Celebrating 10 years of ‘color revolutions’

Graham Stack for Kyiv Post

In October, ‘color revolutions’ will turn 10: October 5 will mark the 10th anniversary of Yugoslavia’s non-violent overthrow of the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosovic in 2000. Milosevic’s overthrow lifted the curtain on a decade of revolutions against electoral fraud and authoritarian rule throughout Eastern Europe. Kyiv Post talks to Srda Popovic, who founded the OTPOR! (Resistance!) movement against Milosevic, and launched the first post-socialist revolution.

When Popovic founded OTPOR! in 1998, at the tender age of 25, he was already a veteran of Serbia’s student movement, against the authoritarian regime under Slobodan Milosevic in what was then still Yugoslavia.

The movement quickly asserted itself in the public eye with a mix of courageous activism and clever branding, including its striking clenched fist logo and the slogan “He is finished.” When Milosevic called snap presidential elections for Oct. 5, 2000, OTPOR! was ready to mobilize masses across the country to take to the streets and prevent Milosevic clinging to power after election results were clearly in favor of the opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica.

The Yugoslav Revolution proved to be the first in a series of non-violent overthrows of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, which owed their success to the same peaceful people power and clever PR strategies as used by OTPOR!, and which became known as “color revolutions” following Ukraine’s splendid “Orange Revolution” in 2004. In October 2003, elections rigged by Georgia’s President Eduard Shevernadze were overturned by mass protests.

In December 2004, the same happened when Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma, was in charge and backing then-candidate Viktor Yanukovych as his successor.

In March 2005, it was the turn of President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan. In April 2008, protests overturned election results in Moldova leading to a change in government. And, most recently, in April mass protests caused Kyrgyzstan’s President Kurmanbek Bakiev – ironically the beneficiary of the 2005 revolution – to flee the country.

Following the success of Serbia’s 2000 revolution, Popovic entered the Serbian National Parliament as a deputy in the Democratic Party of new Serbian prime minister and leading democratic reformer Zoran Djindjic. He was special adviser to Djindjic until the latter’s assassination by an organized crime group March 12, 2003.

At the same time Popovic, who had been responsible for cadres and training within OTPOR!, continued his revolutionary activity in the framework of his Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies, which trains pro-democracy activists across the world in the methods of non-violent protest against authoritarianism. Besides Eastern Europe, Popovic’s methodology has benefited movements ranging from the Maldives to Iran.

While paranoid authoritarian rulers see Popovic’s activity as sponsored by and benefiting the United States, he denies vehemently that this is the case. He even points out that NATO airstrikes against Serbia in 1999 almost killed his mother, who worked for Serbian state TV when a NATO missile strike killed 12 of her co-workers, making him an unlikely US ally.

Recent events in 2010 have cast a cloud over the future of color revolutions.
In Ukraine, a Kuchma-style regime returned under a new guise in February. In Kyrgyzstan, political instability caused ethnic violence in June. In Moldova, the ousted Communist Party scuppered a referendum on constitutional change Sept. 5. And, in Georgia, the parliament is proposing a new constitution that could enable President Mikheil Saakashvili to retain power after his term ends 2013.

But, on the bright side, Popovic’s native Serbia is still looking strong in its bid to join the European Union, despite turbulence over the status of Kosovo.

KP: Ten years have passed since the Oct. 5 revolution overthrew Milosevic in the first of the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe. Why have “color revolutions” been so successful in overthrowing authoritarian regimes?

SP: Let us look beyond Eastern Europe, beyond the last 10 years, and the term “color revolution:” The effectiveness of “non-violent change” or “people power” has in fact been well-known ever since Mohandas Gandhi successfully ousted British colonialism, and the phenomenon continued to sweep away dictators and authoritarian regimes in Poland, Chile and Philippines and also racial segregators in USA and South Africa.

The power of “nonviolent struggle” lies in mobilizing a great number of people around a common vision of tomorrow, in building a common strategy followed by effective non-violent tactics while staying on the offensive and maintaining non-violent discipline against your opponent. If those basic principles are successfully implemented, non-violent revolution becomes possible, however tough conditions on the battlefield may look.

KP: Are you disappointed with the results of Serbia’s Oct. 5, 2000, revolution compared to the hopes back then? Did the murder of Zorin Dzindzic spell an end the revolution?

SP: There is always a problem with great expectations following a revolution, but I can’t say I am disappointed. Ten years after the revolution, Serbia is on a good economic, political and international path, and change is very dramatic compared to the period preceding the revolution. We have achieved not only basic democratic values, like free and fair elections, freedom of speech and media and independent institutions like university. We also dramatically changed the nationalistic and pro-conflict course from the ugly nineties to the position of a country aiming to be regional leader and a factor of stability on its sure way to European Union membership.

On the other hand, the murder of my friend and teacher Djindjic was absolutely the most tragic event of last decade. With him in a leadership position, Serbia would be far more progressive and the results of the last 10 years would be far better. But we must make sure that his great sacrifice was not made in vain, and continue to follow his vision.

KP: Which further revolutions in other countries have you advised on, or been involved in, both in Europe and outside of Europe?

