Violent State Repression

Violent state repression has been a large focus of research for decades and is something that activists have encountered for centuries. Recently scholars’ and activists’ understanding of repression has been called into question with the occurrences of violent state repression in Ukraine, against student protests in Venezuela, and repeatedly in the Syrian conflict. For the next two month’s essay dialogues, we have asked contributors to reflect on some of these questions in light of contemporary cases: How does repression affect future protest? How do states decide to engage in violent repression? What responses are available to protestors? And, does the type of protestor or the cause matter for who is repressed? Contributors have also been encouraged to discuss the gaps in our understanding of the dynamics of political activism and state repression, and how ongoing events may fuel future research on this topic. We are grateful to our distinguished contributors:

Jack Goldstone, George Mason University (essay)
Hank Johnston, San Diego State University (essay)
Carol Skalnik Leff and Peter Chereson, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (essay)
Heidi Reynolds-Stenson and Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona (essay)

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Repressive Violence and the Ukrainian Maidan

by Carol Skalnik Leff and Peter Chereson

The Euromaidan protests that have rocked Ukraine since November 2013 have been extremely complex and polarizing. In broad outlines, the episodic violence directed against them by the Yanukovych regime comports with the recent theoretical inquiries into the relationship between regime type and violence. These theories have moved away from a linear understanding of the propensity of different regime types to resort to violent repression, and instead argue for inverted U-shaped configuration (Fein’s “Murder in the Middle” range of regime types) or strategically- driven threshold models (such as Pierkalla’s). Ukraine’s regime has occupied that treacherous middle ground, ranked as partly free (Freedom House), as one of Levitsky and Way’s early competitive authoritarian cases, and as a low-grade democracy in Polity IV. Below, we think about several features of the sustained Ukrainian protest cycle and the government response, bearing in mind that the repressive strategy failed miserably, as the departure of incumbent President Yanukovych from power was directly catalyzed by the forcible crackdown of mid-February, which sent erstwhile allies fleeing and parliament acting to remove him.

First, in a pattern that is familiar in other protests, repressive violence—or clear signals of its imminence—can be shown to have sparked major upsurges of protest on the Maidan and to have broadened the protest agenda. The initial protests launched last November 21 specifically targeted the Yanukovych government’s eleventh hour decision not to sign an EU association agreement, and attracted huge crowds. As they began to taper off, the government attempted to clear the square on November 30, in what seems to have been a fatal blunder. Not only did clashes with the police multiply the crowds and entrench them, but they also expanded the protest agenda to include an indictment of the Yanukovych regime as corrupt and inefficient and demanded its removal from office. By December 2013, polling of the protesters showed 70% saying they were in the streets in anger over the crackdown, markedly higher than the 53% who listed the EU agreement as their impetus to protest. The January 2014 passage of Putinesque anti-protest laws signaled a further crackdown and an additional surge of protest strength. The quick repeal of the laws satisfied no one. Ultimately, the repression strategy failed.

Second, a distinctive feature of the protest cycle has been its heavy institutionalization, less in terms of ongoing political organization than in the infrastructure of the protest operation itself: sleeping arrangements in tents and nearby buildings, food preparation, a Euromaidan website in Ukrainian and English, security forces (most vividly the Automaidan car convoys) and even ongoing educational and cultural activities—history and economics, painting and poetry, and concerts. These infrastructural underpinnings proved highly significant in fortifying the protesters in the Euromaidan space and helped undermine any regime strategy of simply waiting it out. Indeed, the government’s stop-go pattern of repression and efforts at conciliation were unsuccessful in part because the Maidan protesters had dug in for the long haul, and were willing neither to retreat in the face of violence nor to accept compromise measures that their “leaders” brought back from parleys with the government.

