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How Will Euromaidan End? For Clues, Look To Past Protests By Ukraine's Neighbors

  • Daisy Sindelar

A woman holds a sign saying "Ukranian ladies are waiting for you on Maidan" as she takes part in a pro-EU integration rally in Independence Square.

A woman holds a sign saying "Ukranian ladies are waiting for you on Maidan" as she takes part in a pro-EU integration rally in Independence Square.

Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters have pledged to stay the course until their political demands are met. So what are their chances? RFE/RL looks at the outcomes of two protests that achieved their aims in Georgia and Serbia -- and two, in Russia and Belarus, that didn't.

GEORGIA'S 2009 PROTESTS
A masked activist at an anti-Saakashvili rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi.

A masked activist at an anti-Saakashvili rally in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi.


When it comes to public protests, Georgia is best known for its 2003 Rose Revolution, which unseated President Eduard Shevardnadze and led to the election of Mikheil Saakashvili, a pro-democracy upstart.

But six years later, Georgia witnessed protests of a different kind. The euphoria of the Rose Revolution was over. Discontent with Saakashvili was rife.

Critics accused the president of concentrating power in the hands of his allies and dragging Georgia into the disastrous 2008 war with Russia, a five-day conflict that ended with Georgia losing nearly 20 percent of its territory as breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence.

They were also angered by what they saw as Saakashvili's growing autocratic tendencies -- in particular his use of tear gas and riot police to crush 2007 antigovernment protests.

On April 9, 2009, some 50,000 protesters gathered outside the Georgian parliament for what would prove to be a 107-day protest. The protesters vowed to remain on the streets until Saakashvili resigned and cleared the way for early presidential elections.

Dozens of opposition allies were participating in the demonstrations, including former Saakashvili allies like Nino Burjanadze and Irakli Alasania.

Speaking on the first day, Alasania, the former UN ambassador, said the country had suffered under Saakashvili's leadership. "Saakashvili promised to bring prosperity to this country. But what we see now is unemployment and a faulty economy. People can no longer live like this," Alasania said.

The protesters were largely peaceful, and Saakashvili was wary of resorting to the strong-arm tactics that had drawn massive criticism in 2007. Still, the demonstrations occasionally erupted into violence, with clashes between protesters and police armed with truncheons.

The number of protesters began to decline, and on July 24, the demonstration dwindled to a close without securing its main aim, Saakashvili's resignation. But the political atmosphere had changed for good; Saakashvili was no longer seen as invincible.

Three years later, in 2012, his domineering United National Movement lost in parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. A number of opposition leaders were catapulted to positions of power, including Alasania, who now serves as defense minister.

A year later, Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili swept the presidential election with more than 60 percent of the vote, capping off independent Georgia's first peaceful power transition since the Soviet collapse.

For many, the vote represented a short-term defeat for Saakashvili's political career -- but a long-term victory for his democratic legacy.

SERBIA'S 'BULLDOZER REVOLUTION'

The year 2000 is remembered as the year that the so-called "Butcher of the Balkans," Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted from power after 13 brutal years as an architect of the Balkan wars.

But the fight for his removal actually began in earnest two years earlier, with the student-led Otpor (Resistance) movement began devising a strategy for toppling the administration and introducing rule of law.

Otpor set its sights on the 2001 presidential election, hoping to legitimately topple the Serbian leader by building a credible opposition movement.

Milosevic, who would be ending his second term, unwittingly aided their plans by calling for early elections in September 2000.

Milosevic made the switch in hopes of taking advantage of a new law that would clear the way for him to serve a de facto third term and give the fractured opposition less time to mobilize.

But the strategy failed. Otpor, supported by the West, was able to unite 18 opposition parties and groups into a single coalition called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS). DOS then rallied around a little-known candidate, constitutional scholar Vojislav Kostunica.

Milosevic charged into the elections, confident of victory: "I am expecting this election will bring good to our country and our people. I'm expecting the political scene will be clarified. It will prepare the ground for long-term stability and even faster economic development,"

IN FOCUS: For Ukraine's Neighbors, Euromaidan Is A Revolution For All

But as the votes began to be counted, it became clear that Milosevic's victory was far from assured. To the contrary, it was Kostunica who looked set to win a first-round victory with just over 50 percent of the vote.

Milosevic played for time, disputing the results before finally insisting, nearly two weeks later, that the vote should go to a second round.

The announcement sparked a riot. On October 5, just three days before the runoff, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators -- including a man driving a wheel loader, not the bulldozer that gave the riots their English name -- gathered on the streets of Belgrade. Many had traveled from cities and towns outside the capital.

Demonstrators occupied the federal parliament building and the offices of Serbian state television. Others taunted the largely passive police, accusing them of aiding Milosevic:. "You are protecting [Milosevic]! Shame on you! Let's go, brothers -- come here, come [police] commander, come commander! Nobody will hurt you," the protesters shouted.

Two days later, Milosevic relented, stepping down from the post. He was arrested six months later and transferred to The Hague to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the UN war crimes tribunal. He died of a heart attack in March 2006, just months before his trial was set to end.

