The other day, we were discussing Monty Python references, and I volunteered that I had recently started a short piece on the prospects for democracy in Belarus and Ukraine with “Revolutions are like the Spanish Inquisition–no one ever expects them.”

“Surely that’s not true!” our friends protested. “There must be something to predict them.”

“Well, most revolutions seem to be highly contingent phenomena. You can go back and and pick out the primary factors in hindsight, but it’s hard to see them coming in advance or even, at times, to recognize a successful revolution in active progress.”

I then trotted out my favorite parlor game (answer below the fold–no peeking!):

In 1989, in which Communist country did the largest pro-democracy demonstrations take place?

Despite the difficulty of accurately predicting revolutions, there are some factors that show up repeatedly in cases of major regime change. For example, authoritarian regimes are highly vulnerable at the moment of succession–there may be a squabble over succession or the successor may fail to placate the necessary social and political actors to sufficiently shore up his position or the very process of placating those social and political actors may weaken the regime. And of course, no revolution succeeds without support (or, at the very least, indifference) from (a significant portion of) the military. During the Orange Revolution, one of the key questions hinged on what direction the military and the interior ministry police would go. If ordered to attack the protesters, would they comply?

In a similar vein, Mark Lynch wonders which Arab regime will be the first to fall, and offers his own assessment of the most likely candidates.

But I’ll expand the question to authoritarian regimes in general: what authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) regime do you think is next to go and why? What factors do you think drive regime change?

Oh, and the answer to the parlor game question is: China–it is often estimated that there were more than one million pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In Eastern Europe, the largest protests were in Czechoslovakia (about 500,000) and East Germany (about 300,000). But “China” doesn’t occur to most people because the Tiananmen Square demonstrations failed to bring about a successful regime change. Of course, one million Chinese democracy supporters represent a much smaller percentage of the total population than 500,000 Czechs or 300,000 East Germans. But that’s not the reason we don’t think of it.