the oligarchs—often former communist and youth officials and state enterprise managers, who became rich through close ties with government and gained great privileges in privatization and energy trade, acquired state subsidies and monopolies, and avoided paying taxes. The oligarchs controlled large business conglomerates, huge financial resources, influential electronic and print media, and strongly influenced government, even the security services. Because of weak state institutions and political parties and of regionally concentrated oligarchic interests, the president served more as an arbiter among the oligarchs and less as the commander-in-chief. By continuously shifting state privileges from some oligarchs to others, Kuchma prevented them from becoming too powerful (Aslund; Way). Therefore, a highly competitive oligarchic regime emerged, with widespread corruption, arbitrary rule and weak and disorganized opposition, apart from the anti-systemic communist party and populist socialist party.

There were no significant popular protests in the 1990s, despite a severe economic crisis, falling living standards and extensive corruption. Large protests broke out in February 2001 over the publication of a taped recording in which Kuchma apparently instructed the interior minister to ‘deal with’ a journalist Gongadze. This government critic and anti-corruption campaigner had disappeared in September 2000 and his dismembered body was found two months later. Demonstrations of 20,000-30,000 people lasted for days, and a tent city appeared in the centre of Kiev. Under the slogan of ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’, protesters demanded his resignation but failed to get broader popular support. Another protest wave of similar size unfolded in September 2002, on the second anniversary of Gongadze’s disappearance, with a demand for Kuchma’s resignation, and smaller protests appeared on the following anniversary. The protesters included students, discontented citizens and activists of civic associations and movements, some of who had taken part in the 1990 protests of students and workers which triggered the resignation of Ukraine’s prime minister. Opposition parties stayed away from the protests and confronted the regime only in parliament where they enjoyed access to media and parliamentary immunity. Several parties took part in the September 2002 protests, but Our Ukraine, the largest opposition grouping and parliamentary bloc, did not (Wilson).

In the 2004 election campaign, opposition parties formed a large coalition and worked together with civic associations, social movements and NGOs, partly following the example of successful anti-regime mobilization in Serbia and Georgia. Pora (It’s Time), an influential youth movement, was modelled on Serbia’s Otpor and Georgia’s Kmara (see Beissinger; Bunce and Wolchik). Large rallies of the opposition coalition unfolded over the summer, foreshadowing presidential campaign in which the opposition candidate Yushchenko, a former head of the central bank and Kuchma’s prime minister in 1999-2001, confronted Yanukovych, a candidate of Kuchma and big oligarchs. Electoral fraud in the second round of presidential elections triggered large demonstrations, which reached half a million participants in the following days, with a large tent city in Kiev’s centre. Massive demonstrations that lasted for seventeen days, sometimes called the Orange Revolution, produced divisions within the ruling circle and led to the agreement between government and opposition to repeat the second round of voting and to introduce constitutional reform that would reduce president’s powers and strengthen parliament. This time Yushchenko won easily (Kuzio; Wilson).

The scandal over Kuchma’s role in the disappearance of Gongadze separates two periods of competitive authoritarianism in Ukraine. During much of the first period, the powerful executive in the form of authoritarian president confronted the parliamentary majority of the unreformed communist party, which also did not accept Ukraine’s independence, and of the socialist party. Since 1999, the oligarchic system, developed earlier in the relationship between the executive and powerful businessmen, spread to parliament; key parties now represented main oligarchic interests and supported Kuchma. Only after the removal of Yushchenko from the government in 2001—after he managed to reduce state privileges to oligarchs and open market competition, initiate economic growth and become the country’s most popular politician—did an influential, pro-democratic opposition emerge. Therefore, a strong anti-systemic opposition in the form of communist and socialist parties, the lack of democratic opposition and, especially since 1999, dominance of parties that represented oligarchic interests helped the president to exert control through authoritarian manipulation. Massive corruption, together with the surveillance by the security services and collection of evidence of wrongdoing, enabled the regime to systematically employ blackmail to secure compliance of influential individuals and companies (Darden).

The massive fall of citizens’ trust in the institution of president after the Gongadze scandal, from 60% in January to 7% in March 2001 (Kudelia, 83), put pressure on Kuchma to rely even more on the financial, organizational and media support of the oligarchs at a time when rapid economic growth and market competition facilitated struggle among the oligarchs for control over public resources. After the creation of Yushcenko’s Our Ukraine, some ‘minigarchs’—the second and third echelon oligarchs—switched sides, secretly at first. Our Ukraine, still in opposition, thus became the single largest parliamentary bloc after the 2002 election. The ‘minigarchs’ secured considerable financial and organizational resources for the 2004 opposition’s election campaign and some access to media so that substantial assistance of western governments and NGOs only complemented resources already available to the opposition. A sudden weakening of the central control during presidential election, triggered by the shift of some oligarchs to the opposition and by historically conditioned support of the western Ukraine to opposition forces, put pressure on the ruling circle to extend electoral manipulation in a small number of eastern regions, and thus provoke popular upheaval that resulted in regime change (Way, 140-1).

