The enduring myth of coloured revolutions

By Nina Bachkatov

Events in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan prompted references to “coloured revolutions”, an expression forged in 2003 when the first peaceful “revolution”, in Georgia, replaced the old guard inherited from the Soviet period by a new Western trained generation. A year later, the same pattern was used in Ukraine, then in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.

This was new concept for regimes’ changes, not through elections, that were per se undemocratic in countries deprived of functioning political parties, but through streets protests by people feeling robbed of their votes by the authorities’ manipulation and corruption. They rallied around inspiring well identified leaders, a future elite trained abroad to master “political technologies” tested successfully in Serbia by the Youth movement Otpor.

Learning process

They learned how to gather huge peaceful crowds into the capitals’ centres, how to provide them with facilities on the spot, busing people from the provinces, sustaining their attention and spirit. This was a condition to prevent ‘provocations’ that would justify the use of force by the authorities, pretexting their duties to safeguard national unity and security. Soldiers and policemen were invited by demonstrators to join and “support the people”.

They learned the importance of symbols to enhance the feeling of belonging and togetherness (colours, flags, songs, emotional speeches, public discussions on the “real” past…) for the sake of national mobilisation and visibility abroad. They received funds for the activities of NGOs and Polling centres that will provide a credible basis to protests movements by publicising the gaps between pre-electoral intentions, official results and their own.

They wanted to open a new era by getting rid of remnants of the Soviet period and to overcome the mistakes made by previous leaders since independence. They succeeded up to a point, but they also succumbed to the classic disease of revolutions: they assume that their movement was a pattern for peaceful revolutions that can be repeated, independently of national and regional peculiarities, from the former communist countries to the Arab streets or even Hong-Kong.


The first awakening had come with the 2005 “tulip” revolution in Kyrgyzstan (symbols were also about flowers). Protests turned into violent riots, hundreds were killed, economy never recovered from the destruction of markets and small enterprises that were the basis of a new private economy.

Violence in Bishkek prevented the expected domino effect. In November 2005, Azerbaijani did not contest the results of parliamentary elections deterred by clear signals that president Aliev will use force. Aliev measured well Western fears of regional chaos in a strategic region and an energy rich country. In Belarus, president Lukashenko reinforced his control ahead of the presidential elections of March 2006. In Tajikistan, in November 2006, incumbent president Emomali Rakhmonov was reelected for the sake of saving national stability. In October 2008, Ilham Aliev was also reelected unopposed.

Between 2008 and the second Maidan in Ukraine, to the great distress of opponents, Westerners adopted the Russian approach: dialogue with the authorities in return of some concessions and for preserving internal and regional stability. The concept of “civil resistance” was preferred to that of “couloured revolutions”, appearing alongside the new slogan “changes through the ballots”.

Reaching its limits

The second awakening came in 2020, as those successive conceptual creations show their limits. In Kyrgyzstan, for the third time in 15 years, power has been redistributed through violence, without any pretense of “democratic forces” protesting electoral falsifications. People came in the streets to fight, led by clans and/or semi-criminal circles.

In Belarus, the opposition adopted tactics inherited from the “couloured revolutions”, rallying people to contest official results of the presidential election under a new flag, new national coulours, rediscovery of the local language. But it lacks charismatic leaders and did not expect Lukashenko, as the “elected president” to use force against the crowds, arrest opponents and push potential leaders abroad. The results, as he expected, is total fudge.

Of course, it is obvious that in 20 years, people in the former Soviet space are more ready than ever to express themselves and take the streets. But the questions are “to what extend” and “to obtain what”. “Civic resistance” is different of political activism in countries where political parties never took roots. Instead, it provided for a dangerous social split between “us” (the real people) and “they” (the distant corrupted elites). More and more people are made to believe that elections are won in the streets, up to the point that parties brace themselves for contesting the official results of an election more vigorously than they work to secure the victory of their candidates.

The paradox is that, in Western democracies too, people take the streets to contest leaders, and even elections’ results. Up to the point that, confronted to a polarising presidential campaign in the United States, serious commentators are talking seriously about the possibility that a looser will contest the results in the streets, with guns.


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