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'People power' wins in Ukraine

UKRAINIANS will vote for the first time in a fair and free election today -- and have themselves to thank for it. Without the massive civilian-based resistance dubbed the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian Supreme Court would not have invalidated the fraud-ridden election of Nov. 21.

For foreign observers in Kiev, the name of a popular candy, "Kinder Surprise," seemed to sum it all up. But Russian President Vladimir Putin and many Western pundits don't like being surprised, so they groped for external factors to explain things. Conspiracy theorists pounced on Western aid to the opposition; others fixated on European diplomats. But the least surprised were the Ukrainian organizers, who applied classic principles of nonviolent strategy to breach the government's command of events. The demonstrations that forced action by a vacillating parliament and regime-appointed judges were the latest manifestation of a century-old phenomenon.

Since Mohandas Gandhi taught Indians how to resist unjust laws, civilian-based movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as Europe and North America have used strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other tactics to evict colonial masters, topple native dictators, and obstruct military occupiers.

It starts when people decide they want to be free. One Ukrainian protester, Sergiy Sklyarenko, explained it to the BBC: "People do not want to live with oligarchs and want to live in accordance with democratic values." His colleagues included "pensioners and war veterans, working-class men and women -- people from a wide variety of professions and trades," noted one reporter. The gray lion of Poland's Solidarity, Lech Walesa, said he was amazed at their enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is good, but a movement's success comes from the quality of its strategic moves. Ukrainian activists knew the regime would dodge and weave, hoping to exhaust resisters. Accordingly, the primary tactic was a long-term occupation of space surrounding government institutions, complete with tents and open-air cooking -- a congress of the streets ensuring that any crackdown, sure to be reviled around the world, would have a dramatic cost if it were tried.

The result: Rulers who had thrown people in prison for criticizing them were suddenly thrown out of the physical seat of power. Decision-makers never before accountable for their actions now had them challenged by hundreds of thousands and debated by millions around the world. What Vaclav Havel called "the power of the powerless" was again on global display.

A cardinal rule in applying this power is nonviolent discipline, which helps trigger defections from the police and military. In 1986, as Filipinos took over Manila with "people power" after president Ferdinand Marcos tried to steal an election, ranking Army officers defected to the movement's side, and Marcos chose to flee the country.

In Ukraine, organizers formed human chains to keep protesters apart from police, and women were in the front lines, softening police reaction. After opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko proclaimed on television that no violence would come from his side, the government was obliged to follow suit.

With violence proscribed, police were less inhibited about showing their true feelings. In the city of Sumy police stood back as a crowd halted delivery of six activists to jail. In Independence Square senior officers of the intelligence service appeared on the opposition podium. Even the campaign manager of the regime's presidential candidate resigned.

Defections became dramatic when they hit the air waves. Disgusted at state television's failure to report the protests, broadcasters threatened a walkout, and management gave up. "The system just collapsed," one anchorwoman said. "From now on, we will give only objective and truthful information," a broadcaster announced. Then followed live feeds of the demonstrations.

This was a "defining moment in the birth of a nation," one viewer said. When the people realize they have the power to expose the deceit underlying a government prone to repression, it is the beginning of that regime's end.

In Ukraine the fulcrum of change was an election, but the lever was not money from abroad or foreign mediation. An indigenous movement mobilized millions of alienated civilians, enticed timely defections, and became an irresistible emblem of the nation's future, making it natural for officials to formalize the people's will.

Governments that serve themselves but do not serve the people can succumb to the people -- as the regimes in Minsk, Baku, or Tehran may find out next.

Peter Ackerman is chairman of the board of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. Jack DuVall is co-author of "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict." 

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