social movement

The Dynamics of Social Movement in Unrecognized States—A Comparative Study (Part 1)

Social Movement

Contributed by Hilma Ulas, who works at the Department of Peace Studies, Chapman University, Orange, CA, United States

I

n the political realm, our world is currently experiencing both a massive decline in democracies as well as the quality of democratic regimes in all geographical regions, and a rise in pro-democracy social change movements. Meanwhile, extant scholarly research emphasizes that social movements can contribute to changes in political regimes, such as the undermining of authoritarian ones or simply causing a circulation of the elite. Nevertheless, there is a gap in the scholarly knowledge regarding when political activism becomes effective or can even take place without total annihilation in the context of unrecognized states. To address this gap, studying cases of pro-democracy movements in unrecognized states through a comparative schema is the most effective methodology. In these cases, some variables that affect movement outcomes, such as international diplomatic relations, NGO activity, multinational company pressures, etc. are more restricted due to these states lacking official diplomatic capacity. Therefore, in unrecognized states, domestic political-economic factors are primal and their effects can be observed much more easily, which then lends some tentatively generalizable insights as well. For the purposes of this paper, I will consider the emergence and ultimate outcomes of pro-democracy movements in three unrecognized states: North Cyprus, Abkhazia, and Taiwan. All three cases in comparative perspective can shed light on the dynamics of how nonviolent, pro-democracy movements unfold under the authoritarian-leaning settings of unrecognized states with minimal international interaction or oversight.

Introduction to Social Movement

Nonviolent social change movements, while systematically inquired into since the 1960s, have garnered considerable attention since the Arab Spring events of 2011, where entrenched autocracies were targeted and democratization in the region gained steam. This provided hope that authoritarian governments can be defied and democracy can be achieved even where the pre-existing regional democratic capacity is questionable (Vidwans, 2020). On the one hand, only the Tunisian case has been a sustainable success, whereas Egypt—another famous case—only saw some limited reforms. On the other hand, cases such as Bahrain led to heavy repression and failure, while the Yemeni, Libyan, and Syrian movements have instead led to civil wars. As such, one question still remains dominant in the field: can nonviolent social movements be effective in enacting change where their opponents are authoritarian governments?

This question is especially prominent in the current political realm: our world is experiencing both a massive decline in democracies as well as the quality of democratic regimes in all geographical regions (Carothers and Press, 2020; Repucci and Amy, 2021), and a significant increase in political social change movements (Cordenillo and Van der Staak, 2014; Burcher, 2017). Meanwhile, extant scholarly research emphasizes that social change movements—ranging from completely violent to entirely non-violent—can contribute to changes in political regimes, such as the undermining of authoritarianism or simply causing a circulation of the elite (Hallward and Norman, 2015; Freeman-Woolpert, 2017; Sa’di, 2015; Chen and Moss, 2018; Brancati, 2016; Aleman, 2015; Dahlum and Tore, 2019; Lee, 2010). Nevertheless, there is a gap in the scholarly knowledge regarding when political activism becomes effective or can even take place without total annihilation under authoritarian regimes. This especially holds true regarding the same dynamics within the context of unrecognized states; in fact, there is no systematic study of how and why pro-democracy movements emerge or succeed in these cases.

To address this gap, this paper provides case studies of unrecognized states where pro-democracy movements emerged and an analysis of what we can learn regarding the dynamics driving and the ultimate success or failure of said movements. Unrecognized states are those that possess some measure of de facto sovereignty over territories otherwise legally claimed by another, recognized state (labeled as “the parent state” in this context); as such, they lack de jure sovereignty. Even in cases where they achieved eventual democratization, unrecognized states have invariably experienced at least a long period of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian rule accompanied by militarization. Such centralized power and armed power invariably appeared necessary for unrecognized states to perpetuate their jeopardized existence against a parent state aiming to reclaim their territories. Moreover, in these cases, variables such as international diplomatic relations, NGO’s political activity, multinational company pressures, etc. can be either eliminated or much more restricted due to these states lacking official diplomatic capacity and actors attempting to refrain from providing inadvertent recognition. Therefore, in unrecognized states, domestic political-economic factors as well as the sponsor state-unrecognized state relations are primary and their effects on these cases can be observed more easily.

For the purposes of this paper, I consider the emergence and ultimate outcomes of pro-democracy movements in three unrecognized states, which exhibit high levels of similarity, over time: North Cyprus1, Abkhazia, and Taiwan2. The pro-democracy movements in all three cases followed differing trajectories: the Northern Cypriot case went through a pendulum of failure-minimal success-backlash; the Abkhazian case remained only performative; and the Taiwanese case went from repression (during widespread recognition) to resounding success (while unrecognized). All three cases in comparative perspective can shed light on the dynamics of how nonviolent, pro-democracy movements unfold under in the context of unrecognized states as they experience changes along the authoritarianism-democratization continuum over time. Through these case studies, I demonstrate how economic factors and international relations, rather than the authoritarian or democratic nature of a regime, predict the emergence and success of sustained pro-democracy movements in the context of unrecognized states.

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