FORESIGHT, 2008: The Darkening of Colored Revolutions

RusBookCover-Bolotnaya Dec 2011

by Gordon M. Hahn

{published 18 April 2008 at Russia – Other Points of View,}

On the eve of spring, the capital of Yerevan saw peaceful political protest dissolve into violence, 8 deaths, tens injured and arrested. The Armenian opposition, led by former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, was demanding new elections, charging that the authorities with falsifying the vote count of the 19 February presidential election. According to the official tally, 52 percent of the voters gave Serge Sarkisian, Petrosyan’s opponent and present Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s ally, prime minister Serge Sarkisian, was elected with 52 percent of the vote.

The bulk of the political opposition in Armenia, dissatisfied with and suspicious of the final results, rejected the official count and immediately called thousands of its supporters to Liberty Square for a permanent demonstration reminiscent of and indeed mimicking the Yugoslav, Georgian, Ukrainian, Kyrgyz, and even Lebanese ‘colored revolutions.’ The colored revolutions’ demonstration effect produced an explosive side effect in Yerevan. After ten days of largely peaceful demonstrations, violence broke out on 1 March between the government’s police forces and the opposition demonstrators. In addition to the loss of life, the Armenian government has declared emergency rule and suspended the rights of assembly and free media and relations between the Armenian government and opposition are now further polarized.

These sad results should be a lesson to U.S. and Western policymakers about the dangers of fomenting colored revolutions, no matter how peaceful and seemingly justified they might seem. Democratization at the fastest pace possible, in particular democratic revolution, is not the best solution to all problems everywhere and all the time.

It is an especially risky proposition to support the massing of thousands on the central squares of national capitols under regimes that the West deems undemocratic. Such regimes are by definition more likely to use force, and the use of force under such circumstances is likely to multiply, risking even civil war. In particular, it needs to be remembered that the spark – the wrong decision to answer a push with a punch or a punch with a knife cut or gunshot – can be ignited by any one of the thousands assembled. Such demonstrations, convened in a heated political atmosphere of electoral politics and high levels of distrust, are perhaps especially prone to violent turns. This is true regardless of the many lectures and lessons on methods of civil disobedience organized by Western NGOs, often covertly sponsored and funded by the U.S. and other Western governments.

In the former Soviet republics, the demonstration effect of colored revolutions like Ukraine’s 2004-05 ‘orange revolution’ is particularly powerful, reinforcing the now not so recent but still salient history of 1991. It is potentially exceedingly harmful as well. The region is replete with weak and failing states, unresolved conflicts with unrecognized and de facto independent states, and numerous inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflicts.

In fact, Armenia’s March meltdown was not the first case where the colored revolutions’ demonstration effect redounded elsewhere in former USSR to little good effect. In December of last year, a political crisis forced Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, father of the 2003 ‘rose revolution,’ to resign and call a presidential election in January which he subsequently won. What was the opposition’s response? It rejected the official election tally and mounted days of demonstrations in Georgia’s capitol. The government and opposition have still not resolved their differences, paralyzing administration in a state hobbled by unrecognized separatist states in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the background of the potentially additional demonstration effect of Kosovo’s ‘colored secession.’ Raising the temperature in such multicommunal hothouses is fraught with grave dangers for international stability. In addition, nuclear Russia’s geostrategic position at the center of this arc of instability raises the specter of Moscow’s intervention, either political or military, and the risk of war, instability in Moscow, and the heightened possibility of the proliferation of chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological materials or weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, the demonstration effect of the ‘colored revolutions’ has resonated most loudly in Moscow, where the Kremlin has used the threat of a foreign-sponsored ‘birch revolution’ to justify laws and policies restricting political rights, in particular foreign and domestic NGO activity. Given recent events in Georgia and Armenia, the Kremlin must have given a sigh of relief when its own presidential ‘election’ passed without a hitch. Its policy of rolling back democracy and limiting the space open to opposition organizing could only have been assessed in the Kremlin as having been timely and fully justified. Putin and Medvedev probably looked at the news coming from Tbilisi and Yerevan in the run-up to Russia’s election and whispered: “There, but for the grace of God (and a healthy dose of soft but sufficient authoritarianism), go we.”

In future, U.S. and Western policymakers must resolve that the stakes should be very high before approving such a risky policy of supporting a prospective colored revolution. Several factors should condition such a decision. First, Western support for ‘colored revolutions’ should only be forthcoming when the cessation of brutal regime violence or at least the gross violation of civil and human rights is necessary. The West should be careful in supporting opposition movements whose only substantive grievance is the violation of political rights under a soft authoritarian regime. Second, in considering whether and to what degree such support should be rendered, the value of any existing regime to American and Western interests and the effect on regional or international security should be taken into account.

That is to say that in cases where rights’ violations are not grievous and American interests and global stability are vested in continuing survival of a particular regime, the support of ‘orangism’ and even the aggressive assertion of democratization support should be sparing and carefully calibrated.

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