«Forthcoming, Security Studies 25:4 (2016) While the existing literature emphasizes that elites often have incentives to pander to nationalist ...»
Nationalist protests can threaten incumbent elites as well. Opposition groups often utilize nationalist appeals to criticize the government and undermine its legitimacy. 17 Even if demonstrators initially appear friendly to incumbent policies and interests, demonstrations can evolve into accusations against incumbent leaders of failing to protect the national interest. They can grow in size, spawn wider unrest, and jeopardize regime stability, especially when the government is weak and unpopular, when demonstrations are independently organized and See, e.g. Perry Link, “Beijing’s dangerous game,” New York Review of Books, 20 September 2012.
Weiss, “Authoritarian Signaling.” Ibid.
On the use of public protests to mobilize international support for domestic dissidents, see Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Jacqueline M. Klopp and Elke Zuern, “The Politics of Violence in Democratization: Lessons from Kenya and South Africa,” Comparative Politics 39, no. 2 (January 2007): 130-31. The use of protests to attract international support in internationalized disputes has been comparatively unexplored.
Opposition groups are often more nationalistic than the incumbent leadership. Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine, “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security 21, no. 2 (Autumn 1996): 8.
linked to broader disaffection, and when alternative avenues for political change are foreclosed.
Even when they do not demand the ouster of incumbent elites or spin out of control, nationalist protests may increase the latent risk of political instability by setting precedents for demonstrations on wider issues, fostering networks, and lowering barriers to collective action for other aggrieved individuals and groups. 18 Moreover, protests can complicate diplomacy and raise unwanted risks of escalation. They can devolve into attacks on foreign nationals or property or their local ethnic kin, 19 inviting possible foreign retaliation or intervention, 20 or they can push a government to act aggressively abroad—a possibility discussed below.
Curtailing or subduing protests can deter prospective participants and reduce the risk that street protests get out of hand, but repression is also costly. Cracking down on nationalist mobilization can provoke a domestic backlash, undermine a government’s patriotic credentials, and invite criticism on human rights grounds. The costs of repression vary according to the degree of loyalty and control elites enjoy over the relevant security forces, the political strength of the opposition, and the domestic laws and norms pertaining to peaceful assembly and political participation. Demonstrators whose demands resonate with broader public opinion are more
Sidney G. Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1998); Valerie J. Bunce and Sharon J. Wolchik, “Favorable Conditions and Electoral Revolutions,” Journal of Democracy 17, no. 4 (October 2006): 10-12.
On the targeting of local ethnic groups as proxies, see Donald L. Horowitz, The Deadly Ethnic Riot (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 175-78.
For example, after the 2012 Benghazi attacks in Libya, U.S. marines were put on alert for possible intervention if protests threatened U.S. citizens in neighboring Egypt. In 1915, anti-American riots prompted U.S.
intervention in Haiti, and Russia has sought to justify its intervention in Ukraine partly by claiming that radical Ukrainian protesters threatened harm to ethnic Russians. Nick Cumming-Bruce, “At U.N., Russia Points to Ultranationalist Threats in Ukraine,” New York Times, 3 March 2014.
costly to subdue or ignore than those who represent fringe views. Diplomatically, repressing protests can help defuse interstate tension but risks conveying a lack of resolve to foreign rivals.
Power relations at home and abroad affect how governments handle nationalist protests, though not in neatly predictable ways. Domestically, rising challengers sometimes give incumbents incentives to rally popular support by fomenting or permitting “friendly” nationalist rallies and increase the cost of repressing opposition-led protests. At the same time, the risk of permitting protests rises when a strong domestic challenger can exploit them for its own advantage. Internationally, a weak state may accept greater domestic risks from protests to gain leverage against stronger foreign rivals, but relative weakness might also make a government more reluctant to instigate or allow anti-foreign protests that demand tough action against a mightier foe.
The multiple factors bearing on government decisions to foment, allow or repress nationalist protests militate against a parsimonious explanatory model. Nevertheless, it is possible to discern patterned differences across regime types, because both the risks of fomenting or allowing protests and the costs of repressing them vary in significant ways across domestic political systems.
In autocracies, the risks of allowing protests are high. Without productive peaceful outlets for political dissent, any opening for public protests is potentially explosive as an opportunity for collective action that could challenge or destabilize the regime. 21 If not nipped in the bud, Timur Kuran, “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics 44, no. 1 (October 1991): 7-48; Susanne Lohmann, “The Dynamics of Informational Cascades: The Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig, East Germany, 1989-91,” World Politics 47, no. 1 (October 1994): 42-101.
