Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Kiev on Sunday in what appeared to be a rebirth of the Orange Revolution, which brought regime change to Ukraine nearly a decade ago. But by Monday the demonstrations shrank to less than 10,000 people. The protests continue to apply pressure on the Ukrainian government, and though they could escalate or compel Kiev to offer some political concessions, an all-out revolution does not appear to be in the offing.
That is not to question the dedication of those protesting in the cold Ukrainian winter. Rather, it is a testament to the fact that true revolutions — overturning the existing political order and the lasting policy changes that follow — are extremely difficult to carry out.
The revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 serve as a benchmark of contemporary revolution. These revolutions overturned the communist governments from East Germany to Poland to Bulgaria in a span of six months. But they were a product of pent-up political repression that had been building for decades. When the moment finally came, the revolutions were supported by the majority of the population of each state and brought out nearly all segments of society onto the streets. And except in Romania, the people's desire to overturn the system was met without resistance or violence — an admission by each regime of the system's fundamental obsolescence.
These were revolutions in their purest sense. Societies rejected rigid political systems imposed on them by an illegitimate, external power. It is not often that the global system undergoes such a dramatic change. When it does, the effects are profound. 1989, for example, marked a historic turning point: the beginning of the end of the Cold War era.
But since then, the term "revolution" has been applied liberally in describing large demonstrations of general discontent. Certainly, many citizens have tried to revolt against their rulers, but successful revolutions were few and far between, even when proponents and the media have labeled them as such.
Iran's Green Revolution in 2009 exemplifies the "revolution" misnomer. More than 100,000 people flooded the streets of Tehran to dispute the re-election victory of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But these protests were dominated by younger, urban and generally more affluent citizens; they did not really appeal to the broader segments of Iranian society. They lasted for a few months and elicited public outcry when security forces dealt harshly with the demonstrators, but eventually they tapered off, having never fundamentally threatened the existence of the Iranian political system. This was no 1989 revolution, nor was it the 1979 Iranian revolution against the Shah that united and galvanized the overwhelming majority of Iranian citizens.
There are several other instances in which demonstrations did not foment a revolution. During the so-called Arab Spring, tens to hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in several countries, but few of them led to actual regime change. With the exception of Libya and to a lesser extent Syria, the broader structure of the regimes that ruled the Arab world remain in place — only certain leaders and personalities have been replaced. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but Egypt continues to be ruled by the military. Syria is in the throes of a civil war, but Syrian President Bashar al Assad is still the strongest of many warlords in what is an extreme imbalance of the existing political order.
Other countries such as Thailand are currently seeing large protests that show no signs of abating and occasionally lead to disruptive violence. But in Thailand, protest culture, constitutional changes and military coups are particularly tumultuous manifestations of partisan politics. The society is mostly stable. The combination of regional, socio-economic and ideological divisions could lead to revolution eventually, but that is by no means a foregone conclusion, given the flexibility of the existing constitutional monarchy.
And even those countries that have had "successful" revolutions, such Ukraine in 2004, have shown that the new regimes may be short lived. Five years after Yanukovich was ousted in the Orange Revolution, he was democratically elected into power in a rejection of the policies pursued by the previous government. Unlike the definitive shift away from the Soviet Union and communism of Central European countries in 1989, Ukraine has instead vacillated uncomfortably between the West and Russia, a strategic but vulnerable position that is extremely difficult to overcome through demonstrations by a polarized society.
As Ukraine and Thailand have shown, democracies are inherently unstable, presenting major opportunities for social unrest that on the surface looks chaotic. In reality, they are either tightly controlled within existing political factions or are absorbed by them. Revolutions are successful when fundamental shifts to the underlying political structure are already in place. In 1989, the Soviet Union stopped being able to control and support its peripheral states. It is in those circumstances that social movements are able to topple already wobbly governments.
Revolutions are not things of the past, and they will occur in the future. Countless demonstrations will be held around the world with varying levels of conviction, but revolutions are rare geopolitical phenomena.