Listening to the Music of the Revolution?
No. 4 2014 October/December
Alexander Aksenyonok

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Vice President of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Irina Zvyagelskaya

Irina Zvyagelskaya is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. She has a Doctorate in History.

How 21st Century Social and Political Cataclysms Can Pay Off

The late 1990s and the early 2000s were marked by profound changes in geopolitics, world economy and finance. The Cold War paradigm of international relations seemed to have gone for good. At the same time no new rules of states’ behavior have emerged that would consort with the new world order.

The Cold War years showed that, for all the ideological, military and political costs, the bipolar system was relatively stable. It helped to maintain the balance as it imposed quite rigid restrictions on weaker countries in regions (allies or partners of great powers). There was a red line, recognized by all, which could not be crossed, that is, provoking of a global clash. Regional forces sought to gain the support of their patron, sometimes not paying due attention to its own concerns, but ultimately the fear of unacceptable risks caused great powers to act together, putting pressure on regional allies and enforcing restraint in international relations.

The collapse of the bipolar system and the impossibility to comply with the prior rules of the game in a polycentric world made international relations more chaotic. Regional state and non-state actors began to behave more actively, often guided by the behavior of the United States which was no longer restrained by the other center of power. Washington often demonstrated irresponsible policies, not even trying to assess possible consequences of its actions. It seemed there had come a period of international autism when global players, lost in their own worlds and ignoring the interests of others, started reshaping the Yalta system.

Such notions as sovereignty and territorial integrity, on the one hand, and national self-determination, on the other, which have long been conflicting with each other, are being eroded de facto and turning into legal fictions. But these notions should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, either. The right to self-determination can be realized in various forms, for example within a federal state or as autonomy granted to an ethnic group, which does not violate the territorial integrity of a given state. In practice, however, the growth of ethnic nationalism and the activity of new elites seeking access to power and property have equated the concept of self-determination to secession.

Under the new circumstances, powerful states increasingly often resort to the principles of territorial integrity and national self-determination to justify their “sovereign” decisions, proceeding from considerations of political expediency, the way they see it. In other words, they act depending on a specific situation or impulsively react to what they see as unlawful actions of another actor.

The world is witnessing a clash of two different tendencies: the chaotization of world politics, with selective use of military force, and the objective need for humankind to preserve the hard-built integration ties which suggest a certain degree of financial, economic and, in some matters, political interdependence.


The crisis over Ukraine has become the most dangerous episode in a series of conflicts that have taken place in the world over the last quarter century, although the Arab Spring has already sent enough signals to major actors to shun ideology in reevaluating objective trends and analyze their miscalculations and mistakes. Whereas no one took local conflicts of the recent decades in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and even Syria as serious threats to international security (the United States’ bellicose rhetoric in the UN Security Council in response to Russian vetoes was aimed at enhancing Washington’s image at home and abroad), the confrontation on Ukrainian soil has prompted the question of whether the world is sliding into the abyss of a Cold War again. This time it is a worst-case-scenario Cold War when the conflicting parties are losing the degree of mutual trust and ability to heed each other, which in the years of systemic confrontation allowed U.S. and Soviet leaders to undo the most intricate knots of tension.

Why have tensions in Russia-West relations come to a head? The sliding from “strategic partnership” to a new round of confrontation led to the accumulation of the explosive mass of irritating factors as well as mutual misunderstanding and misinterpretation of each other’s motives. The events that led to the conflict over Ukraine had been developing slowly but consistently and spilling over more and more eastward towards Russia’s border and its centuries-old cultural and national habitat.

Whereas tensions over NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe in the late 1990s, which caused a strong reaction from Russia, subsided over time, the situation began to change rapidly as Western ambitions went as far as the borders of the former Soviet Union. While Russia’s ties with Central and Eastern European countries in the last decade were marked by positive dynamics, the European Union tried hard to draw former Soviet republics into its orbit under the political cover of the so-called Eastern Partnership. Considering the experience of the three previous waves of enlargement, Russia could not consider these developments other than preparations for a subsequent admission of these countries to the Euro-Atlantic alliance (there is an unwritten rule that NATO membership cannot be given to a country that has not gone through the difficult procedure of entry into the European Union).

Ukraine was placed on this waiting list, just like Georgia and Moldova before. The West resumed its policy of containing Russia long before the current Ukrainian crisis, disguising it with talk of partnership and inadmissibility of returning to the struggle for spheres of influence. Among its instruments, it used the strategy of regime change, earlier tested in the Balkans, Georgia and some other transition countries. In Ukraine, however, the West failed to observe democratic decencies. When the regime in Ukraine was replaced by force, with blatant interference of the West, Russia, which until then had held defensive positions, decided it could no longer leave this challenge unanswered. In Russia’s public opinion and official strategy, Ukraine means not only national security and cooperative ties, vital to the economies of both countries, but also centuries of spiritual kinship, and cultural and language commonality.

