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The Dark Side of Color Revolutionism: Foresight from 2008

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by Gordon M. Hahn

{This article was originally published at Russia – Other Points of View on April 18, 2008 ( Unfortunately, American “revolutionism” did not subside and the feared results have brought us the Ukrainian tragedy}

The next U.S. administration will face a series of watershed foreign policy challenges when it enters office in 2009. One of the most important will be developing a new strategy for dealing with a de-democratizing, economically strengthened, and geopolitically assertive Russia. Dreams of a liberal democratic Russia closely tied or even integrated into the West are dead for the foreseeable future. Yet more than ever before the U.S. needs Russia’s cooperation of a series of issues absolutely vital to American interests and national security. The most important include the war against jihadism, non-proliferation, and energy security; all of which are interrelated and can be better addressed with Russian support of American goals.

The key dilemma is how to balance American idealism and its support for a democracy, on the one hand, with the realpolitik need for Moscow’s support on a series of international crises that threaten the globe with catastrophe. Unfortunately, U.S. demands for democratization in Russia and American dominance in neighboring post-Soviet states have severely limited and even put at risk what remains of such cooperation. Most recently, the capital of Yerevan saw peaceful political protest dissolve into bloody violence. The Armenian opposition, led by former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian, was demanding new elections, charging that the authorities with falsifying the vote count in the 19 February presidential election. According to the official tally, 52 percent of the voters went to Ter-Petrosian’s opponent and present Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s ally and prime minister, Serge Sarkisian. Ter-Petrosian finished a distant second with 21 percent of the vote, but he claimed to have garnered 65 percent and mass falsification by the authorities. Rejecting the official results, the Ter-Petriosian opposition called thousands of its supporters to Liberty Square for a permanent demonstration. On March 1, violence apparently, initiated by the opposition, ended with 8 deaths, tens injured and arrested. 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.

Although there was no evidence or even charges of U.S. or Western encouragement this time, the opposition’s actions mimicked the Yugoslav, Georgian, Ukrainian, Kyrgyz, and even Lebanese ‘colored revolution,’ suggesting a dangerous demonstration effect has been let loose within the former USSR, if not globally. The colored revolutions’ demonstration effect, that produced bloodshed in Yerevan, will likely do so elsewhere. This sad outcome has a lesson for U.S. and Western policymakers and their adepts of unbridled democratization. There are grave dangers inherent in fomenting colored revolutions, no matter how peaceful and seemingly justified they are intended or might seem to be. The tactic of clandestinely supporting colored revolutions is based on the faulty assumption that democratization at the fastest pace possible, which is writ large in democratic color revolutionism, is not the best solution to all problems, in all a places, at all times.  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 or not sufficiently democratic. Moreover, as the Washington consensus is fully aware, such ‘dictatorial’ 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. Washington was shocked by Saakashvili’s seeming betrayal of the rose revolution’s democratic promise, including an excessively violent crackdown on protesters, the closure of television stations, and a declaration of emergency rule. Saakashvili’s government ran a less than free and fair campaign, winning with 53 percent of the vote compared with 96 percent in 2004, but was saved when Western governments and IGOs gave the election passing marks. What was the opposition’s response? It rejected the official election tally and mounted days of demonstrations in Georgia’s capitol, mimicking their opponents’ actions during the rose revolution – minus the storming of the parliament building and the seizure of power. 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 multi-communal 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.

In Ukraine, the orange revolution in power has shown a reluctance to submit any decision to join NATO to a popular plebiscite, as the opposition demands. In order to force the Viktor Yushchenko’s orange administration to adopt a law requiring such a referendum, the Ukrainian opposition has been boycotting parliament, paralyzing legislative work in a country that sorely needs a functioning parliament. Moreover, it has threatened to take call its supporters on the streets. In both the Ukrainian and Georgian cases, the revolutions’ promises of democracy, rule of law, battling corruption, and the like have not been fulfilled entirely. In addition, the failure of the West and the U.S. to call Sakkashvili to account for the less than democratic presidential elections in January has led to disenchantment with America and growing suspicions within the opposition of American ‘double standards’ when it comes to supporting democracy.

The demonstration effect of the ‘colored revolutions’ has resonated perhaps 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 Tblisi 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 large-scale, brutal regime violence or at least the gross violation of civil and human rights is at stake. The West should be careful in supporting opposition movements whose only substantive grievance is the violation of political rights under a soft authoritarian regime. In many such cases, it is but a small coterie of opposition activists whose rights are violated. Unless there is deep, countrywide support for the overthrow of a regime and that regime is particularly brutal in its authoritarianism should policymakers support peaceful (and perhaps violent) revolution from below.

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. In cases involving a regime that is brutally authoritarian/totalitarian and a threat to U.S. Western, and/or international security interests, making the call in support for a colored revolution is an easy one. In cases where neither of these conditions is met, decision-making is much more difficult. When only the first condition is present, the moral imperative is there, but the imperative of realpolitik is not, making support for a colored revolution a bad bet. When only the second condition is present, the realpolitik urges action against the regime, but the soft nature of the authoritarian order poses grave risks for America’s reputation. Charges of foreign and Western meddling get a better reception among the local populace, and failure of the colored revolution will therefore guarantee an even harder line against the meddling foreign states. 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 reconsidered. If adopted as policy, aid should be coordinated with the authorities as much as possible and otherwise rendered sparingly and fashioned carefully such that it cannot be tainted by charges of undue foreign meddling in the internal affairs of a foreign state.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.

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