The Color Revolution Virus and Authoritarian Antidotes: Political Protest and Regime Counterattacks in Post-Communist Spaces

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper addresses the post-Communist color revolution phenomenon, utilizing aspects of all the major approaches (structure, agency, diffusion). It surveys the varying degrees of success enjoyed by color revolutionary movements and demonstrates that the color revolutions involved a learning process not only for insurgent forces but for the state that such forces aimed to dislodge. Furthermore, it illuminates the factors that facilitated opposition movements to exploit popular disenchantment, framed in the context of contentious elections, and to transform these protests into a force capable of dislodging the regime. We argue that the ability of potentially vulnerable regimes to observe and digest the reasons for initial color revolution successes assisted them in resisting the further spread of the phenomenon. Accordingly, we maintain there is a strong correlation between the attitudes of a regime-in particular its capacity to produce a backlash-and the failure of a color revolution.

Keywords: authoritarian regimes, color revolutions, democratization, former Soviet spaces, social movements

Since Étienne de La Boétie first conceptualised the idea of civil disobedience in the sixteenth century1 street protests have evolved, become ever-more embedded in politics, and ultimately acquired the ability to threaten empires. During the past 50 years, nonviolent protests have taken a wide variety of forms in myriad locations, from factory workers' strikes in Lodz (1971) to massive election-framed protests in the Philippines (1986) and the singing revolution in the Baltic States (1989). Since 1995-96, such protests have occurred with such regularity and sequencing that many scholars and analysts have regarded them as interconnected actions, one influencing the other, rather than isolated and random events.

Few had initially considered the 1998 events in Slovakia as more than a regional issue; even fewer had remarked upon the Bulgarian, Romanian and Croatian civic campaigns during the same period. However, when bulldozers broke through barricades surrounding Belgrade in 2000, and reversed the results of rigged elections, the world began to look with renewed interest and curiosity at anti-regime protests taking place in Eastern Europe. The former Soviet Union, where many undemocratic regimes remained in power, was found to have fertile ground for political protests. Over a five-year period, street protests, prompted by contested election results, had urged the presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan to leave office (and also, in the case of Kyrgyz president Askar Akaev, the country). Regimes in Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Uzbekistan had faced significant threats, and other post-Soviet states, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, had become increasingly perturbed by the existence of about grassroots movements. Consequently, civil society was subjected to ever-greater restrictions; international NGOs like the Open Society Institute were expelled from some countries and a wide array of other international organizations from the BBC to Freedom House was viewed with increasing suspicion.

Because these events occurred in quick succession, and always within the framework of national elections (with the exception of Uzbekistan), many analysts began to detect a common thread. While some common elements are visible (such as foreign-supported democracy promotion strategies, and civil disobedience techniques apparently inspired by the work of Gene Sharp), a coherent narrative composed of a parade of color revolutions was created, partially as an attempt to make the protests more attractive and easily understood. However, the expression "color revolutions" became increasingly-though not universally-accepted as referring to post-election protests taking place in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, and to attempted demonstrations in other post-Soviet states.

The symbolic significance of a color should not underestimated. …