Did the Russians write the script for the Arab Spring?

The fall of the USSR in 1991 bears striking parallels to this year's Arab Spring uprisings. But it is the differences between the two movements that give reasons to be optimistic about this region's future.
Soviet army tanks in central Moscow during the abortive 1991 coup against the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.
Soviet army tanks in central Moscow during the abortive 1991 coup against the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Twenty years ago this month, when crowds of unarmed demonstrators beat back communist hardliners and sealed the fate of the USSR, did they also write the script for the Arab Spring?

The parallels are certainly striking - contagious revolutions spilling over borders; elated crowds fraternising with the very soldiers sent to repress them and the triumph of youth, optimism and freedom over authoritarian gerontocracies, with the world's media beaming iconic images directly from the barricades. And yet, for all this, a sobering poll conducted in March by the authoritative Levada Centre finds 58 per cent of Russians now nostalgic for the regime they overthrew.

So, are Tunisia and Egypt also heading for a similar kind of postrevolutionary remorse, or do such tempting similarities obscure more than they reveal? These are questions that divide scholars, observers and, indeed, the revolutionaries themselves.


The Egyptian democracy activist and former political prisoner Saad Eddin Ibrahim finds comparisons with the demise of Communism appropriate.

"We were inspired by the revolutions in Eastern Europe," he said. "We invited their veterans to Egypt and sent our activists to Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia. We listened, we learnt and we thought, 'If it could happen there, it can happen in the Arab world'. But we never thought it could happen as fast as it did."

Ibrahim said that in both cases, rulers took society for granted and did not read the signs of social unrest early enough.

"The domino effect is at work in the Arab world as it was in Eastern Europe. Remember how Mubarak said, 'Egypt is not Tunisia'? Each leader thinks somehow that even though there are signs in neighbouring countries, it will not affect them."

But others believe that while the Arab Spring resembles the overthrow of Communism in Poland or Czechoslovakia, it has little in common with the Soviet collapse itself.

"The only thing the Arab Spring and the end of the USSR have in common is that they happened to involve large crowds," said Boris Kagarlitsky, a sociologist and former Soviet dissident who was involved in the anti-Soviet protests. "It's like comparing a political rally with a football match, or the French Revolution with a rock festival - not particularly productive."

While the Arab uprisings are a genuinely popular movement, the revolution in the USSR was carried out by the elites themselves, said Kagarlitsky. What is more, most of the mass participation had ended well before the August coup. "Despite the collapse of the ruling Communist party, no real revolution occurred in Russia in 1991," noted historian Stephen Cohen in a 1993 article for The Nation. The following year, only seven per cent of Russian respondents told a Levada poll that the fall of the USSR was a victory of democracy, with 53 per cent seeing it as "simply the outcome of a battle for power within the country's leadership".

Leon Aron, a Russia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, sees a fundamental similarity between the transformations in the Soviet Union and the Arab world.

In a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, Aron argues that the two events were united by a break in popular consciousness and a demand for "dignity over bread,"as voiced by one participant in the Tunisian uprising. Aron discussed a recent New York Times account of how years of daily humiliation eventually led a people to revolt.

"Columnist Thomas Friedman reported from Cairo this February," writes Aron. "He could have been reporting from Moscow in 1991."

Maria Lipman, democracy scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, disagrees. "There are more differences than similarities between the fall of the USSR and the Arab Spring," she said.


In the Soviet Union, unlike in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, there was no popular movement demanding democracy before Mikhail Gorbachev began the liberalising policies of glasnost and perestroika, which only eventually brought people out on the streets.

By contrast, leaders like Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali resisted any kind of change until an increasingly repressed population forced them from power.

"Mubarak and Gorbachev are opposites," said Lipman. "Mubarak sat still and sat for too long. Gorbachev started it all himself."