Considerations of defense played an important role in the Russian reaction. Recent years were marked by a large-scale anti-Russian campaign in the West under various pretenses. The West toughened its criticism of the social and political systems in Russia, which in turn increased conservative sentiment in Russia as a reaction to abortive rapprochement with the West.

There must be some key link in the entire causal chain of actions and counter-actions between Russia and the West. One of these links is the fundamental differences in their perception of modern revolutions and new local or regional threats caused by them.

After the end of the era of bipolar confrontation, Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East were swept over by three waves of revolutions, with different balances of pros and cons, and gains and losses. At the turn of the 1980s-1990s, Russia was also involved in the renewal process, full of internal contradictions, achievements and setbacks. The new challenges, such as international terrorism, upsurges of ethnic nationalism, drug trafficking, cross-border crime and immigration activity, coupled with the global financial crisis, revealed vulnerabilities in the functioning of political systems and market economy mechanisms even in developed countries.

While the communist ideology has failed around the world and the evolutionary model of post-Soviet Russia has not yet produced an attractive alternative, serious defects and dysfunctions have been revealed in liberal democracies, as well. Many Western experts point to a decline in the quality of democracy in the United States and Great Britain, to increasing institutional failures, and the growing number of “defective democracies.” The institution of elections, the main element of democratic government, is losing its former value in the eyes of voters, especially young people (only two out of five Britons aged under 30 voted in the 2010 parliamentary elections in the UK).

It took a quarter of a century to see that “the end of history” predicted by Francis Fukuyama was not going to happen. Later, analyzing “dramatic changes” in the post-industrial era in his book The Great Disruption, he showed convincingly that “history,” meaning the victory of liberalism as a perfect model of state system, is far from over. The period since the end of the 20th century has been marked by a craving for freedom of choice in everything and decreasing trust in social/political institutions. The democracy established in the West has revealed its internal contradictions, making the messianic ambitions of the larger part of the American establishment a naive exaggeration, to say the least.

The United States, whose foreign policy is constrained by ideological clichés, has more than once had to pay for its “interventionism” or idealization of revolutionary change of political regimes with chaotic moves in the Middle East. Washington made obvious blunders in assessing such a social/political phenomenon as the Arab Spring. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were automatically taken as a universal phenomenon in the victorious march of democracy. They were even compared to the “velvet revolutions” in Eastern and Central European countries. However, soon it became clear to everyone that Arab revolutions cannot be “velvet.”

Whereas European countries had the experience of bourgeois/democratic development and built their identities on the rejection of communism and viewing the European Union as the center of attraction, there were no such reference points in the Middle East – or for that matter, in the majority of post-Soviet states, and Ukraine is no exception.

The national development of the territories where the present Ukrainian state was established by a historical confluence of circumstances has always been influenced by two tendencies – search for independence and desire for political and cultural community with Russia, with the latter trend obviously prevailing. Ukraine, which was artificially cobbled together from two different parts after the Soviet Union’s military advance in the West in the late 1930s, has remained culturally and politically fragmented to this day. Different historical narratives and national heroes, different mentality, different patterns of employment, and alienation from Russia characteristic of people in Western Ukraine – all these factors surfaced after Ukraine became independent. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian political elite has proven unable to achieve national unity: it has exploited the Ukrainian division and traded service to the nation for money and self-interest. The European Union’s self-confident policy of pressure had forced Ukraine into a dilemma, which it was unable to resolve by definition.


Speaking of nation-building, which has much in common in all countries regardless of regional specificities, one should mention the disastrous experience of the first attempts of bourgeois reforms in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The political systems of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, patterned after the Western model, failed to take root on Arab-Muslim soil and were swept away in the military coups of the 1950s-60s. The dramatic changes of the 21st century have also destroyed the myth that the world is developing along the main track from “authoritarianism” to “democracy,” which the majority of the U.S. political elite views as a purely American product, a kind of “Protestant fundamentalism.”

Young people in Arab countries, like the Ukrainian youth, shocked the world with mass calls for a renovation of social foundations, for respect for human dignity and civil liberties, and for social justice. Soon, however, the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East ceased to fit into the democratic context. As the developments went more and more out of control, the Middle East policies of the United States and the European Union were increasingly often faced with serious difficulties, in many cases becoming hostage to traditional thinking.

The powerful popular unrest in Arab countries was caused by a mix of social and economic reasons. External factors did play a role, but initially an indirect one. At the same time, as the domino effect spread, the West a priori supported opposition forces, the way it used to do in other regional conflicts, ignoring their diversity and contradictions in their political attitudes. Since then, external interference in favor of one of the conflicting parties only increased, while the hope to gain political capital by showing solidarity with the Arab “democratic revolutions” was more and more at odds with the real transformation processes in the region.

