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

By Polese, Abel; Beacháin, Donnacha Ó. | Demokratizatsiya, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Polese, Abel, Beacháin, Donnacha Ó., Demokratizatsiya


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. A color, in many cases, has been a way to express dissent without speaking, has had a substantial visual impact, and has been a symbol that united the protesters, emotionally and politically. It is sufficient to remember the powerful images of Kiev's Independence Square painted orange, giving the impression that orange, and the protesters, were everywhere. The inability to contain the blossoming of a color may also be viewed as reflecting a regime's limited capacity to control its citizenry.2 However, when each new post-Soviet election seemed to call for a color and a revolution, regardless of how prepared the opposition was and how ready people were to take to the streets, one could see that such an interpretation had gone too far. When editing a volume on the "color revolutions," we received contributions on the possible "Melon revolution" in Uzbekistan and "Carpet revolution" in Turkmenistan. We sometimes responded, tongue in cheek, by soliciting an appropriate symbol for each of them3 (like a grape revolution in Moldova) but this seemed underline that a popular fantasy had begun to construct categories not necessarily mirroring reality. …

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