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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- The Transferability Of Revolutions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The revolution at the ballot box and in the streets of Belgrade that led to the ouster of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic has encouraged democratic opposition movements around the world which seek to displace authoritarian regimes. But the events in Yugoslavia have raised some important questions about the transferability of revolutions from one place to another.

Opposition figures in Belarus, a country where elections are scheduled to take place soon, this week suggested that the success of "people power" in Yugoslavia had given them new confidence that they can achieve the same thing in their countries. Their confidence has been echoed by Western analysts who have noted that, with the departure of Milosevic, Alyaksandr Lukashenka is the last authoritarian ruler in Europe.

Meanwhile, opposition groups in other countries, some who hope to win elections in the near term such as Azerbaijan and others who face a longer term challenge like those in the Central Asian countries, also have stressed how encouraged they are by what happened in Belgrade and how much confidence they have that something similar can happen in their own countries.

But perhaps the most explicit comment so far came from exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Speaking in Budapest yesterday (Oct. 12), he said that the events in Belgrade had made it clear that "totalitarianism is not the future." And he expressed the hope that now more changes could take place in China as well, changes that might permit his country to gain "high-level autonomy" if not independence.

These predictions reflect in the first instance the world's experience with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe a decade ago. After all, that revolution which started in only a few Soviet satellites and republics soon spread to all of them, a development that suggests even now that a revolution once begun can easily jump borders.

At the same time, these predictions also reflect the power of three other things: The impact of media images on people's minds and expectations, the rapidly declining legitimacy of those whose rule is not rooted in popular elections, and the dangers that authoritarian rulers almost inevitably face once they do allow their own citizens to go to the ballot box and then are unwilling or unable to shore up their power by a show of force.

Obviously, the whole world was watching the people in the streets of Belgrade and listening to what they were saying. The pictures and the words were dramatic, and few could turn away from the sight of a people enraged at the efforts of a despot to deny the results of an election or ignore their demands for the triumph of democracy. In addition, the statements of most Western governments concerning Milosevic's efforts to deny the victory of his opponent certainly encouraged the Serbs to step up their demands that the election results be recognized. And these statements also sent a message to other governments and other opposition groups that at least some governments might take the same position in similar cases elsewhere. And the obviousness of Milosevic's miscalculation in calling this election when he did, a mistake of hubris that other dictators have made and which reinforces the old observation that the most dangerous time for a bad government is when it first begins to try to reform itself.

All three of these factors point to more efforts at revolutionary change, but unlike the events in Eastern Europe a decade ago, they do not by themselves guarantee it. When the revolution started in the Soviet bloc, it continued because Moscow refused to do anything to try to stop it until it was far too late.

Now, in a number of countries, there are authoritarian rulers who are trying to cut their populations off from the free flow of information that helps to produce change, and many of them are prepared to use force or at least the threat of force to keep themselves and their regimes in power.

Some of them may not succeed, but the near certainty that some are likely to try either through their control of the media or their control of the forces of coercion should serve as a cautionary note to those who are now convinced that the triumph of the Yugoslav people in Belgrade will be easily or inevitably replicated elsewhere.

But the events in Belgrade certainly will speed up the demand for change even if they do not guarantee everywhere its immediate success.

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