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  • Introduction:Mass Mobilization in Comparative Perspective
  • Valerie J. Bunce (bio) and Sharon L. Wolchik (bio)

The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa that are commonly referred to as the Arab Spring once again highlighted an important set of questions that lie at the intersection between democratic and authoritarian and domestic and international politics. What factors lead citizens to join together in large numbers and to take the risk of mounting large-scale protests against authoritarian rulers? Why and how do these mobilizations spread to some, but not all, neighboring countries? How can we account for the variation in regime responses to these challenges and whether authoritarian leaders survive or lose power? Why do protests sometimes lead to democratic transition, other times to a new dictatorship, and in still other cases to a regime that straddles these political extremes? There are sharp disagreements on these questions. This is because there is little consensus as to what constitutes the essential building blocks of democratic change; what drives political protest and its diffusion; and what role international actors can and should play in the institution and spread of democracy.

This issue focuses on two of the three largest waves of mass mobilization and protest that have challenged authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the events that led to the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the so-called "color revolutions" in post-communist Europe and Eurasia that originated in Slovakia in 1998 and spread to Croatia and Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine [End Page 111] in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Two of the contributions to this issue compare developments in 1989 and in the post-communist space with the events of the Arab Spring. The articles in this issue were also informed by the contributions of scholars who focus on the efforts to oust dictators in the Middle East and North Africa that began in Tunisia and Egypt and spread to a number of other countries in the region in 2010 and 2011. They further benefitted from discussion of the protests that occurred in Russia in 2011 and 2012. The optimism, not to say euphoria, that some of the events in each of these waves—particularly in those cases where mass mobilization led to regime change and, in some cases, created democratic openings—has long since been replaced by the more sober realization that the end of an autocratic government does not automatically, quickly, or easily lead to a transition to a functioning democratic polity. Continued problems with democratic development in many Central and Eastern European countries more than 25 years after the end of communism, the backsliding seen among some (though not all) of the countries affected by color revolutions, and the disappointing results of the Arab Spring—including not just failures to remove autocrats early on, but also civil wars in Libya and Syria, and the renewal of military rule in Egypt—have all tempered the expectations these events raised. The crackdown on dissent and increase in repression evident in Putin's Russia after the protests has also dashed hopes that the renewed willingness of Russian citizens to protest would lead to change in the country. The mobilizations themselves, however, continue to be of interest not only to scholars but also to policymakers thanks to what they tell us about the role of activists, ordinary citizens, and leaders in processes of political change in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes.

The three waves of mass mobilization and protest that are the main focus of this issue have received considerable attention. The literature on each of these is too extensive to cite exhaustively here. We therefore cite only illustrative works from the substantial body of research on popular mobilization and protest in individual countries in the waves that we are comparing, as well as a growing body of research on protest in Russia. Analysts have investigated the impact of domestic and international factors on the fall of communism in individual countries in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union (see Ost, 1990; Tismaneanu...


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pp. 111-147
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