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Why non-violence makes sense for Belarussian opposition

Two political scientists argue that civil disobedience is the most promising way to oppose an authoritarian regime.
State repression can backfire: Belarussian people gather on 20 November in Minsk at the funeral of a person who allegedly died after being beaten by the police. picture-alliance/Associated Press State repression can backfire: Belarussian people gather on 20 November in Minsk at the funeral of a person who allegedly died after being beaten by the police.

Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in an increasingly authoritarian manner since 1994. In August, he claimed to have won presidential elections with 80 % of the vote. Opposition leaders spoke of fraud. Since then, huge rallies have supported their stance Sunday after Sunday. The demonstrations’ sheer size shows that Lukashenko’s support cannot be as strong as he claims. His security forces have repeatedly cracked down, but they neither intimidated most activists nor triggered a large-scale violent response.

Success is not guaranteed, and it may take a long time, but the nonviolent attitude nonetheless makes strategic sense, according to two scholars. Erica Chenoweth and Mary J. Stephan published “Why civil resistance works” in 2011. The book is based on data covering about 250 political uprisings in many different countries. It concludes that nonviolent resistance is twice as likely to succeed as the violent alternative. The main reason is that it attracts more diverse and broader based support.

As the scholars point out, it takes courage to oppose an oppressive regime by peaceful means, but most people find violent action far more terrifying. The demands of a nonviolent movement, moreover, can resonate with masses of people without requiring a rigid organisation or a strict ideology. At the same time, the movement is likely to stay focused on its demands, and its legitimacy is not dented in ethics debates. Accusations of “terrorism” are likely to stay unconvincing.

Chenoweth and Stephan argue that, while violent government repression can crush an armed uprising, it is likely to backfire in the case of civil disobedience as an increasing number of people will perceive the brutality to be excessive and unjust. Indeed, doubt is likely to spread even within the police and military. By contrast, violent resistance is prone to reinforcing cohesion within the security forces and state agencies in general. To win, however, a movement must separate the government from the pillars it relies on, the scholars write.

They insist that nonviolent movements only arise when local people articulate popular frustrations. Foreign forces are unable to do that – though they can lend support in terms of spreading information, calling for human rights and discrediting abusive regimes. Once again, the comparison with violent rebellions is telling. In the authors’ view, guerrilleros rarely succeed without foreign support, and the support they require is much more expensive, both in terms of funding and public legitimacy, than what nonviolent movements may get.

Chenoweth and Stefan admit that many movements fail, but their point is that this is even more likely in the case of armed rebellion. They also argue that success is likely to be more sustainable, with the country concerned being more likely to live under democratic rule 10 years later. Where there was no civil war, moreover, there is no risk of relapsing into it.

The Arab Spring set in before the book went to press. The authors discussed it in a brief epilogue. They estimated that Egypt would have a 30 % chance of becoming a democracy if the country followed “the pattern of other successful nonviolent campaigns”, as was evident in the Phillippines in 1986, for example, or East Germany in 1989. A probability of 30 %, they added, might seem uninspiring, but they argued it would have been “much closer to zero” had protesters opted for violence – or not taken to the streets at all.

Chenoweth is now a professor of international affairs at Harvard University in Massachusetts and Stephan a programme director at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. Both authors are public intellectuals with a strong interest in their own nation’s fate. US President Donald Trump has been working hard to delegitimise elections for years. The two scholar’s twitter feeds (@EricaChenoweth and @MariaJStephan) are a good place to go for anyone who wants to know how grassroots movements have been responding to that threat – and how they are now contributing to ensuring that Joe Biden, the winner, does become president.

Chenoweth, moreover, has been involved in empirical research of the Black Lives Matter movement. As she wrote in Washington Post (paywall ),the vandalism that took place in its context was very often provoked by the police or by right-wing extremists. President Donald Trump prominently tried to benefit politically from those events claiming to ensure “law and order”. One conclusion is that the media should make efforts to report more diligently on what happens during protests. All too often, the public is never told who started violence. At the same time, biased reporting discredits the protesters.  


Chenoweth, E., and Stephan, M.J., 2011: Why civil resistance works – The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York, Columbia University Press.

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