Kostunica served eight years as first the president and then prime minister of the renamed Serbia and Montenegro. But the country stalled under his increasingly nationalistic leadership; corruption and unemployment remain rife in current-day Serbia.

In an interesting historical note, the candidate who placed third in that historic 2000 contest is nationalist Tomislav Nikolic -- Serbia's current president and the man who managed to finally open accession talks with the European Union.

BELARUS'S BRUTAL 2010-11 CRACKDOWN

On the night of December 19, 2010, temperatures in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, dropped to a chilling minus-15 degrees Celsius. But that didn't prevent thousands of Belarusians from gathering on the city's Independence Square to protest the reelection of autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Lukashenka, who had just claimed an unprecedented fourth term in early elections, had warned that he would tolerate no public demonstrations. And he was good to his word.

Police and unidentified security forces swarmed onto the square, brutally beating and arresting hundreds of protesters, journalists, and even opposition presidential candidates themselves.

The next day, Lukashenka said more than 600 people had been arrested. The public protests, he said, were over. "I state here authoritatively: The wars in our country ended yesterday. There will not be any more tolerance of attempts to destabilize the situation in the country," Lukashenka said.

In the months that followed, courts handed down lengthy jail terms to a number of protest organizers, including Ales Byalyatski, the head of the Vyasna human right center; Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of the Young Front opposition movement; and former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich.

Hundreds of citizens and lesser-known activists languished for months in detention, as police continued to stage numerous raids at the homes of journalists and protest organizers.

At the same time, Lukashenka used the election-night unrest as a pretext to roll out harsh new restrictions on traditional media, public gatherings, and social communication tools like Facebook and Twitter.

In the spring of 2011, he ratcheted up the rhetoric after a massive subway bombing in the Minsk subway that killed 12 people. Lukashenka labeled the bombing a terrorist attack; two Belarusian suspects were quickly identified, tried, and executed. But many activists said the incident would be used to further crack down on the opposition.

Protesters have continued to pursue new and ingenious ways of calling for Lukashenka's ouster -- staging clapping protests, coordinating cellphone rings for mass "wake-up" calls, posting pictures of teddy bears on the Internet, and even wearing T-shirts with handmade slogans. But even such "novelty" protests have met with immediate crackdowns and arrests.

Dashkevich was released this fall, Byalyatski, Statkevich, and other political prisoners remain in jail. Western measures, such as EU travel bans and near-unanimous accusation of voter fraud in the 2010 elections, have done little to humble Lukashenka. Despite occasional squabbles, Russia continues to provide Minsk with fundamental support.

The struggling Belarusian economy -- still hovering uneasily between its subsidized past and a free-market future -- may ultimately prove to be Lukashenka's undoing, particularly as Russia's own finances take a turn for the worse.

For now, the "last dictator in Europe" continues to rule his country with an iron fist and an eye on reelection in 2015.

RUSSIA'S BOLOTNAYA PROTESTS

After the economic chaos of the 1990s, many Russians were seen as content to lay their political emotions aside in exchange for a sense of security.

That lull ended in December 2011, when mounting exasperation with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin drove angry voters onto the streets claiming parliamentary elections had been massively rigged to allow his United Russia party to salvage their dwindling majority.

Putin had already announced his intention to return to another 12 years as president in elections the following year. What followed was a cold-weather season of the largest public protests Russia had seen since the Soviet collapse, and the greatest blow to Putin's aura of invincibility.

Adopting white as their signature color, participants in the "For Fair Elections" movement carried balloons, wore ribbons, and turned out in the tens of thousands for a series of major rallies calling on authorities to hold fresh parliamentary elections -- and on the public to vote against Putin. Many of the Moscow rallies ended on the city's Bolotnaya Square, giving the protests their name.

The protests spread to other parts of Russia, and took on creative forms as well. In February, the female punk group Pussy Riot staged its now-notorious anti-Putin protest at Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral, an act that led to two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, being jailed for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."

None of it was enough to prevent Putin from claiming victory in the March vote with more than 60 percent of the vote. The election sparked a fresh round of protests, including a massive Bolotnaya rally on the eve of Putin's inauguration.

But if Putin had allowed protesters a public voice in the run-up to the election, his return to the presidential post left him in a merciless mood. Hundreds of protesters were detained at the inauguration protests after clashes broke out between demonstrators and police.

A year later, more than a dozen Bolotnaya activists are still facing judicial procedures and other forms of pressure, including prominent organizers like anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny and Ilya Yashin, an activist from the Solidarity movement.

Putin, meanwhile, has only grown more resolute in his determination to silence opposition voices. Since his reelection, he has passed a raft of legislation imposing harsh fines on protesters, forced NGOs to register as "foreign entities," and criminalized virtually all public discussion of homosexuality -- all while declaring his appreciation for open dialogue:

"There are many points of view now about Russia's present and future. Such heated debates are normal for a free and democratic country, and this is the course our people have chosen. And so it is important to hear and respect each other, seek mutual understanding, and achieve compromises," Putin said.

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