Through an Orange-Colored Lens: Western Media, Constructed Imagery, and Color Revolutions

Article excerpt

Abstract: The democratic breakthroughs or "color revolutions" (a reference made by the media to the symbols used by opposition movements) that occurred in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan resemble one another. They were sparked by electoral fraud and backed by many in the West. Moreover, they brought back nostalgic memories of the end of the Cold War. This article shows how, while covering the events in these three former Soviet republics,Western journalists depicted scenarios in a similar vein to the October 2000 Serbian election and the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution of 1989. Covering the recent "revolutionary" events in the post-Soviet space, the foreign reporters-using a functional scheme of being mirror, witness, and transmitter at the same time-have provoked a remarkably effective revival of the end of the Cold War portrayals.

Keywords: color revolutions, democratic breakdowns, democracy promotion, foreign correspondence, foreign news, Velvet Revolution, Western media

"Watch out . . . he's a foreign journalist."

-From Tintin in the Land of Soviets1

Introduction

In June 2005, Ian Traynor, a foreign correspondent of the Manchester-based newspaper The Guardian, wrote a story claiming that "from the Chinese frontier to the borders of the European Union, the vast post-Soviet space has been in the grip of revolutionary fervour over the past few years-a second wave of democratization after the 1989-91 revolutions symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall."2 He was referring to the "bloodless,"3 "peaceful,"4 "electoral,"5 "democratic,"6 or "color revolutions"7 that occurred in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, respectively. Those popular upheavals were based on the October 2000 Serbian election, when democratic protests toppled Slobodan Miloevic's authoritarian regime.8

After Serbia, the democratic upheavals in the former Soviet Union shared the common feature of being centered on fraudulent elections with an opposition supported by key circles in the West. As a result, protests varying in size broke out in all three post-Soviet countries. Following a period of uncertainty, the incumbent president either resigned from office and/or the election outcome was overturned, resulting in a member of the opposition becoming president.9 All these situations ended without bloodshed (although looting was visible in Kyrgyzstan), the challengers embraced nonviolent tactics, and the incumbents did not call on state-security forces to repress the protests. Not even the opposition leaders predicted the scale and duration of the street protests.10 As in the 1989-91 period when, like falling dominos, socialist governments fell to the forces of democratization, Western journalists ran to the East to offer their perceptions to the West.

The media not only watched, they also played a crucial role11 in the years after the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, as rapid developments dramatically changed the status quo. Images of influential figures in the "eastern bloc"-Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Wal.esa, and Václav Havel-facing leaders from the "West"-Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II-were mingled with those of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Bucharest crowds that violently deposed Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu.12 In Moscow, an attempted coup by Soviet hard-liners failed in large part because the media was telling everyone around the globe what was happening with Gorbachev in Foros, while Yeltsin and putschists addressed a crowd from the top of a tank.13

The perception of the world aligned along East-West lines was, arguably, simpler to understand-at least as defined by the Western press. Today, readers and viewers can know almost as much as they want about distant, formerly inaccessible places such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. However, the window on the world is now wider, but it can be disorderly and confusing to look through it. The dimension of these changes carries implications not only for journalists and news organizations everywhere, but also for the governments and the citizens they portray. …