A perfect social storm

20 April 2010

The world is changing before our eyes, but the underlying causes are poorly understood. The sudden recent collapse of the political regime in Kyrgyzstan is a case in point.

The color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and the stability in Russia stem from the same psychological roots. The authorities are quite happy with the mass apathy, indifference and cynicism of the people that has turned the political process into an endless stream of meaningless events occurring in a social vacuum. But the fact that “the people remain silent” — as Alexander Pushkin so aptly put it — is itself an indicator of  Russians’ historical alienation and of the large gap between the government and the people.

As daily life continues and as the political system’s inherent weaknesses get increasingly worse, volatile impulses are building, paving the way for an explosion that becomes more probable the less we speak and think about it.

The radical switch from apathy to violent outrage often comes as a complete surprise, not only to the authorities and analysts, but also to the people themselves. This is why sociologists inevitably fail to predict the these serious political upheavals.

The events in Kyrgyzstan have shown the force that a sudden explosion of public discontent can have — a “perfect storm” except that these social explosions occur much more frequently than once a century. But against what or whom will that explosion ultimately be directed? Opposition politicians have used the people’s outrage to gain power. But will they be able to keep the situation under control?

The color revolutions of the mid-2000s are a good example of the triumph of political spin-doctoring. Opposition members among the elite successfully exploited the widespread unrest to achieve their political aims, and any attempts to move the process beyond the prescribed script were blocked or thwarted. But the economic crisis changed everything.

All attempts have failed to bring about change without actually changing anything, to improve the political machinery without affecting the social system or the economy. In those places where living conditions had reached a point almost demanding a social revolution, or at least structural reforms, the attempt to simulate a color revolution was doomed from the start.

It does not require any special insight to see what is happening now. Viktor Yanukovych, who was so thoroughly trounced in the 2004 election, is now in power as president of Ukraine. Georgia initiated a senseless war against Russia, was defeated in days and lost 20 percent of its disputed territories. And Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who became president in 2005 on a popular wave of protest against corruption and abuse of power that went unchecked during his predecessor’s reign, has himself been overthrown by an angry wave of Kyrgyz, upset at autocratic abuses.

This is victory for the people and a defeat of autocracy. Both of these elements should cause Russia’s leaders to think seriously about whether the 2010 Kyrgyz revolution could be repeated at home.