It's Not an Arab Spring; Governments Everywhere Spark Revolts

Protests against any particular government are birthed by the power of government generally.


It's the winter of their discontent from Venezuela to Ukraine to Thailand. Those countries' respective governments have all faced opposition demonstrations that in recent weeks have turned violent, seeing protesters killed in all three countries, with the death toll in Ukraine estimated at around 75 dead and more than 1,000 injured. In Venezuela, at least five have died, though based on accounts on the ground, that number too could rise. In Thailand, at least five people died and 65 were injured on Monday alone, as police worked to clear protesters from the capital city, Bangkok.

Were the unrest in three countries that were geographically or ethnically closer to each other, the Western media might have bundled them together the way they did with the "Arab Spring." Like the current concurrent protests, of course, the Arab Spring was actually a set of disparate protests that spanned the Arab world. And while the protests ended differently: in toppled governments (Tunisia, Egypt), a Western intervention (Libya), a protracted civil war (Syria), multiple failures (Bahrain, Iraq), they did all share one general grievance, that their governments no longer represented them. Though Iraq was perhaps the only democratic (at least in name) country in which "Arab Spring" protests occurred, democratic governments are not immune to becoming so disconnected from the people in the country that protests arise there. To varying extents, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Thailand have democratically-elected governments.  And in each case, those governments, rather than working to do their best to represent all people, have demonized and alienated the opposition, claiming their slim margins of victories as mandates to act in any way they please.

The root problem in each country is unaccountable government. That unaccountability, in each case, is an outgrowth of the attitude that a mere democratic majority (of the actually-voting voting population) suffices to permit the government to do anything it wants under the guise of having a popular mandate for it. In Ukraine, which has received the lion's share of media coverage, protesters with Euromaidan oppose President Viktor Yanukovych's policy of moving the country toward a closer relationship with Russia; they want, instead, for the government to build closer ties with the European Union. That political argument, however, was not what escalated protests. Rather, as is usually the case, state violence against protesters brought new life to demonstrations.

This week, in his latest bid to finally end protests, Yanukovich agreed to hold early elections, to form a "unity government," and to offer constitutional reforms that would reduce the power of the presidency. A dispute over which superpower Ukraine would entangle itself with became a grievance over government power. Whether that grievance ends up being addressed remains to be seen. However, given the desire of most imaginable potential Ukrainian governments to extract financial aid in exchange for alignment with either the European Union or Russia, it's possible that the friction between East and West in Ukraine (a word that meant borderland) will explode again, as it did before in the era of the mid-2000s "color revolutions."

The source of Venezuela's unrest, isn't as easily framed as a team vs. team issue. Nevertheless, the Venezuelan government does its best to try to link the legitimate opposition that its self-destructive economic policies has fueled to American intervention. The government, for example, expelled three U.S. consular officials, accusing them of conspiring with the opposition because they allegedly met with some protesters. The late Hugo Chavez built his brand of socialism, chavismo, as a decidedly anti-American project.  Chavez's framing was aided by alleged U.S. involvement in a 2002 coup attempt against him. Nevermind that Chavez himself had led his own failed coup attempt a decade earlier, one that ended with him spending the night at a museum.

In explaining why he thought the state violence against Venezuelan protesters might have been so overshadowed in Western media coverage by the violence in Ukraine, Francisco Toro of the Caracas Chronicles offered that the "freakout" in Eastern Europe was "more photogenic" and happening in "an even more strategically important country." American interests in Venezuela extend from the days of the Monroe doctrine, which asserted that the whole of North and South America were for the U.S. to exert influence over, not other (European) world powers. Venezuela is also a major oil-producing country. But the protesters in Caracas, and around Venezuela, are not necessarily pro-American in the way, say, Ukrainian protesters could be considered "pro-European." While the political opposition to chavismo in some way has to be about rejecting the socialist program's anti-Americanism, what has largely driven protests in Venezuela is a rejection of the government's nationalist and socialist policies, which have deteriorated economic conditions in the country. Because such state socialist policies also require the scapegoating and demonization of the opposition, a parallel deterioration of political conditions also occurred. In such an environment, the kind of protests Venezeula is now seeing were inevitable. Hugo Chavez's successor Nicolas Maduro, after all, was only able to secure an "official" victory margin of under 2 percent, despite throwing the force of the party-controlled state behind his candidacy. Despite that, Maduro acted as if his government had a mandate to do whatever it wanted, in the name of the people. Enough people have now had enough intrusive government to push back.

Anti-government protests have also persisted in Thailand for months, to much less coverage than Ukraine or even Venezuela. That country's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was overthrown in a 2006 military junta that followed several months of protests. Thaksin's government was accused of various human rights abuses, corruption, and stifling free press. Yingluck, who campaigned in 2011 on a theme of "reconciliation" after the half-decade long political crisis following her brother's overthrow, sparked protests late last year after proposing an amnesty bill. That billincluded dismissing corruption charges against her brother, on self-imposed "exile" to avoid an existing conviction. It also dropped murder charges against two former Thai political leaders, a prime minister and a member of parliament who resigned last year to "lead" protesters. Thailand is, in fact, a constitutional monarchy. In December, clashes between police and protesters paused for the king's 86th birthday. The king used his birthday address to call for stability. A few days later the prime minister dissolved her government and scheduled new elections. Those elections occurred on February 2, but results have yet to be announced. Protests, which include an "occupation" of Bangkok and its government buildings, continue.

The protests in Ukraine, Venezuela, Thailand, and those in many other countries in recent history, have generally been about discontent with government. Even "Occupy Wall Street" in the U.S. was, at its core, about discontent with government. In their case, the solution of many was, depressingly, more government. And so it is in the protest movements of every country. In Brazil, which has also seen sporadic protests in the last several months over government spending on the World Cup, the economist Rodrigo Constantino noted that there's "no use to roar like a lion in the streets and then vote like a donkey in the polls." Where government power is unchecked, where political opposition is demonized, marginalized, and suppressed, where people are molested by agents and offices of the state, the fact that a government can point to a "democratic" victory to defend its actions will never preclude popular protests. And a change in government, as we saw in Egypt and elsewhere, is no guarantee that popular discontent is alleviated. Although it is grievances about specific governments, specific policies, and specific abuses of power that animate any particular protest, it is the ability of government to wield as much power as people have allowed it to that give life to protest in the first place.