SP: I wouldn’t say my organization, the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) was ‘involved’ in revolutions, because if you want your revolution to be successful you want foreigners like us to keep out of your struggle. But we did share our knowledge and experience with many pro-democracy activists around the globe, including Georgians, Ukrainians, Lebanese, Maldivians, to name those who have succeeded in their struggle for change, to Zimbabweans, Burmese, Iranians and Venezuelans, whose ongoing struggles are still very visible around the globe. If even part of this knowledge transfer was successful, and inspired people to join pro-democracy struggles worldwide, I feel very proud. Regarding Iran, our book ‘Nonviolent Struggle: Core Curriculum ‘ was translated into Farsi and downloaded 12,000 times during the June 2009 post-election fraud protests, although the mere possession of the book can get you arrested, if not worse, in Iran.

KP: One of the features of “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe is the broad alliance between nationalists, democratic liberals and left wing groups. Does this not create unnatural alliances that fall apart immediately after the respective revolution?

SP: If you want to win in non-violent struggle, you need numbers, so coalitions are necessary. If this broad alliance is built on a shared home-grown widely accepted vision of a free and democratic future for the country, than the chances are you will get a wide range of allies. Of course, those stakeholders will include not only parties ranging from left to right, but even more importantly civil society and independent media without whom there will not be victory.

KP: The guru of non-violent protest movements, U.S. scholar Gene Sharpe, is very critical of pro-democracy movements entering into negotiations with authoritarian regimes. Do you regard 2004 Yushchenko’s deal with Kuchma to reduce presidential powers in return for an election rerun as being a mistake?

SP: I was not in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution. But I met a lot of brave Ukrainian men and women involved in it later, and was impressed by their strategic approach and creative use of non-violent tactics, also use of humor and music in wider mobilization. Regarding negotiations, there is a general necessity for horizontal negotiations with your allies and vertical negotiations with your opponents, but it is crucial to pick the right time and strategy for those.

KP: Last year’s protests in Moldova against apparently rigged elections turned violent, but were successful in achieving a vote recount and ultimately a change of government. Why is non-violence so important to your philosophy of revolution?

SP: Because one single act of violence can compromise the whole idea of nonviolent movement. Non-violent discipline is the key principle of success in nonviolent struggle. Once violence is unleashed, the movement will lose numbers, momentum and credibility and jeopardize the overall goals of the struggle. Secondly, violent acts from non-violent movement legitimize the use of force by their opponents, and thirdly, if you look to the Freedom House study “How Freedom is Won” from 2005, it proves that those transitions won by non-violent struggle are far more likely to guarantee human rights, democracy and long-term political stability.

KP: Ten years ago, Internet and mobile phones were not widespread. Do such technologies make revolutions easier now?

SP: Use of modern technologies influences nonviolent struggle and overall campaigning dramatically. Now you have broad access to Internet and its influence on movements is very clear in the cases of Maldives, 2008, Iran 2009 or Egypt and Sudan in 2010. Movements are very skillful in using alternative media space, and Internet is so handy for communication because it is both a mass medium and interactive at the same time.

In addition, the Burmese “Saffron revolution” illustrated how citizens’ journalism enabled millions of people to view the courageous protests of monks as recorded by normal people’s cell phones and handicams and then broadcast widely by global TV stations. This shows that we are witnessing a media revolution making it very difficult for regimes to isolate conflicts from the eyes of the world.

KP: Do you see a risk that revolutions in weak states could lead to state collapse or ethnic strife such as in Kyrgyzstan?

SP: Revolution itself doesn’t bring change, but must be followed by long-term endeavors to build democratic institutions, free and fair elections and free media. The power of the people mobilized in non-violent revolution was clearly used to good purpose in Serbia where OTPOR! played an initial role as anti-corruption watchdog in the first few fragile years of transitions. Where, like in Kyrgyzstan, the revolution is not followed by such “capacity-building follow-up””there is always a risk of long-term instability, whether it is social, economic or ethnic.

KP: How important has Western intervention been for the course of non-violent revolutions? And Russian intervention?

SP: Neither United States nor Russia really understand the phenomenon of non-violent struggle and each limits their interest to the possible risks or benefits of “non-violent revolution” for their target countries, rather than focusing on wider phenomenon how to use “people power” for good purposes . It was vision, strategy and well-chosen tactics which gave birth to one of the world’s most powerful movement – the environmental movement, so ‘big players’ should focus more on studying this phenomenon rather than trying to influence the world with military and economic power, traditional weapons of superpowers.

KP: Do you fear that authoritarian regimes could develop methods to counter your activities, such as developing loyal mass youth movements like “Nashi” in Russia?

SP: It is quite obvious that non-democratic regimes learn as well, building up their own capacity for opposing “people power “ phenomenon. On the other hand, the rapid evolution of tactics and alternative media such as Internet keeps non-violent movements one step ahead.

KP: Which has been the most successful revolution of the last 10 years?

SP: The Serbian of course!

KP: Casting your mind back to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic Oct. 5, 2000. What is your favorite memory of the revolution?

SP: The night of October the fifth, and hundreds of thousands of people dancing on the streets of Belgrade to ‘We are the Champions’ coming from portable loudspeakers on the top of our OTPOR hired car. It was the biggest and cheeriest party you can imagine, with every single social group you can imagine joining in, from grandmothers to kids, from opposition activists to police officers.


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