Angela Merkel and other European leaders are preparing on Monday to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the start of the fall of Soviet Communism. Three decades on from initial protests on the Hungarian-Austrian border, which became the first chink in the Iron Curtain, questions are being raised about the significance of current unrest from Moscow to Hong Kong.
Take the example of Hong Kong where protesters have just had the 11th straight weekend of demonstrations. This represents the worst political unrest in the Chinese territory for decades which started in criticism of a proposed law allowing for extradition of people to the mainland.
Meanwhile, Moscow is also witnessing some of the biggest protests in years with tens of thousands hitting the streets triggered by exclusion of opposition and independent candidates from the city’s council ballot. So far at least, the crackdown by Russian authorities has been stronger than China, with mass arrests by police in Moscow.
These protests come not just on the 30th anniversary of the beginnings of the fall of European Communism, but also the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that same year. And the moment broadly coincides too with the 10th anniversary of the immediate aftermath of the international financial crisis.
Forging a new sense of patriotism
Of course, the world of today is significantly different in several respects from even 2009, let alone 20 years earlier. It is the rise of China, which has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms, which is perhaps the biggest global gamechanger, certainly since 1989. And this helps explain part of the reason why there is so much global attention on the outcome of Hong Kong’s political unrest.
And the protests in Russia could also be hugely consequential for international relations too. When Vladimir Putin was re-elected last year, it was widely assumed that he would remain president until at least 2024.
To be sure, Putin has proved highly skilled in tapping into the post-Cold War national mood by forging a new sense of patriotism. Yet, while his hold on power appears to remain quite strong, it remains possible his political luck could continue going south.
And in this context a key question already being asked by some is whether the current protests across the world may make 2019 into a key moment in world history like a 1989, or even a 1968, 1914, or 1848. Whatever the validity of these historical analogies might prove to be, the context for interpreting the unrest in Moscow and Hong Kong is not just the domestic politics of each geography, but also the broader period of heightened political volatility around the globe in recent years.
What has captured most headlines — in recent years — is the rise of anti-establishment populists riding the anti-globalisation mood across much of the world. This may have reached its climax in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump as US president, and the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU.
However, the impact has been much wider, in both the developed world and emerging markets. For instance, millions have taken to the streets and administrations in more than half of the 27 EU states fell or were voted out of office from Spring 2010 to 2012 alone.
In emerging markets, the ‘Arab Spring’ began in Tunisia in 2010 and subsequently spread to include changes of power in Egypt and Libya; transfer of power in Yemen; plus demonstrations and uprisings in several countries. There was also the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which resulted in the ousting of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych; and the Brazilian demonstrations of 2013, the largest in the country for some two decades.
Seen from this prism, the Hong Kong and Moscow protests are only the latest manifestation of a disparate range of political disruption across the world in recent years. This has been reportedly described as “a revolutionary wave, like 1848” by Sir Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the UK Secret Intelligence Service.
Diverse origins of political instability
As the Moscow and Hong Kong protests indicate, this political instability has diverse origins. This includes not just political and economic factors, but also the disruptive role of social media and other technologies.
There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political protest, including now in Hong Kong and Moscow. However, whether one sees it as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already-inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling, mobilising role.
Going forward, a key question is whether this multi-year wave of instability will now tail off. While this is possible, there is significant prospect of continuing political volatility across the world, not least if much of the world economy goes into recession again after what has been a fragile recovery in many countries in the last decade.
While circumstances will vary from state to state, future political instability will potentially be fuelled not just by long-standing political and/ or socio-economic discontent, as in Russia now for many people after two decades of Putin being in power, which social media can help fuel. In addition, economic inequality and legacies of the financial crisis may also be powerful in multiple countries too.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics