Regulating revolutions in Eastern Europe

“The promotion of ‘low-intensity democracy’ is aimed not only at mitigating the social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos, but also at suppressing popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the twenty-first century international order. Polyarchy is a structural feature of the emergent global society.” (William I. Robinson, 1996, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 6)

The US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is the central coordinating organisation involved in the global “promotion of democracy” (or rather polyarchy) (For further details see As noted in the preceding article, US “democracy promoters” have recently been implicated in a series of “revolutions” across Eastern Europe, which began in Serbia (see Part 2) and have spread like wildfire through Georgia (2003), the Ukraine (January 2005), and Kyrgyzstan (April 2005). This article examines each of these so called “colored revolutions” in turn to illustrate the substantial role the US has played in promoting polyarchy. The article will then conclude by analysing an example of where a US-backed revolution recently failed.

Georgia’s “Rose revolution”

After widespread calls concerning electoral fraud in the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections in Georgia, weeks of protests culminated in protestors storming Parliament and forcing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Modeled on the Serbian revolution – and utilising similar tactics to Otpor – the opposition was highly organised and led by the Kmara (Enough) youth movement. Following the removal of Shevardnadze, presidential elections were held (on 4 January 2004), and Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the united opposition groups, was elected president. This picture of the revolution was painted for most of the world by the media. Behind the scenes though, the US had applied its entire panoply of “democracy promoting” devices to ensure, that the revolution was successful on their terms (these of course, included the NED and USAID). (1) Forbes magazine warmly described the revolution as “the toast of the West” led by a “handsome, American-schooled young leader named Mikhail Saakashvili, supported by an international democracy lobby.” (2)

As in previous “revolutions” overt support to opposition groups was crucially supplemented and strengthened though diplomatic and economic coercion. In July 2003, the Financial Times noted that the US “delivered the most painful blow to Shevardnadze” when his “one-time friend and partner, former US secretary of state James Baker, …told [Shevardnadze] he needed to be far more democratic to be assured of US support.” (3) In 2003 the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended their support for development projects in Georgia (however, once Shevardnadze resigned, both organisations announced their intentions to re-engage with Georgia) and just before the elections on 24 September, the US’s State Department made the surprise announcement that they would be halving their financial aid to Georgia, which had stood at $100 million in 2003. (4)  The resulting financial pressure must have been disastrous for a country heavily reliant on foreign aid, Georgia was the second largest per capita recipient of American aid (after Israel) having received over US$1.8 billion from the US in the past decade. (5)  It also seems likely that the opposition groups had diplomatic help from the American Ambassador for Georgia, Richard Miles. Interestingly, Ambassador Miles had close associations with “democracy promoters” in East Europe, as he had been the Ambassador for Azerbaijan during the 1992 coup, which brought Heydar Aliyev to power and Ambassador in Yugoslavia during the Serbian revolution. (6)

Ukraine’s “Orange revolution”

In January 2005, news of the disputed Ukrainian elections flashed all over the world; President Leonid Kuchma stood accused of tampering with the electoral processes for his preferred candidate Viktor Yanukovich. Electoral fraud was nothing new to the Ukraine, but in the past Kuchma’s authoritarian government had been on friendly terms with transnational elites and predictably stolen elections in 1994 and 1999 were ignored by the international community. In 2004, this appears to have changed. Subsequently, tens of thousands of citizens descended on the streets of Kiev for over a week, demanding new elections for their favored candidate – opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. Economic conditions may have played an important role in mobilising protestors against Kuchma, with the Ukraine’s Gross Domestic Product in 2000 being a third of its 1990 level value. (7)

What explained the sudden interest of the western media in this contested election? And why, when millions of Yanukovich’s supporters marched throughout the Donetsk region in late November, did the media “miss” them? (8)  It seems the answer to these questions seems to be intimately tied in with the interests of foreign (or more specifically US) “democracy promoters”, who provided the opposition with around US$65 million in the two years running up to the election. (9) Indeed, visual evidence of this aid was apparent at the massive Kiev protests, where food, clothing, medication and local accommodation was provided for free. (10)

As in the previous revolutions, a youth group styled after Otpor, called Pora (a group that formed in December 2002) led the protests. However, while Otpor’s catchy symbolism played upon the image of a clenched fist, Pora’s campaigning literature was not as democratically minded; their posters showed a jackboot crushing a beetle. Pora received most of its international funding indirectly through the Freedom of Choice Coalition – an umbrella organisation for Ukrainian NGOs founded in 1999 – which itself is financed by the international “democracy promoting” community. (11)

Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip revolution”

Kyrgyzstan’s revolution proceeded in March 2005, shortly after the parliamentary elections of 27 February and resulted in the ousting of President Askar Akayev. He had been in power for the past 15 years and the revolution resulted in his temporary replacement with former prime Kurmanbek Bakiyev (leader of the People’s Movement for Kyrgyzstan). At the forefront of the protests that led to Akayev fleeing the country, was the youth movement KelKel – styled after Otpor. In contrast to the other revolutions, the organisation of the protestors in Kyrgyzstan appeared more ad hoc, with no united front provided by opposition parties and this was accompanied by next to no international media coverage. As in previous examples, substantial funds were provided to support democracy in Kyrgyzstan, which in 2003 to 2004 alone came to US$26.5 million (accounting for their small population of five million, this would be the equivalent of spending over US$1.3 billion in the US). (12)  Like the other revolutions, the question arises as to why the revolution happened in 2005 and not earlier; as none of their previous elections had been certified free and fair by international observers. A journalist writing for the Wall Street Journal noted just days before the parliamentary elections that: “It’s surprising that President Akayev is now cast in the role of autocratic incumbent. A physicist untainted by links to the Soviet regime, he became president in 1990 riding a wave of popular support and street demonstrations.” (13)

Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Akayev was widely considered to be one of the West’s strongest allies in the region and he presided over a government that “followed every neoliberal prescription of the International Monetary Fund and welcomed the establishment of Western NGOs.” (14) This financial support is evident through the US’s heavy investment in civil society, which the American Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Stephen Young, noted to have amounted to US$746 million since 1992. (15) In 1994 Bill Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State went so far as to refer to Akayev as “a Jeffersonian democrat.” (16) Some estimates suggest, that as many as 8000 NGOs were created in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s. (17) Although this does not provide evidence for any of the 8000 NGOs being astroturf groups, a study of NGOs in Kyrgyzstan noted that: “Local NGOs receive almost 100 percent of their funds from international actors and can easily become almost 100 percent donor driven. International donors implicitly or explicitly expect local NGOs to administer programmes that do not necessarily match local needs.” (18)

Akayev’s government was clearly favoured by Western interests, but as time passed his political orientation became increasingly autocratic. A transition, which ironically may have been facilitated by generous IMF support. (19) After 9/11 Akayev was still on friendly terms with the US and granted them permission to establish an air base in Kyrgyzstan. However, according to Sustar the rising authoritarianism worried the US (for geo-strategic reasons), who subsequently increased their support of opposition groups. This pushed Akayev closer to Russia and in an attempt to balance Kyrgyzstan’s strategic interests “[h]e allowed the Russians to establish an air base just 70 miles from the US one and refused to allow Washington to base AWACS surveillance aircraft in Kyrgyzstan.” (20) The closing of the Russian air base deal precipitated increasing hostility of the US government towards Akayev and the increased “democracy promoting” efforts in 2003. (21) Thus, while the US removed a thorn from its side by removing Akayev from power, the Tulip revolution did not bring a strongly pro-western candidate into office as had happened in the preceding revolutions. Chaulia suggests that in part, this may have been due to Russia’s more subtle “democracy promoting” efforts. Instead of just promoting their favored candidate, as they did most recently with Yanukovich in the Ukraine, they cultivated “some anti-figures, making it impossible for the US to monopolise the opposition.” (22) Either way, the revolution only succeeded in bringing an alternative elite to power, which fits Robinson’s hypothesis that successfully regulated revolutions promote polyarchy.

A second try for a revolution in Belarus?

One country whose government led by the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has so far resisted the best efforts of the “democracy promoters” is Belarus. In 2000, the US government provided opposition groups with US$24 million and according to US officials even more in 2001 – with money being spread amongst around 300 NGOs. (23) As in other countries where democracy is promoted, US money is not legally allowed to flow directly to political parties, but this rule is easily circumvented. A political analyst for the weekly Belarussian Market newspaper notes that most opposition parties have 10 to 20 NGOs which can apply for foreign aid. (24) In addition, to financial aid, diplomatic aid was also used in an attempt to oust Lukashenko. The skills and knowledge of the US Ambassador in Belarus, Michael Kozak, were of critical importance in organising the opposition. Ambassador Kozak was an old hand at “promoting democracy”, having gained invaluable experience overseeing the “democratic” replacement of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, while acting as the US Ambassador in Nicaragua (1990 and 1992). (25) The similarities between the tactics used in Nicaragua and those in Belarus were amply demonstrated by the US Ambassador’s own admission when in a letter to the Times newspaper, he wrote that: “As regards parallels between Nicaragua in 1989-90 and Belarus today, I plead guilty. Our objective and to some degree methodology are the same.” (26) In addition Hans-Georg Wieck, the chief of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also played an important role in creating a united opposition in the Belarus elections, which took place just ten months after the Serbian revolution. (27) Architects of polyarchy don’t give up easily and so the question remains: how long can a government stand in the way of their carefully designed and financed “democratic” plans?