A third characteristic of the protest cycle was a certain ambiguity surrounding the repressive violence. In June 1989, no one could doubt that the clearing of Tiananmen Square was a government operation. But there was greater murkiness surrounding two patterns of violence in the Ukrainian case that raised the highest level of indignation: the periodic abduction of protestors (including that of a released Automaidan leader who suggested his captors were from Russia), and the snipers active in the final week of the Yanukovych presidency. The snipers were responsible for the majority of the 100 deaths that week. Three very different types of culprits were invoked as snipers. The protesters were largely convinced that it was the Berkut—government special forces—firing from above on the crowd; Putin next door implicated the nationalist fringe of the protest in line with the script that neo-Nazis dominated the protests—Putin’s scenario was that the snipers were provocateurs courting police violence to garner international sympathy. The post-Yanukovych government officials in turn darkly pointed to outside forces—in fact to Russian special forces, engaged in destabilizing Ukraine. Thus, Interior Minister Avakov blamed a “third force… and this force was not Ukrainian.”

It is probably worth further thinking about how and when governments decide to either to claim ownership of their repressive acts and when they find it desirable to try to obscure the origins of violence. What is important about this kind of ambiguity is the space it affords for alternative framings, if, as in Ukraine, the public is already divided and has responded in polls with clear divisions over support for the protests. But further, it plays into the international dimensions of the confrontation, a final dimension of the protests worth consideration.

From the outset, the Maidan protests played out in an international arena, not only because the trigger was Yanukovych’s decision to forego the EU Association Agreement, but because the subsequent protests themselves evoked the democracy script in the West and Putin’s western incursion script in the East. Russian accounts generally contrasted quite sharply with Western sources in their portrayal of protests’ goals, actions, and demands. Russian state-owned television and some newspapers portrayed protests as a product of Western infiltration dominated by nationalist, neo-fascist extremists (generalizing from the protest participation of Oleh Tyahnybok and his nationalist Svoboda party)intent on creating anarchyand even civil war, and threatening the country’s large Russian-speaking minority. Western media, generally more sympathetic towards protesters, situated the topic within an East-West framework reminiscent of the Cold War, portraying Ukraine as caught between the two spheres of influence. How these constructs (which included significant signaling by the Russian and Western governments) played into the calculations of the Ukrainian actors is relevant to the general issue of a regime’s external “audience costs” of using violent repression. We know that activists on the Maidan were conscious of assuring that their cause was understood in the West because of a phenomenon that is increasingly standard in major protests globally: the use of English-language placards and in the Ukrainian case, PR Maidan, the protest’s English language web news site, as well as the “I am a Ukrainian” YouTube video that went viral in February. From the government side, we may eventually know whether the unclear identity of sniper forces who used violence on the Maidan was a strategy to obscure responsibility from the Ukrainian population, or from the outer world as well (or indeed whether darker conspiracy theories have any validity).

The Maidan protests of 2013-2014 are striking in that they follow on the legacy of the Orange Revolution of 2005, a protest cycle that won its immediate purpose of re-running a fraudulent election without violence on either side. Students of the post-Soviet Color Revolutions will soon be engaged in comparative work that explores the linkages of these two moments of contentious politics, and the regime calculations that account for the variation in strategy and outcomes. (For ongoing scholarly commentary on the Ukrainian events, see the Washington Post blog site “Monkey Cage.”)

 

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The Promise of Shareholder Activism?

Recently, ExxonMobile made headline news for agreeing to shareholder requests for greater transparency regarding risks associated with its fossil fuel assets and shale gas activities. In late March, the company agreed to publish information about the risks that stricter limits on carbon emissions would have for its current portfolio and for future development of its deep-water oil reserves. This was quickly followed by a move to address growing concerns over the environmental impacts of fracking. In a major turnaround, ExxonMobile agreed to report how it manages risks associated with fracking such as those related to air quality and the use of water and chemicals. These concessions are the result of sustained mobilization by shareholder organizations including Arjuna Capital, a wealth management firm that focuses on sustainability, and As You Sow, an advocacy group for social corporate responsibility. Similarly, the electrical company, FirstEnergy recently agreed to release information about the effects of changing climate policy on its business model. These events signal that corporate actors increasingly view shareholder activist organizations as legitimate claims makers. It also points to new directions for social movement research. Continue reading

