Self-determination not the US propelling 'velvet' revolutions

A full comparative analysis of Georgia's, Ukraine's and Kyrgyzstan's revolutions awaits publication. But that should not obscure the discernible commonalities of these three revolutions. One striking commonality is that Russian, Iranian and Chinese media have all claimed not only that these revolutions advanced US interests but that in some sense Washington orchestrated them.

Russian media have been the loudest in their complaints, some seeing US policy as aiming to destroy Russia itself or at least as aiming to destabilise Central Asia and the CIS in order to create compliant pro-US 'democracies' there.1 Thus Leonid Gankin wrote on 24 February 2005 in the Russian newspaper Kommersant that: "Moscow is convinced that the 'velvet' revolutions that have occurred, or others that may be afoot, result from activity by Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and intelligence services that have been nurturing opposition forces. In the Kremlin's view, such activity is particularly dangerous in relation to the Central Asian countries, where the exporting of revolution could lead to serious and long-term destabilisation."2

While US NGOs undoubtedly helped oppositionists, and US embassies had made clear their disapproval of the existing regimes in these states; the rest of these accusations rest upon fundamental misconceptions of the realities in the CIS, and in Russian and US stances toward those states, misconceptions that encourage actions leading to precisely that destabilisation that Moscow fears.

The idea that the US was behind any or all of these revolutions and that they were ultimately refined special operations cooked up by the West represents a viewpoint more congenial to communists such as Molotov and Stalin than to 21st century Europe. It points to the past not to the future and reflects Russia's continuing incomprehension of democracy and of revolution. Its elites obviously cannot believe that people would autonomously choose to express their right of self-determination. Instead they represent this process as being triggered by external manipulation, exactly what it sought to achieve in Ukraine; that is the establishment of a governing order through external manipulation by Russian elites. This perspective illustrates Moscow's continuing imperial view of the CIS, whose people are implicitly thought to be incapable of self-governance.

The repeated and now inevitable assertion of this view whenever a dictator falls ignores critical facts. All three revolutions occurred because the ruling parties staged elections that were so obviously corrupt as to infuriate the public, which was fed up with their rulers' corruption while they faced endless hardships.

Equally importantly, critical sectors of civil society, the political elite, and especially the multiple militaries in these countries would no longer back those ruling parties or leaders, despite the fact that many of these leaders, notably in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, were looking to use force to suppress democratisation.3

Thus, as Indian and US analyses reveal, the Ukrainian, Georgian and Kyrgyz governments fell because of their own follies and decisions.4 The help in learning democratic practices that US or the US NGOS (who are not in much sympathy with the George W Bush administration) dispensed to governments and opponents alike could not have been instrumental in the absence of mass discontent, massive corruption and military disaffection.5

Indeed, despite this US assistance to both regimes and oppositions, and visible signs of disenchantment from the US and possibly other Western embassies, no successful revolution in history, including these ones, has been stage-managed from abroad. The idea that a foreign state or states could do so successfully three times in 18 months within the CIS underscores Moscow's ignorance of local conditions in these countries, its continuing imperial and patronising attitude toward its former subjects, and its lingering admiration for communist methods or what the current leadership thinks were such methods. This only testifies to Moscow's ignorance of the fact that in many parts of the socialist world, communism was first of all a large mass movement with many true believers. The notion that such revolutions or coups could be orchestrated from outside or above also reflects Moscow's own calculations and experience. President Vladimir Putin's election team was practically parachuted into Ukraine and Moscow spent some US$300 million on getting Viktor Yanukovych elected. It also now turns out that the dioxin with which President Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned was procured in Moscow.6 In other words, much of this complaining reflects sour grapes and the utter failure of Russian policies in these three countries.

These complaints also underline Moscow's obliviousness to the fact that its heavy-handed intervention in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Moldova, has generated a strong popular backlash against domination by Russian police and political elites whose corruption and imperial outlook are all too visible to people in Kyiv, Tbilisi and now Chisinau.

The attack on the US connection also appears to ignore the fact that the US - and this will be all the more true now that the administration has become the evangelist of democracy on a global scale - is seen abroad as a democratic model worthy of emulation, regardless of how foreign publics view the current administration's policies. President Putin has, on the other hand, conspicuously refused to "export democracy", a notion that in and of itself testifies to Russia's inability to understand that revolutions are made from below not above.7

Russia's and China's support for the status quo shows their comfort with the current authoritarian rulers of the CIS and with the vulnerabilities vis-à-vis Moscow that this authoritarianism brings about. Indeed, there are signs that Beijing, or at least Chinese analysts, counted on Russia being able to squelch outbreaks in Kyrgyzstan and have become more alarmed as that calculation proved to be false.8

Neither should we automatically assume that the US government is championing an overthrow of all non-democratic regimes in Central Asia or the CIS. This is certainly not true in Uzbekistan or Kazakstan even though the US administration, NGOs, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and countless other foreign officials and organisations have urged democratic reforms in Tashkent to little or no avail. Nor is there any sign of a US desire to overthrow either the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan or of Kazakstan, three wildly different regimes, whose only commonality is authoritarian rule.

