When the peo­ple’s power isn’t enough

The Washington Post - - FRIDAY OPINION - ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

“When I saw the masses of East Ger­man cit­i­zens there, I knew they were in the right.” A quar­ter-cen­tury later, that was how Lt. Col. Har­ald Jäger ex­plained his de­ci­sion to open the gates and let his fel­low cit­i­zens through the Ber­lin Wall. Jäger was guard­ing a bor­der check­point on Nov. 9, 1989, in the hours af­ter East Ger­man lead­ers had an­nounced that the travel rules were chang­ing. As Berlin­ers flocked to the wall, de­mand­ing to cross into the West, he asked re­peat­edly for clar­i­fi­ca­tion from his su­pe­ri­ors, but noth­ing was forth­com­ing.

In the end, the crowds per­suaded him to act: “At the mo­ment it be­came so clear to me . . . the stu­pid­ity, the lack of hu­man­ity. I fi­nally said to my­self: ‘ Kiss my arse. Now I will do what I think is right.’ ” That mo­ment is one of the clear­est il­lus­tra­tions of how and why street demon­stra­tions can some­times cre­ate po­lit­i­cal change. They can ap­peal to a deeper moral­ity and thus per­suade peo­ple in power to change course, to aban­don a re­pres­sive regime, to stop us­ing force.

I thought of Jäger this week when the prime min­is­ter of Ar­me­nia sur­prised his coun­try and re­signed. Serzh Sargsyan was pres­i­dent of Ar­me­nia for a decade, from 2008 to 2018, in that time build­ing up a web of busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal con­tacts de­signed to keep him in power. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of leav­ing of­fice, he changed some of the rules, en­hanced the power of the prime min­is­ter — and ar­ranged for the par­lia­ment to elect him to that job. This is a fa­mil­iar trick: Both Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Recep Tayyip Er­do­gan have played sim­i­lar games, shift­ing be­tween the pres­i­dency and the prime min­is­ter­ship to flout their con­sti­tu­tions and stay in charge.

Ar­me­ni­ans saw through it. For 11 days, large crowds of them protested this du­plic­i­tous power grab, in the cap­i­tal and elsewhere. Then, un­ex­pect­edly, Sargsyan re­signed. “I was wrong,” he de­clared. “The street move­ment is against my ten­ure. I am ful­fill­ing your de­mand.”

Sur­prised Ar­me­ni­ans flooded the streets again to cel­e­brate. Thomas de Waal, the author of sev­eral books on Ar­me­nia, told me he reck­oned Sargsyan was swayed by the fact that Ar­me­nia is a “small coun­try with a high feel­ing of na­tional sol­i­dar­ity.” An­other pos­si­ble fac­tor: The last time Ar­me­ni­ans or­ga­nized mass protests, in March 2008, a po­lice crack­down left 10 peo­ple dead. Per­haps Sargsyan “didn’t want to re­peat that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

What­ever the true rea­son, po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions worked in Ar­me­nia for the same rea­son they worked in Ber­lin in 1989, and in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2014: be­cause they moved a key per­son to ques­tion the le­git­i­macy of the regime, even his own regime. And this, un­for­tu­nately, is un­usual.

For ev­ery suc­cess­ful prodemoc­racy street demon­stra­tion, I can list just as many that have failed. Moscow in 2012. Hong Kong in 2014. War­saw in 2015. Venezuela in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. Some­times these demon­stra­tions fail be­cause their de­mands are too broad and they don’t catch on. Some­times they fail be­cause the regime uses vi­o­lence to stop them and peo­ple get scared. Some­times they fail be­cause it isn’t enough to oc­cupy public space: Af­ter a while peo­ple get tired, fel­low cit­i­zens want the streets cleared, every­one has to go back to work.

But most of­ten they fail be­cause there is no Jäger, there is no Sargsyan, and the regime re­fuses to lis­ten. The ruler suc­cess­fully smears the pro­test­ers as un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive, un­pa­tri­otic — or in the pay of for­eign­ers. In­stead of be­ing moved by their sin­cer­ity and their num­bers, Putin de­scribed pro­test­ers in 2012 as ev­i­dence of an Amer­i­can plot — which is ex­actly what the Chi­nese claimed about the Hong Kong pro­test­ers in 2014. Nor is this just a tac­tic used by au­thor­i­tar­i­ans: Amer­i­can “con­ser­va­tives” also claimed that stu­dents protest­ing gun laws last month were be­ing paid to do so.

When they don’t or can’t move peo­ple, demon­stra­tions, marches and “oc­cupy” move­ments are in­suf­fi­cient. It’s not enough just to be there: The move­ment has to join or be­come a po­lit­i­cal party, the street lead­ers have to be­come politi­cians. In democracies, they need to win elec­tions. In dic­ta­tor­ships, they need other means to peel away sup­port for the rul­ing party. In po­lit­i­cal vac­u­ums, such as the one right now in Ar­me­nia, they need a strat­egy. To convert the de­sire for change into a more just so­ci­ety is a long project, one which re­quires peo­ple to work for many years, not just to show up for a few hours.

Demon­stra­tions mat­ter even when they don’t suc­ceed: They cheer peo­ple up, spread sol­i­dar­ity, keep peo­ple in­spired. Ev­ery once in a while, they achieve some­thing dra­matic. But most of the time, by them­selves, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that un­less they can in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize the de­mands of the crowd — find ways to make them per­ma­nent — they aren’t enough.


A man waves an Ar­me­nian na­tional flag cel­e­brat­ing Serzh Sargsyan’s res­ig­na­tion as prime min­is­ter on Mon­day.

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