Protests against localized malfeasance, however, can serve as “fire alarms” for central authorities to learn about nationalist demonstrations can attract a broad range of aggrieved citizens under a common banner, accusing the incumbent leadership of failing to defend the national interest. Given the violent fates that often await such leaders after their ouster, autocratic leaders have powerful incentives to repress demonstrations against national policies or systemic problems. 22 These risks usually outweigh the perceived diplomatic gains or diversionary value of nationalist protests as a “safety valve” for pent-up grievances. 23 Autocratic governments generally can repress demonstrations more easily than other regime types due to relatively strong control over security forces, weak domestic norms protecting the rights of free speech and assembly, and low vulnerability to opposition groups—though even autocrats can find demonstrations difficult and costly to repress when they face serious challenges from other elites or when protests tap into broad public grievances. 24 For these reasons, autocracies repress most protests, fomenting or allowing them to proceed very selectively when the authorities believe they can keep demonstrations under control.
Electoral authoritarian governments are likely to instigate or allow nationalist protests with somewhat greater frequency. As in autocracies, protests carry high risks of latent instability and are generally disfavored. Yet competition for votes sometimes gives incumbents incentives local grievances. Peter Lorentzen, “Regularizing Rioting: Permitting Public Protest in an Authoritarian Regime,” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 8, no. 2 (2013): 127-58.
Giacomo Chiozza and H.E. Goemans, Leaders and International Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
By contrast, democratic leaders may allow or encourage diversionary protests without incurring as much risk to regime stability.
See Brian Lai and Dan Slater, “Institutions of the Offensive: Domestic Sources of Dispute Initiation in Authoritarian Regimes, 1950-1992,” American Journal of Political Science 50, no. 1 (January 2006): 113-126.
to stir nationalism, and repression is more costly than in autocracies, because it undermines incumbents’ claims to democratic legitimacy, however frail those claims may be. These costs are apt to be particularly high in election years. 25 Electoral authoritarian governments are most apt to instigate or abet “friendly” nationalist protests when they face a significant or rising opposition and believe they can effectively control the demonstrations (typically because their partisans are leading the rallies). 26 Without a significant opposition, the risks of instigating or permitting protests are seldom worth bearing. Without government control, protests could swing to the opposition or create unwanted friction with foreign rivals—a particular risk to weak states confronting stronger ones.
Electoral authoritarian leaders often repress opposition-led and independent nationalist protests and have ample incentives to do so, even at high costs, when they believe protests will escalate quickly and threaten incumbents’ positions in power. 27 Exceptions are only likely to See Christian Davenport, “From Ballots to Bullets: an Empirical Assessment of How National Elections Influence State Uses of Political Repression,” Electoral Studies 16, no. 4 (December 1997): 517-40 (finding that authoritarian regimes reduce repressive behavior in election years).
For a discussion of these dilemmas in post-Soviet Russia, see Graeme Robertson, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes: Managing Dissent in Post-Communist Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) (emphasizing leaders’ efforts to manage protests by permitting but seeking to control and channel them in ways conducive to incumbent interests).
See Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, Susan D. Hyde and Ryan S. Jablonski, “When Do Governments Resort to Election Violence?” British Journal of Political Science 44, no. 1 (January 2013): 149-79 (discussing this in the context of post-election protests).
occur when a strong opposition drives up the costs of repression and when incumbents believe they will retain the capacity to subdue protests that begin spinning out of control. 28 Weakly institutionalized democracies may face similar incentives to stir nationalism for electoral gain, but they are more likely to tolerate independent or opposition-led nationalist protests that they fear may undermine their domestic or international interests. The risks of allowing such protests are high, because public trust in political institutions is typically low in weakly institutionalized democracies, and electoral avenues for change are often obstructed. 29 In such conditions, protests can threaten regime stability by spreading, immobilizing the country, and even precipitating attempted coups or revolutions.
Nevertheless, repressing protests is difficult and costly. Leaders of weakly institutionalized democracies depend more than their authoritarian counterparts on liberal legitimacy and function in systems with stronger legal and institutional protections for protesters.
In addition, the security services tend to be more independent than in authoritarian regimes. 30 Both of these factors impose “institutionalized constraints” that limit the government’s capacity This is consistent with research suggesting that governments may respond more moderately to opposition groups making severe demands. Scott Sigmund Gartner and Patrick M. Regan, “Threat and Repression: The NonLinear Relationship between Government and Opposition Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 33, no. 3 (August 1996): 273-87.
See Patrick M. Regan and Errol A. Henderson, “Democracy, Threats and Political Repression in Developing Countries: Are Democracies Internally Less Violent?” Third World Quarterly, 23, no. 1 (February 2002): 119-36 (arguing that “semi-democracies” tend to face greater threats than democracies or autocracies for this reason).
Indeed, many hybrid regimes feature civilian leaders struggling to assert control over security forces that governed in the past. See Terry Karl, “The Hybrid Regimes of Central America,” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 3 (July 1995): 80.
to use repressive force, 31 especially when the protesters have their own connections to the security services. Consequently, governments keen to subdue protests may be unable or unwilling to do so, even when protests put regime stability at great risk.