Ultimately the argument that the US is pulling the revolutionary strings in the CIS is not just a sign of the futility of current Russian policy. It also reflects a profound miscomprehension of the region and of the current security challenges throughout the CIS, an incomprehension that itself can bring about the destabilisation everyone fears. It ignores the hollowing out of regime support and people's desire to follow the revolutionaries of 1989 and 'join Europe' or live free. These movements also reflect the failure of Russia's new model to command support or legitimacy abroad, and the failure of the regimes in question even to command the loyalty of their own armed forces and/or intelligence agencies. In all three cases, no matter what Washington or Moscow did, the dissolution of that loyalty to the old regime pushed the issue of revolution onto the agenda.

Neither was Washington the only capital seeking to expand its influence in the CIS. Quite obviously Moscow was doing what it could to influence elections and subsequent policies in these capitals. The fact that it lost out not only highlights the disparity in resources between it and Washington but also the disparity in what it has to offer compared to what the Western model, either European or US, has to offer.9 On the basis of this comparison Moscow will lose every time. If it wants to be able to compete against US ability to help and instruct those who wish to learn and practice democracy, it has only one choice. To present an attractive alternative to the US, Moscow, like its former subject peoples, will have to become not less, but more democratic. Then it will not see its security in zero-sum terms or personify it in the guise of authoritarians. Russia will then be able to construct a successful, prospering and legitimate system, which could act as a magnet to neighbouring states. But in the absence of such legitimacy and dynamism, the Russian state will continue to fail to command much support, let alone admiration, abroad.

The notion that one can construct a political community on that illegitimate basis whether in one state or in a so-called commonwealth is a dangerous illusion whose only outcome is invariably a violent one, that is the destabilisation and violence that everyone fears could happen when these authoritarian regimes or rulers leave the scene.

Dr Stephen Blank is research professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US government

1 Foreign Broadcast Information Service Central Eurasia (FBIS SOV) report, "Russia: Claims of US Involvement in Kyrgyzstan 'Revolution' Widespread: Some Allege Russia is Ultimate US Target", 1 April 2005.

2 Cited in Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press (CDPP), LVII, No. 8, 23 March 2005, p1.

3 New York Times, "How Top Spies in Ukraine Changed the Nation's Path", CJ Chivers, 17 January 2005; Eurasia Daily Monitor, "Kyrgyzstan Teeters on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", Stephen Blank, 19 January 2005.

4 Washington Times, "Akayev Fueled his Own Downfall" Christopher Pala, 9 April 2005; Testimony of Martha Brill Olcott before the US Congress Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, "Lessons of the Tulip Revolution", 7 April 2005; The Statesman, New Delhi, "Change in Kyrgyzstan: Akayev's Downfall Entirely of His Own Making", 1 April 2005.

5 Associated Press, "US Programs Aided Kyrgyz Opposition", Steve Gutterman, 1 April 2005.

6 Maidan, "Yushchenko Poisoning Investigation Nearing Climax", Taras Kuzio, 19 February 2005,

7 ITAR-TASS News Agency, "Putin Speaks Out Against 'Exporting Capitalist Democracy'", 11 April 2003, retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

8 Willy Lam, "Beijing's Alarm Over New 'US Encirclement Conspiracy'", Jamestown China Brief, V, No. 8, 12 April 2005, Beijing Qingnian Cankao Internet Version, in Chinese January 14, 2004, FBIS SOV, 14 January 2004; Central Asia Caucasus Analyst, Matthew Oresman, "Assessing China's Reaction to Kyrgyzstan's 'Tulip Revolution'", 6 April 2005; Eurasia Daily Monitor, "After the Tulip Revolution: Are Sino-Kyrgyz Relations 'Alive and Kicking'?", Stephen Blank, 12 April 2005.

9 CDPP "Kyrgyzstan Was Told To Be Wary of America", LVII, No. 7, March 16, 2005, pp 16-17; Jane's Foreign Report "After Kyrgyzstan - Who Next? Revolution is Spreading in the Commonwealth of Independent States", 14 April 2005

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