Staunton, August 27 – “The chief surprise of August,” Ella Paneyakh says, is the length of time people have continued to protest in Khabarovsk and Belarus. “No one expected that” because no one focused on the paradigm shift in which network organizations have assumed ever greater importance while leaders have become ever less significant.
“This underrating of the strength of the resource of horizontal action,” she says, “characterizes now no the experts but the situation itself. We are going through a period in which network mechanisms of coordination are replacing and beginning to push out hierarchical ones,” although this process is far from complete (newsru.com/blog/27aug2020/protest.html).
When a leader is in charge of a protest, he or she will try to win out quickly fearful that the movement will be attacked or dissipated. But when people are in the streets because of network communication, they are constantly reminded of their own strength and thus are more willing to continue to demonstrate.
This represents a change which neither the protesters or their sometime leaders have fully recognized, and it has rendered the current situation completely unrecognizeable to the powers that be who don’t yet see how networks play the role in keeping people mobilized that they so clearly do.
Those who want to suppress the protests don’t quite know what to do, and often they take actions that have exactly the opposite impact to the one they intend. A wonderful example of that is Lukashenka’s brandishing of a weapon as he was flown by helicopter from one place in Minsk to another. He wanted to show strength. The protesters instead saw weakness.
At the same time, because they do not understand the new situation, “the authorities systemically overrate the force potential of the protest, viewing it as an organization with centralized resources and leaders where in reality networks are at work.” And that is true, even as demonstrators “underestimate” their organizational potential.
Those looking on from the outside thus expect a rapid winding up of the protests while those who are actually confronting one another have yet another reason that helps to explain why the people stay in the streets and why the authorities don’t know what to do in response, the sociologist says.
This new balance doesn’t dictate that the protesters will inevitably win, Paneykh says. “But suppressing them will be much more difficult and cost the authorities more than it appeared to observers on the sidelines when the protests began.” And this is true not only in Belarus and Khabarovsk, but in other protests now beginning to take place.
And that means that there are likely to be not only more protests but far longer ones than the post-Soviet space has seen before and that both the protesters and the authorities will be working toward their understandings of how to act as a result. In the meantime, there are likely to be serious miscalculations on both sides.