The fate of Iraq, which has found itself on the verge of losing its statehood and involved in a religious war, has now caused the West to rethink the harmful effects of the American invasion in 2003. As Richard Haass, a leading Middle East expert, wrote, the U.S. policy in Iraq “reinforced sectarian rather than national identities.” In the same way as the Suez Crisis of 1956 caused a surge of pan-Arab nationalism, the Western coalition’s war against a Muslim country triggered an unprecedented escalation of violence by radical Islamists and created fertile ground for the rise of al-Qaeda. The delicate balance between the ruling Sunni minority and the Shiite majority, maintained by Saddam Hussein’s iron hand, was upset in no time in favor of the Shiites. The attempt to impose Western-style parliamentarianism on Iraq resulted in the emergence of a Shiite regime. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conducted a narrow confessional policy which prevented inclusive participation of other religious and ethnic groups in the government. Kurds began to actively build their own autonomy, while Sunnis and Christians found themselves left without any political representation. The dissolution of the army and the Ba’ath Party, which had been the core of Iraq’s political system, gave rise to a powerful internal protest.

Just as much harm was done by the United States’ active but erratic participation in the complicated transitional processes in Egypt. After a momentary hesitation Washington used all its political and information resources to support the Egyptian revolution, forcing Hosni Mubarak to resign. Later, when Islamists had succeeded in riding on the revolutionary wave, the U.S. assigned the key role to the moderate wing of the Muslim Brotherhood which used the new situation to quickly become an influential political party and win parliamentary and presidential elections. Just like during the rise of Islamism in Algeria in the 1990s that evolved into a decade-long civil war, the Americans exerted constant pressure on the Egyptian army, which led the transition process, forcing it to hand over power to a civilian government, essentially to Islamists. Therefore, the “second coming” of the army to power in July 2013 and the removal of democratically elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in what cannot be described other than a military coup put the White House in a difficult situation again.

The army’s actions, even if they were a response to the demands of millions of people who took to the streets again, did not fit into the antithesis of coup vs democracy; nor did they look like a movement to defend democracy against “Islamic dictatorship” simply because democracy had never existed in Egypt.

In the Muslim world, which had divided over the attitude towards political Islam, the changes in the U.S. policy alienated both adherents of the new military regime and its opponents who supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

Washington also made mistakes in handling the Syrian conflict. Its unconditional support for the motley opposition movement in Syria, in which jihadi organizations linked to al-Qaeda were gaining strength, and the declaration of the Assad regime as a priori illegitimate made American diplomacy weaker rather than stronger and deprived it of the freedom of maneuver. This made Washington hostage to exorbitantly ambitious demands of Syrian émigré politicians and their regional sponsors, and complicated preparations for the Geneva Conference. Ultimately, the U.S. policy obviously began to play into the hands of terrorism, on which the United States had declared war. This became particularly manifest in the summer of 2014, when military successes achieved in Iraq by the terrorist organization Islamic State of Syria and the Levant put the Obama administration in a still more delicate situation.

In the short-term historical perspective, the balance of pros and cons in the regime change in the Middle East has not been in favor of revolutions. The main reason for the overthrow of governments was their inability to meet the basic social, economic and political needs of society and fulfill their promises, although the Arab region in the past decade was developing along the path of modernization and integration into the world economic system. Yet this evolution was much slower than the development of other regions, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America. Secondly, it failed to solve key growth problems. Economic reforms in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria created a middle class but did not narrow the chasm of wealth inequality. Only a small group of people close to power benefited from the results of the reforms. Representative political institutions underwent only token changes. The democratic facade hid authoritarian rule which grew increasingly nepotic. The laws of revolutionary chaos came into play when the authorities proved to be totally unable to regenerate the political system to broaden citizens’ participation in decision-making that affects their vital interests.


The transformation of the Arab Orient is proceeding unevenly, with ups and downs, and with progress and regression. Nevertheless, we can try to summarize some of the lessons learned from these developments, and draw some parallels with crises in other regions.

Revolutions come not only when outdated forms of state and political system have to be removed. Whereas in Syria, for example, the Ba’ath party’s monopoly on power has long become an anachronism and its slogan “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” has lost its former appeal, the ten-year civil war in Algeria was largely the result of ill-prepared reforms and hasty democratization launched in the late 1980s through the early 1990s under the influence of changes in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.

The crisis of the unitary state model in Ukraine, coupled with corruption and moral decay among the elites, is another evidence of the need for timely reform. Instead of reform there followed the revolutionary chaos, the armed conflict in southeast Ukraine and the humanitarian crisis.

What the West took for democracy in the Arab-Muslim countries was purely formal features, such as the electoral process. At the same time, equally or even more important issues were not given due consideration: Can the political force that has won national elections build a society that will meet the hopes of the revolutionary masses? And can democracy be promoted using non-democratic means? Of course, elections are an important tool of democracy, but in the absence of developed institutions they cannot guarantee a transition to democratic rule. In societies that do not share common democratic values, those forces win which can offer the simplest recipes for the nation’s transformation that would be understandable and acceptable to the most conservative and larger part of the electorate. In Palestine, believed to be the most secular Arab society, the 2005 elections were won by the Islamic Hamas movement; and in Egypt, a leading Arab country with a “hybrid regime,” power went to the Muslim Brotherhood. The first thing they did was to amend the Constitution in order to stay in power indefinitely.

Does this experience mean that elections are useless in politically immature societies where the majority of people do not realize their own social interest? Obviously, the question should be put differently. Not just elections but a guaranteed handover of power (as a result of elections) can gradually make the authorities more responsible and nationally oriented.

The developments in Egypt, where two “revolutions” took place over three years, make one think of whether a military coup can be a catalyst for a return to stable evolutionary development. Both Islamists who resort to terror to restore “constitutional law” and secularists who invited the military to power are grossly mistaken in hoping to build a new Egypt without achieving a national consensus.

Not all winds of change can be explained by foreign interference, yet the way internal conflicts are settled – by force or through a peaceful division of power – plays an important role as it predetermines whether the transitional post-revolutionary period is smooth or not. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya have shown that violence and civil wars, especially if they are supported from abroad or if there is foreign intervention, cause enormous damage to creative efforts.

The experience of the majority of revolutions in the world shows that power is taken not by the forces that stage them but by those who “have caught the wave” with foreign support or by chance. The regime change in the Arab World, which took place under democratic slogans, once again confirmed the relevance of this historical trend. When mass protests began in Arab countries, there were no Islamic slogans in the streets, but eventually Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists came to lead these revolutionary-democratic protests, using their experience of organizational work among the masses, sermons in mosques, and disunity in the secular opposition. In fact, the Egyptian revolution went through two “Tahrirs,” just as the revolution in Ukraine did with two “Maidans.” One Maidan was moderate, pro-European and directed against the corrupt regime; the other one, radical and nationalistic, transformed the change of power into an armed mutiny, with a hostile attitude to Russia and the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine.

As the transition period has slowed down in Arab countries shaken by revolutions, actually in all of them democratic illusions are giving way to the local, including Islamic, reality. Many Arab political analysts wonder whether their countries are ready for democracy and what development model will take root in the Middle East where the foundations of the social contract between the state and society have been undermined. All known variants – Egyptian, Turkish, Saudi and Iranian – have been discredited or are losing their attractiveness. “Political Islam” at the present stage has failed. Further progress towards a Western-type parliamentary system is unlikely.

In contrast to the Western political process which developed in societies with a structuring nature of private ownership relations, the domination of commodity production, and the absence of a centralized government, in Eastern societies the political process always was the result of domination of state and communal ownership. In these countries power was the equivalent of ownership, and society occupied a subordinate position towards the state. Absolutization of the state meant, in particular, that its power did not transform into the welfare of citizens, who remained subjects subordinate to the communal interest merged with the state interest.

Disappointed hopes for a fast improvement of life after the overthrow of old regimes transform into a desire for a strong hand and order. This phenomenon can be seen in Egypt where Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who won the latest presidential election, is viewed by most Egyptians as “the savior of the nation.” A strong personality has emerged also in Libya. General Khalifa Haftar, who returned to his country from exile after the revolution began, united part of the army, tribes and local militias to challenge the transitional government under the banner of fighting Islamists.

The formation of new governments may take long efforts to achieve national consensus under the aegis of a personified political force that has taken the upper hand in political in-fighting, which means preservation of authoritarianism, and not necessarily in an enlightened form.

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Today revolutions have become major factors influencing the system of international relations. Obviously, leading world powers may have different attitudes to them, yet they should be balanced and responsible. Russia and the West can and should avoid a recurrence of crisis situations in their mutual relations. This, in fact, is their historical responsibility. If they agree on common principles to settle intrastate conflicts that give rise to ethnic, religious or purely political extremism, this would play a positive role.

The nature of modern revolutions has long been a subject of heated discussions. When do internal affairs cease to be internal? Does this happen when there is suppression of civil liberties, a disproportionate use of force against mass opposition protests, acts of violence or other violations of human rights and international humanitarian law? Without questioning the basic principle of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs, one should admit that many of these issues have already acquired global dimension.

If the international community fails to establish acceptable and understandable rules of international behavior in the context of “revolutionary challenges,” the world may slip into a new round of global confrontation, which will be caused not by systemic contradictions of the Cold War times but by vain disregard for real common threats.