Even as the world fought off a pandemic, demonstrations for democracy and freedom erupted across Europe. The people of Belarus fought a dictator; an effective abortion ban in Poland drew the largest crowds seen in decades; and it was the year that the Black Lives Matter movement dominated a summer of activism.
Though not all protests were successful, even defeated movements inspired people elsewhere to realise that they did not have to put up with their leaders in silent discontent.
According to a tracker created by the international foreign policy think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, about 100 significant anti-government protests have occurred around the world since 2017. Of these, about 30 have led to governments or political leaders being toppled, with numerous protests peaking at more than a million participants. At the same time, other less progressive causes, such as anti-lockdown protests, have also gained momentum.
The spirit of revolt has seen an increase in solidarity between movements, with people working across borders to support each other’s causes. VICE World News spoke to activists from across Europe who said that seeing people protest and support each other was crucial to motivating their own fights for change.
This was the case in Bulgaria, where the largest protests in the country’s post-Soviet history unfolded over three months this summer, with a peak turnout of about 120,000 people.
“It’s one thing to be an individual - angry, frightened, and frustrated,” said Hristo Ivanov, an activist and former minister of justice in Bulgaria. “It’s another thing to turn on the television and see that a lot of people think like you and that they organise and bring down governments,” Ivanov continued. “That’s very encouraging. It’s like saying, ‘they came together, so why don’t we come together?’ The biggest challenge is convincing a hundred people that it’s worth going out into the street and making a demonstration.” Ivanov resigned in 2015 to found the political party “Yes, Bulgaria!”.
Richard Youngs, professor at the University of Warwick and a senior fellow at Carnegie who helps manage the think-tank’s protest tracker, said that protest culture had seen a revival in recent years. “It is a global trend, but it has many different reasons behind it,” he said. “There is something changing about the citizens’ relationship with political power.”
In countries plagued by inequality, they fought not just to oust corrupt leaders but to oust corruption at large. “I think everyone on the planet needs to know that they are not alone,” said ‘Fly Rider’ Maxime Nicolle, who came to lead France’s gilet jaunes, known in English as the yellow vests.
“We’re fighting for people everywhere, and we should take their hand and go higher with them.”
The gilets jaunes have turned out in hundreds of thousands to protest against economic inequality for the last two-and-a-half years, with police brutality and accountability taking centre stage this past year.
Building momentum can be a real struggle as movements attempt to transform popular support into actual political outcomes. And as these often leaderless movements grow bigger and include more people, some have found it difficult to present a unified message and keep out extremist elements looking to hijack the movement. For example, large portions of yellow vest demonstrators have engaged in loud anti-Semitic chanting at protests, while some in the movement have used disinformation to spread its message.
“After a while, it will be difficult to maintain the coherence and momentum of protest movements, so it’s the very thing that gives them the widespread mass appeal that also makes it difficult to keep the protest going in a coherent way in the longer term,” Youngs added.
“Activists have learned that if you just have one protest and then everyone goes home, then nothing happens. If you reject politics completely, then nothing happens. That’s a concrete example of how protesters have provided inspiration across borders - by showing that you need to protest but you also need to do politics.”
Global solidarity can also have its downsides: Authoritarian governments often accuse demonstrators of colluding with foreign forces, or even that they are creations of enemy regimes. This often leaves protesters more vulnerable to violent crackdowns as leaders treat their own citizens like foreign enemy operatives.
NOW! For Humanity, founded just under a year ago, is an organisation that advocates “for humanity to work as one” to tackle big challenges. One of their initiatives, #FridaysForFreedom, focuses on continuously pressuring authoritarian governments through solidarity between democratic forces worldwide. They organise protests all around the globe to raise awareness for specific protest movements and organise seminars for activists around the world to share their knowledge and experience.
One of the organisation’s co-founders, Colombe Cahen-Salvador, said they first founded NOW! to mobilise people across different countries, with the purpose of supporting freedom struggles everywhere.
“You just can’t win a lot of these battles without having cross-border mobilisation,” Cahen-Salvador told VICE World News. “There is very little chance for success unless big democracies stand together, and these big democracies won’t do it just out of the kindness of their heart. People have to make them do it.”
The increased global solidarity is largely the result of young people, who are native to the internet and understand how to catch the attention of the masses. Of key importance to creating solidarity was drawing parallels between people in different countries, Salvador said, because people must be able to relate to one another.
“It creates a huge sense of global solidarity, and I really don’t think you can move the world in one direction or the other without unity at this point,” she said, adding that the internet has allowed people to create communities and mingle across borders in real-time.
“When you see people your age and in similar situations to you risking and losing everything for freedom and democracy, suddenly it becomes very real and it creates an emotional response.”
Jöelle Sambi, spokesperson for the Belgian Network for Black Lives that helped organise BLM protests, emphasised the importance of standing together between different movements. “It’s very symbolic to see all sorts of people all together say ‘enough is enough,’” Sambi said. “We’ve been silent for too long.”
She compared the phenomenon to being in an abusive relationship, where victims may not realise they’re being abused because they don’t know that things could be different, or because their partner convinced them of it.
“But then you start talking to other people who tell you, ‘no, it’s wrong’, and then you get the feeling that ‘I’m not crazy, maybe there is something wrong here.’ To see all these people around the world, it gives you strength,”
In Belarus, where demonstrators are fighting to end the three-decade-long reign of “Europe’s last dictator” Alexander Lukashenko, the success of the protests is especially dependent on the response of countries in the European Union. They hope that popular support among Europeans will transfer into sanctions against the Belarusian regime.
“If you live in Denmark, you speak to your politicians and tell them that ‘this is the situation in Belarus.’ They need to choose whether to close their eyes and continue trading with this country or are human rights and democracy and European values more important?” said Andrey Strizhak, a human rights advocate who founded Bysol, a “solidarity fund” offering financial support to those suffering punishments for participating in protests.
“This is why global support not just from the organisations, but from ordinary people is very important. Because they can potentially push the government and say that they cannot continue building relationships with dictators.”