From Hong Kong to Moscow, Tbilisi to Belgrade, swelling crowds are protesting on the streets, often facing down twitchy, armed police with their tear gas and batons, returning week after week.
Some rallies have been the biggest since 1989, the great year of pro-democracy revolutions. But something fundamental has changed in the 30 years since. In 1989, in the “color” revolutions of the early 2000s, or in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s, people-powered demonstrations seemed part of what political scientists refer to as a wave of democratization—a larger narrative about inevitable progress toward ever-greater freedom. History had a right side, an arc, celebrating an idea of the free individual with the right to self-expression, freedom of movement, and free (often Western) culture.
Today’s protests, though, seem tactical and small, not part of a greater story. What happened? How did the universal idea of progress fall apart? Can anything new take its place?
“President Reagan said that the day of Soviet tyranny was passing, that freedom had a momentum that would not be halted,” President George W. Bush announced in 2003, before connecting the events of 1989 with his vision for the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation.” The invasion was an attempt at top-down imposition of democracy, but it dug deep into the language and iconography of 1989. When Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in Baghdad, in scenes reminiscent of the destruction of Lenin’s statues in Eastern Europe, the visual seemed to suggest a historical equivalence. Instead the invasion brought civil war and hundreds of thousands of deaths. Words and images that were imbued with powerful meaning in Eastern Europe in 1989 lost their significance in Baghdad.