MOSCOW – Anyone who witnessed how Russia’s “Snow Revolution” of 2011 and 2012 fizzled can confidently predict the failure of the Taksim riots in Turkey.
In recent years, mass protests in authoritarian states have succeeded only where the rioters had little or nothing to lose, and so were prepared to unleash serious violence. That wasn’t the case in Moscow, and it isn’t the case in Istanbul, where the majority of the protesters are relatively prosperous members of the middle class.
Tragic as the death tolls of the Arab Spring rebellions are, they provide an indicator of the poverty-fueled rage, amplified by religious fundamentalism, that set those events apart. In Libya, more than 30,000 died in clashes that resulted in the public torture and killing of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In Egypt, 846 perished; in Tunisia and Yemen, more than 200 each. Syria, where the outcome is unclear, has seen tens of thousands of deaths.
In Russia, by contrast, the only fighting took place on May 6, 2012, the day before President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration. Riot police formed a narrow corridor for marchers trying to enter a square in central Moscow where an anti-Putin rally was taking place. Some fighting ensued, with the most radical protesters throwing rocks and bottles or pulling helmets off police officers.
Last week, a major show trial started for 12 protesters accused of violence against law enforcement officers. The injuries those officers suffered were minor; it is unclear whether any of them were hospitalized. Protesters suffered a few broken limbs and concussions. Pretty much all other anti-Putin rallies in Moscow transpired without any violence at all.
Turkey’s experience so far is similar to Russia’s. Sadly, some have died, but the deaths seem accidental rather than the direct outcome of fighting. Overturned cars and broken windows hardly count as signs of civil war. As in Russia, demonstrators are taking issue with the suppression of political freedoms and the spread of religious obscurancy, rather than with poverty or other economic woes. The religious zealots are on the ruling regime’s side.
Turkish leftists and Kemalists are unhappy with the political direction in which pro-Islamic, authoritarian Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking their secular, democratic country. But they can’t deny the economic progress Turkey has made under his rule. Many of them have benefited from it. Indeed, they feel important and empowered enough to demand that the government listen to them when they tell it to stop construction in a public park.
In Moscow, the rebellious middle class also took to the streets to demand inclusion. A rigged parliamentary election in 2011 and a general feeling that their voices were being ignored catalyzed their discontent with a government bent on restoring traditional Russian values, including the dominance of the Orthodox Church, in a country that had made large strides toward the West in the 1990s.
The educated people who value political freedoms, religious neutrality and a more inclusive form of government are not willing to die for these values, because their absence isn’t essentially life-threatening. This is fortunate for the likes of Putin and Erdogan. They can subdue the most radical elements in the protests by force, and the rest of the discontented masses will go back to their jobs and cafes. Gadhafi or Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could not have gotten off so lightly.
In each of the Arab countries where dictatorial regimes fell, the Muslim Brotherhood was heavily involved in the protests. The Brotherhood focuses on charity activities among the underprivileged, many of whom were consequently willing to risk their lives for the cause. The liberals, who also gained access to government in the aftermath of the revolutions in some countries, notably Tunisia, have arguably come along for the ride.
In countries where the regimes are more radical than the protesters, street action is doomed. Gone are the days of peaceful revolts like the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003 in Georgia and the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 in Ukraine. Dictators have learned their lesson. They are less afraid to show their true colors, confident that they can portray pro-democracy protesters as marginal elements to the majority that brought them to power in the first place.
Leonid Bershidsky is an editor and novelist based in Moscow. The opinions expressed are his own.