While the Arab Spring was a mass movement without a clear leader, the fall of the USSR was intimately tied to a power struggle between Boris Yeltsin, who sought an independent and democratic Russia outside of Soviet control, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who wanted to reform the USSR while preserving its territorial integrity.

In the midst of this central conflict, the top echelons of the Communist party decided to simply "cash out" and embrace the economic and political opportunities a democratic Russia would present. Thus, conceptualising the fall of the Soviet Union as the outcome of people power overlooks the much greater role played by internal political factors and elite negotiations.

However, rather than diminish its credentials, this and other key differences with the fall of the Soviet Union show the Arab Spring to be a more genuine revolution than the one Russia had 20 years ago.

"Egypt's young people knew how leaders can come to power through revolutions and overstay their welcome, so they were very keen in avoiding any personality cult, any prominence of anyone," said Ibrahim. "They wanted to be as equal as it could be."

Although Egypt's leaderless nature leaves the revolution vulnerable to hijacking by reactionary forces, the country is less likely to devolve into the kind of personality-focused super-presidentialism exercised in Russia by Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin.

"We learnt quite a bit from our Soviet colleagues about how not to fall into some of the mistakes they did," said Ibrahim about the Egyptian movement.


In addition to being more spontaneous and popular, the Arab revolutions also went against the grain of contemporary geopolitics, a fact that can have tremendous implications for foreign and domestic policy. While most of the governments thrown off by the Arab Spring were friendly with America and the West, the opposite was the case in the Soviet Union.

Soviet activists who went to the barricades in 1991 knew the West had their backs, that the tide had turned and the world had already declared them to be on the right side of history - a certainty not afforded to the masses who occupied Tahrir Square in the weeks before US president Barack Obama decided to finally break with Mubarak.

As a result of the intellectual and strategic congruence between leading east European democrats and western powers, successor governments rushed to align their foreign policies closer with the US and its allies, even when such moves contradicted the popular will and even national interest.

According to left-wing critics like Kagarlitsky: "It was a race between who could surrender to the West faster."

In fact, Yeltsin's pro-American foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, became so widely accused of forfeiting Russia's superpower status that he was eventually replaced.

The opposite trajectory seems to be happening in Egypt, where interim prime minister Essam Sharaf has deviated from US wishes by vocally opposing the normalisation of ties with Israel - a stance that resonates with the majority of the population and not just the elites.

On the economy, too, the Egyptian and Tunisian cases resemble Russia, but in reverse. When Boris Yeltsin began to introduce capitalism, Russia was paralysed by shortages, hungry for western consumer goods and still ignorant of the dark sides of the free market.

But, as poverty and unemployment surged and popular support for the reforms disappeared, Russia's new leaders abandoned the democratic process by pushing through the so-called "economic shock therapy" by decree against mass opposition - a process scholars Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski have dubbed "market bolshevism".

Because Tunisia and Egypt had already passed through a series of what were perceived domestically as neoliberal reforms, the harsh economic liberalisation associated with the old system is unlikely to be repeated.

As a result, "there will be a strong push not for privatisation, but in the opposite direction," predicted Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University.

Some contend the Arab revolutions themselves were a logical outgrowth of the earlier free-market policies.

When Mubarak opened up the Egyptian economy, "he did not realise that with economic liberalisation comes political liberalisation," said Ibrahim. "It was a one-sided situation that had to be corrected."

Other corrections involve the abolition of impunity - but in the former Soviet Union, the orderly handover of power from the Communists to the new democratic governments was predicated on a general amnesty for public officials who had been acting in accordance with previous laws.

Even the leaders of the August coup, imprisoned for breaking Soviet laws, were given amnesty by Yeltsin within three years.

Reflecting the more popular and cathartic nature of the revolutions, the deposed leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have both been indicted. Tunisia has issued an Interpol arrest warrant for Ben Ali, while Hosni Mubarak is already standing trial in Cairo. Ben Ali and his wife, have already been charged with theft and unlawful possession of jewellery and cash, and sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison.