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at Michael.J.Barker [at]


(1) For a list of the other groups involved see Graeme P. Herd, ‘Colorful Revolutions and the CIS: “Manufactured” Versus “Managed” Democracy?’, Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 52, No. 2 (2005), p. 6.
(2) Matthew Swibel, ‘Reform, caucasus-style; change in Ukraine? A cautionary tale from Georgia’, Forbes Magazine, 10 January 2005, p. 78.
(3) Thomas De Waal, ‘After the fall’, Financial Times, 9 July 2004.
(4) Natalia Antelava, ‘Georgia: Shevardnadze’s Dilemma’, Transitions Online, 30 September 2003; Nick Ashwell, ‘World Bank ready to co-operate with Georgia’, WMRC Daily Analysis, 28 November 2003.
(5) Fred Weir, ‘Leader of Georgia’s bloodless coup set for election victory’, The Independent (UK), 1 January 2004, p. 9.
(6) Vladimir Radyuhin, ‘US role in Georgia “coup” seen’, The Hindu, 2 December 2003, ; Ian Traynor, ‘US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,’ The Guardian, 26 November 2004,,15569,1360236,00.html
(7) Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalization and Its Discontents (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), p. 152.
(8) Even when Yanukovich’s protests were acknowledged in the media, his supporters were ‘denigrated as having been “bussed in”’, see John Laughland, ‘The revolution televised’, The Guardian (UK), 27 November 2004,,15569,1360951,00.html
(9) Matt Kelley, ‘US money has helped opposition in Ukraine’, Associated Press, 11 December 2004,
(10) Stephen Mulvey, ‘Behind the scenes at Kiev’s rally’, BBC Online, 28 November 2004, (accessed 16 March 2006).
(11) See:
(12) Martha Brill Olcott, Central Asia’s Second Chance, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 256.
(13) Philip Shishkin, ‘Ripple effect in Putin’s backyard, democracy stirs – with US help’, The Wall Street Journal, 25 February 2005, p. A1.
(14) Lee Sustar, ‘What’s driving the uprising? Off the script in Kyrgyzstan’, Counterpunch, 2/3 April 2005,
(15) Steven Young, ‘Press Conference by Ambassador Stephen M. Young at AKI Press Fergana Agency’,
(16) John Laughland, ‘The mythology of people power’, The Guardian, 1 April 2005,,3604,1449869,00.html
(17) Shishkin, ‘Ripple effect in Putin’s backyard, democracy stirs – with US help’.
(18) Fiona B. Adamson, ‘International Democracy Assistance in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: Building Civil Society from the Outside’, in Sarah E. Mendelson & John K. Glenn (eds), The Power and Limits of NGOs. A Critical Look at Building Democracy in Eastern Europe and Eurasi, (Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 194.
(19) Eric McGlinchey cited in Chaulia, ‘Democratisation, Colour Revolutions and the Role of the NGOs’.
(20) Sustar, ‘What’s driving the uprising?’
(21) M. K. Bhadrakumar, ‘Anatomy of a revolution’, The Hindu, 29 March 2005,
(22) Chaulia, ‘Democratisation, Colour Revolutions and the Role of the NGOs’.
(23) Scott Peterson, ‘US spends millions to bolster Belarus opposition’, Christian Science Monitor, 10 September 2001,; Alice Lagnado, ‘US adopts “Contras policy” in communist Belarus’, The Times (UK), 3 September 2001, p. 12.
(24) Paulyuk Bykowski cited in Peterson, ‘US spends millions to bolster Belarus opposition’
(25) For a full examination of the promotion of polyarchy in Nicaragua see: Robinson, A Faustian Bargain; Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 201-255; Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman, ‘Civil Society and Public Relations: Not So Civil after All’, Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 17 (2005), pp. 267-89.
(26) Michael G. Kozak, ‘Belarus and the Balkans’, The Guardian (UK), 25 August 2001,,,542155,00.html; ‘Earlier in his career, Mr Kozak served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs under Presidents Reagan and Bush, working in Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, and was Ambassador to Cuba. While Mr Kozak was serving in Nicaragua, Mr Reagan famously compared the Contras to the French Resistance fighters’ (Lagnado, ‘US adopts “Contras policy” in communist Belarus’, p. 12.).
(27) Peterson, ‘US spends millions to bolster Belarus opposition’.

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