Most of the commentary surrounding the extraordinary “euromaidan” demonstrations and fall of Ukraine’s government has focused on Russia’s influence on Ukraine, and in particular, the question of Russian intervention to support the now-deposed Yanukovich government.
But we might find, in the final analysis, that Ukraine’s influence on Russia is far more profound.
In the spring of 2013, the French export credit insurer Coface produced an intriguing risk index of “people power” movements. Such uprisings have become an epidemic in recent years. The most recent round of uprisings arguably began with the 2003 “Rose Revolution” that deposed the government of post-Soviet Georgia, followed by Ukraine’s 2004 “Orange Revolution”, a series of attempted “green revolutions” in Iran, and then, perhaps most unexpectedly, the “Arab Spring” that toppled the governments of Egypt and Tunisia in 2011.
While very different in causes and results, these “people power” revolutions do have a few factors in common. Notably, they are the result of an increasingly educated middle-class taking to the streets, usually empowered by technology. The mobile phone (and particularly, the ability to broadcast text messages) played a large role in the Philippines, just as the photocopier had been crucial in Iran’s 1979 revolution and the fax machine played a role in the toppling of the USSR. In the Arab Spring, the Internet and even social media reportedly were crucial. These technologies, wielded by educated people, make it easier for popular movements to coordinate mass protest actions, and much harder for governments to control the flow of information (and the Blackberry-wielding London rioters are a further example).
One implication of this analysis is that “people power” uprisings tend to occur not where governments are most repressive, but where people are most powerful. The Arab Spring, perhaps counterintuitively, began in the most economically successful countries on the African continent (see chart below).
So, thought the analysts at Coface, why not make a risk index that measures people power? They gathered together a few factors that seem to inspire dissent (inflation, unemployment, corruption) and a few factors that seem to empower the people (higher levels of education, greater internet access, greater urbanization). The former they called “pressure” (for a change of government) and the latter they called “tools” (for the people to wield in rising up).
Of course, the pressure-vs.-tools risk index was developed in an after-the-fact attempt to explain the Arab Spring. Hence, like most such indices, it was over-tuned: the Coface analysts weighted a factor measuring the youth of the population highly, in an effort to make the Arab Spring countries top the charts (see graph below – the high-risk countries appear in the upper right-hand corner).
Despite this flaw, the index is very successful in identifying Turkey as being at risk of instability (demonstrations broke out in Turkey a few months later, somewhat to my surprise – and evidently also to the analysts at Coface, who did not remark on Turkey in the text). Venezuela, currently suffering unrest, also features prominently.
And you will notice one other country very near the danger zone: Russia. Indeed, had the Coface analysts not given such a high weight to the young-population factor, Russia would probably appear in the middle of that high-risk group. Russians are educated, tech savvy, and relatively urbanized, and the performance of the Russian government is very poor both in controlling corruption and (at present) in delivering economic growth.
Hence Russia is, in short, according to the Coface index, ripe for a “people power” movement (Ukraine is not rated). It may well be that the success of Ukraine’s demonstrators provides an impetus for change in Russia, just as the toppling of the government of Tunisia had ripple effects throughout the Middle East, reaching into Egypt, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond. When assessing the Putin regime’s response to Ukraine, this possibility should always be kept in mind. A success in Ukraine could inspire imitators in Russia.
Of course, the possible outbreak of “people power” in Russia can make one nervous as well as hopeful. Ukraine, as I argued recently, had a clear, “civilizational choice” to make: between a customs union with Russia or a trade agreement with the EU. For any would-be demonstrators in Russia, there is no such clear choice to back. It is very easy to imagine replacing Putin with someone worse.
Unless, of course, the EU were to offer the possibility of membership to Russia. It is a ridiculous fantasy I know. But think, Europe, of all those well-educated people, and all that cheap energy.