Youth Movements in Post-Communist Societies: A Model of Nonviolent Resistance

By
Sarah Dixon Klump

"Over the past decade, the world has seen a wave of colored revolutions," stated Olena Nikolayenko, Visiting Scholar, Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Stanford University. It started with Serbia's Bulldozer Revolution in 2000, and continued with Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Similar but ultimately unsuccessful revolutions were attempted in Belarus and Azerbaijan. "A remarkable feature of all the color revolutions," Nikolayenko remarked, "was that they were accompanied by the rise of youth movements." At a January 15, 2009 Kennan Institute lecture, she addressed the civic activism of these youth movements and sought to answer why some of them were more successful than others in their efforts to oust autocratic rulers.

To do so, she applied the concept of "tactical interaction," deconstructing the interplay between the tactical innovations of the youth movements and the tactical adaptations of the ruling elite within each country. "Little research has been done on tactical interaction in non-democracies, where the stakes are much higher and the process occurs at a much faster pace," she noted. From her study she ascertained that the tactical innovation of the various youth movements was, in part, a product of the political opportunity structure in which they operated. For example, in Azerbaijan, an increase in oppression led to tactical innovation when young activists, afraid to pass out informational leaflets in the streets, began tossing them from roofs and balconies of high rise buildings in what they called "leaflet rains."

In her research, Nikolayenko found that the history of civic activism in a country had a long-term, direct effect on the tactical innovation of these groups. In Serbia, for example, the history of civic activism impacted the tactical innovation of the youth movement Otpor (Resistance) with regard to its leadership structure. During student protests of 1996-97, a small circle of young people acted as official spokespeople and communicated with the media. Given the public visibility of these students, the government was able to undermine further mobilization of youth by discrediting just the handful of individuals who represented it. As a result, when Otpor formed in 1998, its members decided to rotate their spokespeople and build a horizontal structure.

To account for their successes and failures, Nikolayenko assessed the degree to which tactical innovation was present in protest strategies of youth movements in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Azerbaijan. Through making such comparisons, she discovered a number of cross-movement similarities. For instance, all of the movements were organized around election time, and all had three key demands: free and fair elections, freedom of press, and the de-politicization of universities. They also all framed their discourse similarly, and built upon the same repertoire of protest strategies, such as street performances, graffiti, rock concerts, and stickers.

Serbia's Otpor was the first successful youth movement to apply a model of nonviolent resistance against the authoritarian incumbent and set an example for youth in other countries. Nikolayenko described the two successful youth movements that came after Otpor. According to her, Kmara (Enough) in Georgia was not as innovative as others. Nikolayenko attributes their dearth of innovation to the frailty of the regime. The incumbent government in Georgia was not as repressive as it was in Serbia, so less innovation was needed to circumvent a difficult political opportunity structure. In Ukraine, young people rallied around the youth movement Pora (It's Time). In March 2004, Pora stimulated public criticism of the incumbent president by launching a public campaign, titled "What is Kuchmizm?". Modeled on Otpor, Pora became engaged in voter education and voter mobilization campaigns. Notwithstanding some frictions at the leadership level, youth activists in the regions were able to collaborate and successfully organize protest events.

Nikolayenko contrasted these successes with the failures of youth movements in Belarus and Azerbaijan. Belarus's Zubr (Bison), she observed, had a very different starting point from other countries, since its members underestimated the extent of Alexander Lukashenka's genuine popularity among the plurality of the electorate. In Azerbaijan, the situation was complicated by internal factionalism that mimicked the divisions between opposition parties. Yeni Fikir (New Thinking), for example, was closely affiliated with the Popular Front party and its leader Ali Kerimli, to the extent that they were headquartered in the same building. According to Nikolayenko, "this political connection discredited Yeni Fikir in the eyes of young people, who did not want anything to do with politicians." In addition to these hurdles, youth movements in Belarus and Azerbaijan were confronted by the ruling elites who were willing to go an extra mile and co-opt large segments of post-communist youth through state-sponsored youth organizations, based upon the model of the Soviet-era Komsomol or the example of Russia's Nashi (Ours).

Through these comparisons, Nikolayenko sought to illustrate that while these movements shared many traits, they produced various outcomes. "The chess-like interaction between social movements and their opponents can account for these differences," she concluded, "but these processes derive from and are constrained by the past history of activism in each country."

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