WASHINGTON — Sometimes citizens just take their country back.
From the Philippines' "people power" revolution of 1986, to the toppling of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, and now the ouster of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the ability of crowds in the street to alter the course of their nations remains one of the heartening mysteries of human experience.
Such soft revolutions aren't inevitable. Iraq exists, after all. In the past they have required a series of underlying preparatory factors, including the presence of some free civic life, a loss of heart by the instruments of repression, and an international consensus for replacement of a regime.
Today, to that add something more: a march of freedom that has discredited totalitarianism almost everywhere on earth.
"These are ... the kinds of events that genuinely astonish, and give rise to the notion that things can change," says Arthur Helton, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
For years, change didn't appear to be in the wind in Yugoslavia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Milosevic morphed easily from a communist strongman to a post-Communist authoritarian who stayed in power via manipulation of nationalist passions.
Past protests didn't daunt him. He crushed a student uprising in Belgrade in 1991, among others. He remained unassailable at home even as his disastrous wars lost Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, and turned Yugoslavia into a shadow of its former self.
But the world around him changed. The same thing happened to Milosevic that occurred to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in the 1980s: He became an anachronism. His people, worn down by years of economic privation and international sanctions, no longer responded to his invocation of perceived enemies.
And they had means to show their displeasure - the ballot box. Over the years Milosevic evolved into a kind of soft dictator, someone who stayed in power through careful manipulation of quasi-elections and other trappings of democracy. In the end that approach became his downfall.
As in the Philippines, and more recently in Chile, in Yugoslavia people got into the habit of voting - and once they did they decided their vote was not something to be so obviously manipulated.
"When there is exposure of corruption in that process now it awakens indignation," says Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House in New York.
People-power revolutions today depend on the creation of civic space, notes Mr. Karatnycky. Sometimes that means they revolve around an electoral process. But even where there is no voting - as there was not in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall - the organization of independent media and opposition parties can begin the process of a dictator's downfall.
People need a symbol, a group, to coalesce around. In Poland it began with the Solidarity trade union. In Poland and the Philippines the Catholic Church played a large role.
In Yugoslavia, it was Vojislav Kostunica, whose mild, lawerly demeanor finally gave the country's fractious opposition parties someone they could rally behind.
For people power to succeed, disquiet needs to have spread throughout a society. Such was not the case in China at the moment of Tiananmen Square. The figure of the lone student blocking a tank resonated in the West more than in the Chinese countryside.
"Tiananmen failed because [protests] happened only in urban areas, and China is still primarily a rural society," Karatnycky says.
Then, at a crucial time, all these elements come together, and the instruments of repression lose heart. In a protest, the most important moment is not when a crowd comes together. It is when the people with guns refuse to fire.
After a mob stormed Yugoslavia's federal Parliament and burned it, Milosevic's fate was sealed. Mao Zedong, who led China to a revolution in 1949, said that power grows from the barrel of a gun; it follows that once that gun is plugged with a flower, power ebbs. In short order, Yugoslavia's state media declared their own independence, previously pro-Milosevic courts began reversing their positions, and the strongman of Serbia began to see himself spending a lot more time with his grandson.
Perhaps the commander of Milosevic's police saw that there was no future in fighting. Dictatorship isn't what it used to be. Seldom in human history has a form of government faded so quickly.
At the turn of the 19th century, no country was a democracy with universal suffrage. The US, Britain, and a few others came close. At the turn of the 20th century, at least 120 of the world's 192 countries, where 60 percent of the world's population live, are functioning democracies.
"Obviously there is a democratic consciousness that is spreading," says Karatnycky.
Events leading to revolutions
A series of cascading events led to the Philippine's people-power revolution of February 1986.
First, computer operators tallying ballots in a presidential election made a dramatic, televised walk-out after spotting massive fraud that denied the victory to Cory Aquino, widow of a martyred opposition leader.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos then tried to arrest a few military coup-plotters, who holed up in an Army fort in Manila.
Thousands of middle-class Filipinos, called out by the Catholic Church on its radio station, surrounded the fort to prevent an attack. Marcos sent a tank battalion down a boulevard behind the fort. But when the heavy weapons turned up in a sidestreet, they were sotted by a VW bug in the roadway. During the few minutes that the soldiers tried to lift the car out of the way, thousands of people surrounded them, giving them flowers and hugging them.
The toppling of Indonesian President Suharto, in May 1998, was an instance of people power that didn't quite go all the way. Student-led protests demanding political and economic reform did force the military to press for Mr. Suharto's resignation, but there wasn't the sort of wholesale revolution that occurred in the Philippines and Yugoslavia.
That is why students and activists are still leading protests in Indonesia.
The country's attorney general tried to bring Suharto to trial for corruption, but the retired dictator evaded a court appearance for medical reasons. Many Indonesians remain frustrated that the military continues to play a major role in the country's political life.
Turbulent Russia has seen two street revolts in the past decade, when crowds surged through downtown Moscow and Kremlin power hung in the balance. However, in both cases it was the Army that decided the issue.
The first crisis erupted in the twilight of the Soviet era, in August 1991, when a group of hard-line government officials attempted to seize power while President Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing at a Black Sea resort.
Tens of thousands of Muscovites rushed to the White House, the seat of Russia's elected parliament, and set up barricades to prevent soldiers from seizing it. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, evading a clumsy attempt by the plotters to arrest him, arrived at the White House to lead the popular resistance. The tide turned as military units defected to Mr. Yeltsin's side en masse, and within three days the coup collapsed amid mass rejoicing.
Nicole Gaouette, Clayton Jones, and Fred Weir contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society