But Ibrahim believes Mubarak will eventually be pardoned. "After all, Mubarak had a very glorious early career," he said. "It was just his greed to stay over and over in power that destroyed him."

There is, however, little consensus on whether trials or amnesty are more likely to enhance democratic consolidation. Spain is the most successful example of a "forgive and forget" approach, having become a strong democracy without bringing Franco officials to justice.

On the other hand, Russia's post-Soviet democratisation stalled despite following Spain's example, while holding trials of former Communist leaders did not prevent its neighbours of Romania, Poland and East Germany from becoming successfully integrated members of the European Union.

Arguably, the better metric of successful transition is a country's availability of civic structures and non-political institutions to weather the seismic changes.

Aron warns that after extended periods of authoritarianism, the lack of such self-organisation and national institutions in emerging democracies "is something that is likely to prove a huge obstacle to the carrying out of the promise of the Arab Spring - as it has proved in Russia".

But, counters Ibrahim, contrary to Kafka's claim that every revolution degenerates into the slime of a new bureaucracy, it is precisely Egypt's 6,000-year history of bureaucratic institutions that may provide the stability lacking in Russia.


Although the Arab Spring may be descended from the fall of the USSR, it is now being re-exported back to Russia as an example for a new wave of democratisation.

In many ways, the problems faced by Tunisia and Egypt on the eve of revolution better resembled those of modern Russia than its Soviet predecessor - a market authoritarian regime with a strongman but no ideology; an oil-rich country with an underdeveloped civil society; a place with no official political opposition but a growing number of young people organising online.

"Under Mubarak, there was a lot you could say and do," said Brown. "There was only one rule for the opposition and that was that you had to lose. As long as you didn't challenge that rule you were fine. That to me looks similar to Putin's Russia."

Unsurprisingly, Russian people are also beginning to actively compare Mubarak and Putin. According to democracy campaigner Oleg Kozyrev, activists are taking cues from their Arab counterparts, particularly regarding the key role played by the internet and social networking.

"The Arab Spring has definitely influenced people in Russia," said Kozyrev. "There is an increased sense that change is possible and could come unexpectedly at any moment."

A pessimist might conclude that given their similarities, the Arab Spring is likely to follow post-Communist Russia into ignominy.

But the crucial distinctions between the two - a popular vs elite driven character; a leaderless vs hyper-personalised revolution; a Keynesian vs free-market economic direction and independent vs rigidly pro-western foreign policy - seem to give Egyptian and Tunisian democracy better odds of survival.

The market-Bolsheviks of post-Communist Russia thought they could sacrifice democracy in favour of a narrowly conceived liberalism, swap an independent foreign policy for the vain hopes of integration into the West and still end up building a free country.

Those were mistakes the current crop of Middle Eastern leaders are well placed to avoid.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether the young revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt will outlast their ill-fated post-Soviet predecessors.

In both cases, euphoria gave way to periods of disillusionment and frustration. According to another Levada poll, 60 per cent of Russians feel the first post-Communist decade brought the country more harm than good - only 20 per cent think the opposite.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, a portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation started the revolution, has already been taken down in disgust by villagers unsatisfied with the slow pace of change.

For all that, Ibrahim urges patience. "It took decades for the French Revolution to begin delivering on three famous slogans," he said.

But even if it fails, if, like its Russian archetype, the Arab Spring turns out to be, in the words of the novelist Victor Pelevin, a journey from nothing to nowhere, then the sense of hope and possibility felt by Kozyrev and his fellow activists in distant lands will already be its significant legacy.

"Every revolution is unique," said Ibrahim. "There can be inspiration and similarities but in the end, every people, every country, must make their own."

In societies as in physics, energy - whether revolutionary or thermodynamic - never disappears, and the sparks from the Arab Spring are certain to one day flare up again, in another place as in another form.

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist. He blogs at foreignpolicyblogs.com


Published: August 26, 2011 04:00 AM


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