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Masha Gessen’s Thoughts on Pussy Riot and Putin

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When reading coverage of Russia’s now infamous Pussy Riot, one may be tempted to ask: are a punk band, an art collective, or a social movement group? The answer, of course, is yes. This is made clear by Masha Gessen in her new book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. In the book, Gessen shows how politics, art, and performance are intertwined for the women of Pussy Riot, demonstrating the complicated nature of contemporary protest, something I suspect many readers of Mobilizing Ideas will be interested in.

Additionally, Gessen has been making the rounds to several recent podcasts to talk about the book, as well as about homophobia in Russia, the logic of Putin, and the situation in The Ukraine. She has recently been on NPR’s Fresh Air, Slate’s Live at Politics and Prose, and KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny. Each interview is worth listening and they cover slightly different topics, shifting between wider Russian politics and Pussy Riot more specifically. Through her book and these interviews, Gessen provides both a useful look at a fascinating, outside of the box, contemporary political group as well as a window into current Russian politics.

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“The Game’s Afoot”: Protest in Repressive States and Its Field of Play

by Hank Johnston

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine, political regimes were brought down by mass movements of political protest. In contrast, peaceful Syrian protests against the al-Assad regime took a different course and spiraled into violence and civil war. One need only recall the unsuccessful Iranian protests against the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the unrealized Chinese “jasmine revolution” in 2011 to ponder the contingencies of the repression-mobilization relationship. In the Iranian and Chinese cases, the state effectively quashed protests. In the Syrian case, state violence led to escalation that al-Assad’s piecemeal reforms were unable to stop. In the Ukrainian case, police violence against waning protests caused public outrage and reinvigorated mobilization. Continue reading

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Repression Works – when it works (and not, when not)

by Jack Goldstone

Much recent research has highlighted the success of non-violent protest. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s data analysis had demonstrated that disciplined, non-violent protests succeed more often than violent ones, even in the face of repressive actions by regimes.

And yet recent events in Bahrain, Egypt, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine give one pause. While Tunisia offers the example of a relatively peaceful protest campaign that overturned a dictatorship, in Libya civil war seemed necessary to overturn a regime about to massacre peaceful protestors in Benghazi. In Egypt, the peaceful protestors who brought down the Mubarak regime were soon marginalized, with the Muslim Brotherhood now outlawed and suffering mass executions at the hands of a counter-revolutionary military regime. In Syria, the dictatorship responded to peaceful protests with brutalizing attacks and seems likely to have crushed the protests if they had not recruited defecting soldiers and become militarized (although to be sure, we do not know what would have happened if the protestors had stuck to non-violence). Finally, in Bahrain, the most massive peaceful protests seen in the region, as a percentage of the population participating, were crushed by the military. By contrast, in Ukraine, it was only after peaceful protestors were galvanized by more violent “ultranationalists” who attacked police and burned buildings that the ruler fled (although again we cannot be sure what would have followed if this turn to violence had not occurred). Continue reading

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The Whole World is Texting

by Heidi Reynolds-Stenson and Jennifer Earl

How repression impacts mobilization, and specifically why repression is effective at deterring protest in some cases and not others, is a perennial question among repression scholars. Studies have found markedly different results: some research suggests that repression can be effective in discouraging participation or otherwise quelling protest but other findings demonstrate that repression can “backfire,” escalating mobilization and/or galvanizing commitment. Classic work by Barkan, for instance, showed that violent repression, in particular, might galvanize bystanders and lead to movement victories where failure would have otherwise been likely. We argue that recent unrest in Syria, Venezuela, and Ukraine can be read as contemporary evidence of backfire. At the very least, these are stories in which state repression failed to quell protest. After providing some quick evidence on this point, we consider a larger theoretical question raised by these recent events: might digital media use be affecting the underlying likelihood of backlash? Continue reading

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