Something is afoot in Russia. Since December 4th – the date of parliamentary elections that were widely perceived as riddled with electoral fraud – a protest movement of sorts has swept the country. Rallies calling for new elections have been held in cities from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, and in Moscow a series of mass ‘anti-Putin’ demonstrations have consistently attracted up to 100,000 participants. These events have confounded domestic as well as foreign commentators, challenging conventional wisdom that Russia’s post-communist political culture is characterised by its passive citizens, weak civil society, and all-round affection for authoritarianism.
In the search for a framework to make sense of these developments, both Western analysts and domestic politicians have turned to the ‘colour revolutions’ for inspiration. The epithet ‘White Revolution’, referring to the ribbons attached to protestors’ buttonholes, has spread across the liberal media and blogosphere in clear anticipation of a so-called ‘electoral revolution’ of the kind that swept numerous post-Soviet countries in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, conservatives inside Russia, fearing protest-led regime-change similar to that which occurred in Ukraine in 2004, have established an ‘Anti-Orange’ Committee, through which to mobilise for a series of rallies in support of Putin in the lead-up to the presidential elections on March 4th.
But just how useful are such interpretations of Russia’s current political situation, tinted by the lens of the colour revolutions? Is recourse to this paradigm anything more than wishful thinking on the part of the liberals and politically motivated scare-mongering on the part of the conservatives? A brief discussion of two factors can reveal that a labelling of the nascent Russian protest movement is indeed a misnomer.
Firstly, to be sure, certain events in Russia echo the upheavals in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Regime change in all three countries was led by a largely non-violent protest movement following a fraudulent election. But the similarities with the Russian case already end here: the incumbents prior to revolution were extremely unpopular, and there was a substantial degree of unity within the opposition movements that aided the emergence of a figure capable of challenging the incumbents. Secondly – and most importantly, perhaps – Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were countries in the process of exploring a national identity and establishing their political culture in the wake of their exit from an empire. In Russia, therefore, the liberals in hope of a ‘White Revolution’ and the conservatives in fear of an Orange threat are not only overestimating the potential for regime change in Russia, but are also missing a fundamental geopolitical aspect of the colour revolutions themselves. Let us look at each point in turn.
First, the political situation in Russia is very far from the countries which saw a protest-led regime change. Putin is likely to win next month’s presidential election with a substantial majority: his ratings have consistently trumped those of his competitors with a wide margin. Even those sectors of society traditionally assumed to comprise the critical minority – the high earners, the internet-savvy, the well-educated – are in fact largely supportive of Putin. Indeed, since the unrest began, Putin’s approval ratings have actually risen, with 51% of the population now supporting his candidacy compared to 44% just after the December elections. Such an increase clearly demonstrates the Russian electorate’s apprehensions of political upheavals, which is hardly surprising in light of the country’s recent history. Georgia’s Shevardnadze, Ukraine’s Kuchma and Kyrgyzstan’s Akayev were all far more unpopular than Putin has ever been.
Russia’s opposition is also highly fragmented. Marginal groups representing views ranging from Euro-friendly liberal democrats through to extremists on both left and right jostle for space at the rallies, while on the stage television personalities, popular authors and rock stars proclaim a doctrine of ‘anti-politics’. There is no consensus around a single candidate who could challenge Putin, and there seems little political will among opposition leaders to unite. And while keeping the ruling party at arm’s length by refusing dialogue with them allows the opposition to retain the moral high ground, it does little to help bring about any kind of political evolution, let alone a colour revolution. In the countries where regime change followed mass protests, the opposition was either united behind one candidate (Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan), or in a few distinct yet effective blocs (Georgia). In both Georgia and Ukraine political movements built up around opposition candidate(s) mobilised in the regions, and sought partners and coalitions to extend their support base. No such activities seem to be occurring in Russia – the recently formed Voters’ League appears, at the moment, to be little more than a forum for advertising the protests and training election observers. And it has expressly distanced itself from party politics. As such, it is unlikely that the opposition movement will attract many people beyond the educated middle classes in Moscow and Petersburg, or will be able to put forward a candidate approved by the majority of the anti-Putin crowd.
Second, regardless of Putin’s popularity or the ineptitude of the opposition, Russia will never be able to host a colour revolution because of the geopolitical nature of the revolutions themselves. Because they were, to a great extent, anti-Russian revolutions. For Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, the colour revolutions were an important step in the process of national self-determination after emerging from imperial rule: Shevardnadze, Kuchma and Akayev had all spent much of their careers in the Soviet Union, and the process of ousting them was also a process of shedding Soviet identity and seeking stronger ties with the West. In fact, cementing this ideological shift away from their former coloniser, Georgia and Ukraine’s new leaders frantically (though unsuccessfully) sought entry into the West’s Cold War club, NATO. Russia, on the other hand, is proud of its Soviet past, has attempted to establish itself as a Great Power in the international system, and has waxed lyrical over its particular type of ‘sovereign democracy’. A Russian colour revolution, then, would require an overthrow of itself.
But let us ask whether a colour revolution is in fact anything to rouse the emotions – be they excitement or dread. History tells us that in fact these revolutions have changed very little. For liberals anticipating a shift towards greater governmental transparency and accountability, the effects of the revolutions on domestic democracies can hardly be said to be conclusive. Indeed democratisation has stagnated in all three countries, with a current Freedom House rating of ‘partly free’ in each. The 2010 elections in Ukraine saw a return of Russia-friendly Yanukovych to the premiership, who himself had been Prime Minister under the Kuchma regime and loser during the 2004 elections that sparked the Orange Revolution. In Kyrgyzstan, the Tulip Revolution’s chosen leader, Bakiev, soon proved to be even less of a democrat than the man he replaced – and whose despotic style of rule triggered a second revolution in 2010. Georgia has fared somewhat better with regard to electoral politics, but there is a growing opposition movement to the hero of the Rose Revolution and present incumbent Saakashvili, amid his increasing control of the media. Proclaiming a colour revolution as a vital step towards democracy in Russia is wishful thinking at best and revisionism at worst.
For the conservatives fearing disorder and upheaval that a revolution might bring, it is clear that Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan were never going to be Libya, Egypt or Syria. In fact, it could be considered a case of ‘conceptual stretching’ to describe both phenomena as ‘revolutions’. During the colour revolutions, there was hardly any violence, trade continued, the UN did not drop a single bomb, and no one imposed sanctions. Shops remained stocked with food and people were safe in their homes. The action was mostly confined to the major political centres and life carried on as normal for most of the population. And none of the countries afterwards managed to join the West in any of its major institutions. The hyperbole surrounding the ‘Orange Threat’ that has been employed by the Kremlin and its supporters is merely an attempt to frighten people away from political activity.
History has shown us that the colour revolutions did not in fact bring lasting regime change, nor did they unleash revolutionary meltdown. In fact they did very little. They were nothing more than a stage in the process of post-colonial development for those countries recently liberated from the Soviet Union. And for this reason a White Revolution cannot happen on Russian soil. Therefore, rather than seeing the colour revolutions as something to either emulate or fear, Russia would do better to imagine its own strategy of political evolution, which can only begin with dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition.
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