Why 'Color Revolutions' Can't Be Exported

Authoritarians blamed U.S. agents, but the uprisings came from within.

The Orange Revolution.

Photographer: Igor Kostin/Corbis via Getty Images

On Wednesday, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the few politicians in history to hold top posts in two countries, arrived in the Netherlands to apply for residence there. This is something of an admission of failure: Neither his native Georgia nor Ukraine, where he was a regional governor and then an opposition rabble-rouser, wants him anymore, and the Dutch aren't interested in his skillset as a professional revolutionary.

Saakashvili's remarkable career has hit rock bottom. More importantly, so has the idea that Western plotters engineered his rise and the broader set of "color revolutions." Unfortunately for the authoritarians who have spent years blaming U.S. agents -- and fearing them -- the explanation involves the opposite of international intrigue: local causes, passing impulses and inscrutable peculiarities. 

The list of "color revolutions" is a matter of debate, but these five are often included without controversy:

  • Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution
  • Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004-2005 and Revolution of Dignity in 2014
  • Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005 and Melon Revolution in 2010

Some also consider failed series of protests such as Belarus's 2006 "Cornflower Revolution" and Russia's "Snow Revolution" of 2011-2012 part of the same pattern, and others yet add the events of the Arab Spring or Serbia's "Bulldozer Revolution" in 2000.

In Russia, the idea that these were all externally hatched plots to undermine the sovereignty or countries not aligned with the U.S. is a tenet of President Vladimir Putin's ideology. "We see the tragic consequences of the wave of so-called colored revolutions, the shake-ups experienced by people in countries that have gone through the irresponsible experiments with covert, or sometimes even violent, brute force interference in their lives," Putin said in 2014. "For us, this is a lesson and a warning, and we'll do everything so it never happens in Russia."

Likewise, the Chinese regime, after careful study, came to the conclusion that Western interference was at least one of the factors leading to the "color revolutions."

Such conclusions are based on the superficial similarity of the scenarios. People rise up against a corrupt authoritarian regime, usually provoked by an event like a stolen election or a new unpopular policy. They unite around a simple symbol (like a rose in Georgia in 2003 or a white ribbon in Moscow in 2011). The protests and the new government formed if they succeed immediately get U.S. support.

It seems some of the revolutionaries themselves have come to believe that there's a formula and that they know how to implement it. Saakashvili, who as the Georgian leader installed by the Rose Revolution actively backed Ukraine's ultimately unsuccessful Orange Revolution, came back to Kiev in 2014. By then, his party had lost power in Georgia. But the Kiev revolutionaries chose some of his Georgian allies for high appointments in the new Ukrainian government. Soon, Saakashvili himself was sent by President Petro Poroshenko to run the key region of Odessa. The rest is history -- from his failure as governor, the dismissal of his allies, the formation of a dwarf anti-corruption party, the loss of his newly acquired Ukrainian citizenship, the attempts to use the "color revolution" playbook to mobilize popular support and raise a wave of protest against Poroshenko. All the way down to a violent detention in a Kiev restaurant on Monday night, a flight out of the country -- to Poland, the last country Saakashvili had visited before he last entered Ukraine -- and the application for Dutch residence (he's married to a Dutch citizen).

If Saakashvili is in possession of some sort of "color revolution" toolkit, he's been remarkably unsuccessful at applying it in Ukraine -- and not because this time around, he didn't enjoy U.S. support. He has excellent connections in Washington, especially in conservative circles, and the Atlantic Council crowd is largely indignant at Poroshenko's lawless, authoritarian treatment of a critic and political rival. If Saakashvili managed to mobilize enough popular support in Ukraine, he probably would have gotten some sort of U.S. political backing given his strong anti-corruption credentials and the growing Western fatigue with sly and grasping Poroshenko.

The support, however, wasn't there -- in part because Saakashvili is such an obvious foreigner, in part because of a certain revolution fatigue and mistrust for leaders in general, which was already obvious back in 2014. The degree of popular outrage and discontent that fills the streets with protesters cannot be built up from outside, or by outsiders. Revolutions are born of magic rather than logic, emotion rather than plotting. Leaders can catalyze them or be reluctantly accepted by the people, but whether or not they enjoy U.S. support, they are powerless when the basic elements of a successful uprising -- sincere anger, a desire to do something about it, and the weakness of the opposing authoritarian regime -- aren't there. 

Perhaps because the "color revolutions" were real rather than plotted and contrived, they haven't really led to the kind of democratization seen in eastern Europe. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index lists the post-Soviet countries where the revolutions took place -- Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine -- as "hybrid regimes" rather than democracies, even flawed ones (Saakashvili's Georgia was no exception). Granted, this is a step up from the authoritarianism of the countries where the protests failed, but if any serious plotting were involved, surely the U.S. could have turned these nations into shining examples of what it means to be a loyal, rule-following, democracy-loving U.S. ally? 

Even if the master plan never went beyond regime change -- which makes little practical sense -- wouldn't replicating it be easier than Saakashvili has found it?

The Chinese regime's political scientists, according to a 2010 paper by National Chengchi University's Titus Chen, came to the conclusion that "raging domestic grievances" and the institutions of electoral politics, which fostered a political opposition and gave it opportunities for seizing power, were more important causes of "color revolutions" than any foreign interference. In response, the regime has made an effort to punish corruption and avoided political liberalization, as well as to make it more difficult for Western actors to influence people in China. Putin's regime, of course, is doing all that too -- but its focus appears to be on the foreign aspect. That's a mistake that could eventually lead the Putin system to ruin -- if Russians ever get angry enough, they won't need a playbook to mess it up. No U.S. interference will be needed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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