The waves of popular protest formed a part of broader democratizing movements in Serbia and Ukraine, which were increasingly underpinned by large coalitions of opposition forces and growing popular support. Non-violence and moderation featured in the vast majority of protests, not least in the events surrounding the fall of Milošević and Kuchma, which earned them the label of ‘coloured revolutions’ (Georgia included). There were also differences between the two cases. In Serbia, democratic opposition emerged and consolidated early on due to a favourable legacy of Yugoslav inclusive authoritarianism. The opposition leaders had opposed Milošević, with very few exceptions, since the early 1990s, while the most influential among them—Koštunica and Đinđić—had also been dissidents under communism. In contrast, Ukraine’s opposition leaders, with few exceptions, were closely linked with the regime only 2-3 years, or even months, before its fall. In addition to Yushchenko, Kuchma’s former prime minister, and Tymoshenko—one of the oligarchs and later Yushchenko’s deputy prime minister—several influential opposition leaders came from Kuchma’s regime. This was reflected in different levels of the leaders’ commitment to democracy after the fall of authoritarian rulers.

Anti-regime demonstrations in Serbia attracted a considerably larger proportion of the population than those in Ukraine, and thus had a greater political impact. Already the March 1991 demonstrations and the summer protests in the following year seriously undermined Milošević’s regime, just like the winter protests of 1996-1997, while opposition protests in Ukraine did not seriously threaten Kuchma before 2004. Popular protests in both countries managed to undermine the regime only when they overlapped with broader anti-regime mobilization of opposition parties and civil society, such as in defending the opposition’s election victories and in triggering the fall of Milošević and Kuchma. In other cases, such as those in Kiev in 2001, protests helped to delegitimize the regime and to open a gap between the state and society, and thus facilitated the rise of pro-democracy opposition and of elite divisions. Overall, the relationship between competitive authoritarianism and popular protests in Serbia and Ukraine reveals that this regime type is more vulnerable to pressure ‘from below’ than ‘full’ authoritarianism.


The examples of communist Poland and Yugoslavia and post-communist Serbia and Ukraine show not only that a sustained, and occasionally massive, popular mobilization in authoritarian regimes is possible, but also that it may strongly influence political development. The levels, forms and outcomes of popular protest in modern non-democratic regimes and democracies, as well as in different types of non-democratic regime, vary considerably. Those non-democratic regimes that feature a degree of social, economic and institutional or political pluralism, largely predictable rule and selective (and not indiscriminate) repression—authoritarian and hybrid regimes—provide more space and resources to potential challengers than other regimes. In these contexts, elite conflicts, shifting alliances of elites and interest groups, and the emergence of influential allies may facilitate mobilization. The waves of popular protest often strongly influence the policies and personal composition, and even the structure and functioning of these regimes.

Popular protests were highly restricted under authoritarianism in Poland and Yugoslavia, although the communists tolerated some protests groups for ideological and structural reasons. By contrast, competitive authoritarian regimes in Serbia and Ukraine permitted opposition forces to organize, recruit activists and to openly contest the power of authoritarian rulers within and outside state institutions, and thus facilitated participation in anti-regime protests. Protest goals and strategies varied widely. Demands ranged from the recognition of society’s self-organization and changes in policies and leadership under communist authoritarianism to turnover in government and democratization in hybrid regimes. Non-violence in all four cases was predominantly strategic, although some participants rejected violence for moral reasons. Protesters employed non-violent repertoires to avoid repression, which reveals that they learned from the experience of their predecessors, and also because the opposition in competitive authoritarian regimes increasingly focused on elections.

Outcomes of popular protest varied considerably: from gradual and cumulative impact on regime policies, institutions and leadership to regime change and/or state collapse. The examples of Poland and Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, and of Serbia and Ukraine in 2000 and 2004 respectively, show that a substantial political change occurred only when other factors—structural conditions (e.g. economic crisis), elite conflicts (conflicts over policy or power struggle) and international factors (the end of the Cold War or international support for democratic opposition)—pointed in the same direction. The cases of Poland and Serbia suggest that the creation of broad anti-regime coalitions based on common programmatic demands and strong organizations is vital in accomplishing lasting institutional change. If such opposition coalitions are serious about democratization, democracy is likely to follow in the coming years. By contrast, there was no such programmatic and organizational blending of the regime’s opponents in Yugoslavia and Ukraine. Political change originated partly from the building of broad tactical alliances of opposition parties, various protest groups and regime opportunists. In such cases, disparate demands and the lack of lasting organizations leave too much space to the new, or partly refurbished, political elites to retain old or build new authoritarian institutions.