In Russia and Iran, autocrats face rising resistance

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Happy Berliners climb on top of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate in the hours after the border opened on Nov. 1, 1989.
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The popular unrest currently racking Russia and Iran is unlikely to herald the imminent end for either of their autocratic governments. But Vladimir Putin and the ayatollahs would do well to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

That dramatic turning point is a reminder that even the most harshly policed of dictatorships can fall. And it illustrated how the same forces that keep autocrats in power also carry the seeds of their vulnerability. For fear is critical to their staying power, and once that is gone, it is only a matter of time before they are too. That’s why Russian and Iranian police are using such force to quell dissent.

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Popular unrest in Russia and Iran may not herald the end of their governments, but it is a reminder that autocracies carry within them the seeds of their own destruction.

And there are signs that the unspoken agreement that keeps most citizens in line – the idea that if the government assures people a decent living and a fulfilling life, they will stay out of politics – is in danger of unraveling.

The death of a young Iranian woman in the custody of the morality police, and the forcible recruitment of men to fight Russia’s war in Ukraine, have put new strains on that arrangement.

For now, Russian and Iranian security forces are ready and able to crack down. But that will not be the case forever.

The eyes are what I remember best. And not just what I saw in them: relief, anticipation, joy. Rather what wasn’t there, as crowds of East Germans surged toward the barrier of concrete and barbed wire that had held them prisoner for so long.

It was the absence of fear.

The memories of that extraordinary evening in 1989 have come back to me this week as two deeply entrenched autocracies – Russia and Iran – face their most serious popular unrest in years.

Why We Wrote This

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Popular unrest in Russia and Iran may not herald the end of their governments, but it is a reminder that autocracies carry within them the seeds of their own destruction.

Neither Vladimir Putin nor Iran’s ruling ayatollahs are necessarily nearing a Berlin Wall moment.

But the fall of the wall will be on their minds, too, and not only as a reminder that even the most harshly policed of dictatorships can crumble. They will find it hard to ignore the broader similarities between their dictatorships and the former East Germany – indeed among nearly all modern autocracies.

One parallel, above all: that the very same forces that allow dictatorships to survive also hold the seeds of their vulnerability and, potentially, their collapse.

Fear is a critical part of their staying power, fear of their determination to use whatever force is necessary to quash overt challenges.

Sergey Pivovarov/Reuters
A reservist drafted during partial mobilization says goodbye to his relatives as he departs for a military base, in the city of Bataysk, in the Rostov region of Russia, Sept. 26, 2022.

When that is gone, Mr. Putin and the ayatollahs well know, it’s only a matter of time before they are, too. That’s one reason for the violent crackdown on the protests gripping towns and cities across Iran in the past week, and Russia’s move to squelch resistance to Mr. Putin’s call-up of hundreds of thousands of men to bolster his flagging invasion of Ukraine.

But another hallmark of dictatorships will haunt the rulers of Russia and Iran even more.

It’s the unspoken social contract that keeps the great majority of their citizens from contemplating open dissent, much less rebellion.

It rests not just on fear, but also on a trade-off with those in power, understood by both sides. Yes, people say, we’ll stay out of politics, even if we don’t like living under your regime. But you have to give us a reason, and space, to stay out of the fray: a decent living and a fulfilling life for us and our families. In other words: We don’t mess with you, if you don’t mess with us.

In both Iran and Russia, that arrangement is in danger of unraveling.

In Iran, it’s because of the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She was rounded up by the “morality police” for wearing her mandated headscarf with insufficient modesty – a transgression that can mean something as minor as a few wisps of visible hair.

Within days, protests erupted not just in her own Kurdish region in northwestern Iran, but around the country. There have been other bursts of unrest before, in 2009 over the results of a rigged election, in 2017 over economic grievances, and in 2019 in response to a sudden hike in fuel prices.

But in both their reach and their roots, these protests are different. The women of Iran raised their voices first, but they’ve been joined by men. Ms. Amini’s fellow Kurds cried out first, but they’ve been joined by voices across Iran’s ethnic, social, and economic dividing lines.

People light a fire during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by the Islamic Republic's "morality police," in Tehran, Iran, Sept. 21, 2022.

The “tacit pact” that provides the ballast for dictatorships has been broken. Millions of women – as their brothers, fathers, husbands or partners also know – have been stopped by the morality police. What happened to Ms. Amini has personally touched them all.

In Russia, too, the tacit pact is under strain – because of Mr. Putin’s response to his army’s forced retreat in Ukraine.

Until the draft announced last week, the great majority of Russians had found it possible to tune out the conflict. They were encouraged by Mr. Putin’s public fiction that it wasn’t a war at all, just a distant “special military operation.”

Yes, many young, urban Russians were upset by the invasion and its diplomatic consequences – the West’s imposition of isolating sanctions on their country. Thousands had voted with their feet, leaving for other countries. A small, vocal minority inside Russia has been criticizing the war, despite increasingly harsh penalties.

But with the call-up of 300,000 men – and possibly many more – the situation has changed. Just as Ms. Amini’s arrest and death reached viscerally into the lives of millions of Iranians, the mobilization has brought the war home for many more Russians. Made it real. Immediate.

Their protests have been fueled by the rapid, often haphazard way in which the draft is being implemented. It has reportedly swept up not just the young militarily-trained men Mr. Putin said would be called upon to serve. It has taken untrained civilians and older men, fathers and grandfathers.

The immediate response to the protests, in both Russia and Iran, has been the use of force. That may work, for the time being. Those in power, and their security forces, still seem ready and able to crack down.

But these protests are different. And while that doesn’t mean they will bring either the Russian or Iranian regime to the terminal point reached in Berlin, another parallel will profoundly unsettle those in power.

For while the demise of a dictator’s rule can be long, sinuous, and ultimately unpredictable, the final chapter, when it comes, comes quickly.

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