Revisiting Colour Revolutions
Slovenia: next playground for NED operatives? Graffiti in Ljubljana, presumibly made by Odbor VLV, during the recent demonstrations
Revisiting Colour Revolutions
Carlos González Villa, Ljubljana, April 25, 2013
Over the last years, systemic world crisis has shaped political processes and has determined global approaches of the sole superpower of the Post-Cold War. In this context, foreign policy of the United States has been focused on preserving its presence and influence in a world in which several countries and whole regions have started to take over responsibilities of their own future. Considering this, US foreign policy community and “democracy-promotion community” in Washington DC (as Thomas Carothers denominates it) have developed since the 1980s new ways of influencing political changes in the peripheral and semi-peripheral areas of the world-system. So-called “colour revolutions” in Eurasia were a consequence of this idea.
Through these events, the United States managed to canalize internal political changes with instruments of ‘soft power‘. Revisiting this phenomena is relevant, considering its influence in recent events, like the Arab Spring, or in other cases outside the Eurasian space (a good example can be found in Venezuela)
Nevertheless, it should also be noticed that learnings of colour revolutions could still be put into practice by the United States in other parts of the world in the future.
Colour revolutions were popular uprisings that took place in Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet space in the 2000’s. Their goal was to overthrown authoritarian governments, heirs of the communist experience, and to introduce liberal Western democracies in those countries. Designation of these movements came after their non-violent pretension, which they claimed in order to gain legitimacy in front of governments that were accused of resorting to electoral fraud. A common characteristic of these movements was the leading role of young leaders, usually Western oriented university students that gathered together in non-partisan organizations.
The uprisings consisted in protracted cycles of mobilization with a standard repertory of collective action that included massive demonstrations, public theatre, music parades, concerts, distribution of protest material, petitions, boycotts, media propaganda, strikes, occupation of public buildings or creation of parallel electoral boards. Colour revolutions created a common language for a generation of protesters all around the world, a trend consistent with other globalization tendencies. In spite of their standard methodology, they are also known by national denominations. Successful cases were the “Bulldozer Revolution” in Yugoslavia (2000), “Rose Revolution” in Georgia (2003), “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (2004) and “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan (2005).
In spite of non-partisan pretentions, these movements had actual political implications. With their actions, they all supported or favored one of the internal political factions belonging to the previous regime. Colour revolutions were determining forces for the substitution of elites, while obstructing any possibility of social change or actual social revolution. In that sense,revolutionary agents became facilitators of coups d’ètat that, in later stages, were performed by security forces and public officials with the support of foreign actors, including secret services and diplomats. After their success, new elites turned into agents that, on the one hand, claimed to defend the “authentic” national values, as a reaction to relations established by previous governments with Russia. On the other, they shifted foreign policy of their countries towards US interests.
Colour revolutions took place at a certain point of the Post-Cold War, a period characterized by unipolar hegemonic pretensions of the United States. The superpower actively supported those uprisings in order to use them as proxies for fulfilling certain geostrategic goals. Whereas the “Bulldozer Revolution” was related to the idea that instability in the Balkans would end by ousting Milošević, assistance to uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were an attempt to control three important areas of the Post-Soviet Space and energy corridors in Eurasia at a time when Russia started to recover influence in its vecinity. In fact, there was a pretension of recovering the idea of the New World Order claimed by George Bush in 1990 through the legitimacy of supporting non-violent pro-democratic movements. However, decisions of backing a specific movement were taken in accordance to specific characteristics of the country and its geopolitical position. Movements in countries in which they had fewer possibilities so succeed, like the case of Belarus, did not enjoy of same degree of support from abroad as in the case of Kyrgyzstan. At the same time, movements in allied countries, like Azerbaijan, lacked the support other movements had. When they tried to imitate their Georgian and Ukrainian mates in legislative elections in 2005, there occurred an episode of repression that was silenced by Western media. In fact, that state received an increasingly higher official assistance from the US during that period.
US advise, logistic cooperation and economic assistance were provided through different instruments. International institutions of Republican and Democratic parties and local organizations worked on specific projects with founds appropriated by the Congress to the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It was basically a bipartisan policy. However, it can be said that each party was specialized in different areas. Institutions and figures linked to the Democratic Party facilitated relationships with opposition groups and assisted them in establishing common political fronts against outgoing governments.
The National Democratic Institute and the George Soros’ Open Society were also in charge of training electoral observers and preparation of exit polls that would demonstrate electoral fraud. At the same time, activities of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and other related organizations were oriented to collective action training. Freedom House (related to the IRI but also receiving funds from the Open Society) had a double task. On the one hand, it worked as a rating agencythat targeted the countries where uprisings could take place. On the other, it was present in all the countries where colour revolutions occurred and was in charge of financing courses to social activists with conservative backgrounds.
Freedom House was the paramount of the indirect intervention of the US in these soft coups, as represented the organizations that inherited one of the CIA missions in the Post-Cold War, as one spokesperson declared (in fact, NGO’s chairman at that time was James Woosley, a former CIA director). “Public diplomacy” initiatives had started with the creation of the NED, a bipartisan NGO founded by Ronald Reagan in 1982, a time when CIA’s crisis was deepening. The Albert Einstein Institution, another organization with CIA links, is also related to the International Republican Institute. Its contribution was the intellectual work of Gene Sharp, Institution’s director, who has been the guru of numerous movements thanks to his writings on nonviolent struggle, including From Dictatorship to Democracy, a handbook that describes specific actions and that have been translated into more than sixty languages.
Logistical and financial assistance was provided following the frame of the Bulldozer Revolution of October 2000 in Yugoslavia. Logistics were organized in meetings between its leaders and NGO and US officials in Hungary and Montenegro, where local leader, Milo Đukanović, was considered an ally by the administration. In August 2000, Madeleine Albright ordered the establishment of an Office of Yugoslav Affairs in the American embassy in Budapest headed by then US ambassador in Zagreb, William Montgomery. The Office was the hub in which a whole plan to overthrown Serbian government was drafted. With American mediation, opposition groups agreed on supporting a single candidate to the presidential elections. That contribution consisted in the presentation of a sociological profile prepared by the pollster Doug Schoen, who visited Budapest sponsored by the Democratic Party, according to which Vojislav Koštunica would be the ideal opposition candidate. Local movement Otpor! (Resistance, in Serbian language), which had adopted the white fist as their symbol and became the face of the uprising, received up to $2.5 million for the development of its activities, while Freedom House financed the opening of regional offices of the movement. On the other hand, training activities consisted in seminars organized by Colonel Bob Helvey, from the Albert Einstein Institution, in the Hilton Hotel in Budapest and by Paul B. McCarthy, from the NED, who stayed in the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade until the fall of Milošević.
After the Bulldozer Revolution, Serbian activists from Otpor! have exported their model to other countries (including Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) that, at a certain point, received the attention of the US.
Two of these activists, Srđa Popović and Slobodan Đinović, founded the Centre for Applied non Violent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) with the aim of educating pro-democracy activists around the world, including leaders in aforementioned countries and beyond. It is arguable that their everyday activity is directly inspired in US strategic interests. However, the fact that these ‘soft changes’ only succeed when they took place under the approval of that superpower is actually out of discussion.
At this point, two questions remain unresolved, the first one being whether liberal democracy should still be considered the solution to political problems in turbulent areas, considering the fate of the countries where colour revolutions have taken place. The second is a pertinent question that every movement should consider before resorting to CANVAS’ assistance: is US interest always compatible with local interests of emancipation and strengthening of democratic governments of the people, by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln stated?
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