Manufactured revolutions?

Issue: 107

Dragan Plavsic

When is a revolution not a revolution? That is the question commentators have been asking following a wave of regime changes that has zigzagged its way progressively eastwards over the last five years. After Slobodan Milosevic’s overthrow in Serbia in 2000 came the downfall of Edward Shevardnadze in Georgia in 2003, then Viktor Yushchenko’s successful defeat of his presidential rival in Ukraine in 2004, and earlier this year the sudden fall from power of Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev.

For some commentators, analysis of these events is unproblematic. They argue that what we have been witnessing is a spontaneous resurgence of people power, necessitated by unfinished business from 1989. As Timothy Garton-Ash, the indefatigable doyen of velvet revolution, has put it, these events are ‘the latest in a long series of velvet revolutions which have helped spread democracy around the world over the last 30 years’.1

Other commentators have seen matters quite differently. Instead of people power spontaneously reborn, they argue that thinly disguised pro-western coups have been taking place funded by a United States determined to manipulate elections to its imperial advantage. These are not popular revolutions at all but street scenes orchestrated by powerful external forces. One leading exponent of this view, John Laughland, has ridiculed what he describes as ‘the mythology of people power’ based on ‘the same fairy tale about how youthful demonstrators manage to bring down an authoritarian regime, simply by attending a rock concert in a central square’.2

There are real problems, however, with both views. In Laughland’s case, it is his implicit portrayal of the US as a near-omnipotent puppet-master successfully pulling all the key strings behind the scenes. This view reduces people power to little more than the pliant tool of the US. By contrast, Garton-Ash’s argument remains locked within the mindset of 1989, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the extent to which today’s velvet revolutions have fallen increasingly prey to manipulation by ruling class and imperialist interests.

These events certainly involve a confusing mix of US imperial manipulation, internal opposition and popular revolt. In each case, the relative weight of these factors varies. An assessment of these events must therefore be concrete enough to cater for this.

The Serbian Revolution 2000

The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 was a revolution caught between two epochs. On the one hand, its euphoric mass insurrectionary character harked back to the heady days of 1989 when revolutions were powered by revolt from below; on the other hand, the concerted operation by the Clinton administration to trigger Milosevic’s removal by means of ‘velvet revolution’ served as a prototype for subsequent revolutions in the East.

Before 2000, Serbia’s opposition had twice come close to toppling Milosevic. In 1991, he deployed tanks on the streets of Belgrade against mass demonstrations, and during the winter of 1996-1997 three months of mass demonstrations almost felled him over his refusal to accept that the opposition had won the local elections. The subsequent failings of the opposition, split and outmanoeuvred by Milosevic, led to the formation of the student-led organisation Otpor! in autumn 1998 by young activists first bloodied in the mass demonstrations of 1996-1997. It was the leadership of this mass opposition movement and its student activists that the US sought to co-opt in the aftermath of its failure to remove Milosevic during the war against Serbia in 1999.

There were three basic elements to US strategy in the year prior to the September 2000 presidential election. Firstly, the US Congress approved $10 million and $31 million in 1999 and 2000 respectively to support the opposition. Via a number of US foundations, notably the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its affiliates, this money found its way to pro-western opposition parties, such as Zoran Djindjic’s Democratic Party. Otpor! too received funds, helping it to produce thousands of posters and stickers emblazoned with its clenched fist symbol. Secondly, again using NED and its affiliates operating in Budapest and Szeged in Hungary, the US trained two dozen Otpor! activists in the techniques of non-violent struggle and 400 Serbian election monitors to spot electoral fraud. During the presidential election these monitors provided evidence of fraud, and organised parallel exit polls which, by predicting defeat for Milosevic, had an important galvanising effect on Serbs.3

Thirdly, the US pressured Djindjic into stepping down as the opposition’s presidential candidate in favour of the conservative nationalist, Vojislav Kostunica. An opinion poll of 840 Serbian voters by a US polling firm had shown that only Kostunica could defeat Milosevic. Unlike other opposition leaders, Kostunica had been as consistently anti-US as he had been anti-Milosevic. This was critical in Serbia where sanctions and the bombing of the country in 1999 had turned the population bitterly against the US. Kostunica always rejected US money, famously describing Washington’s support as ‘the kiss of death’ for his campaign.4 But US strategy was simple: Kostunica would be the front man, and Djindjic, backed by the US, would be the power behind the throne and the nucleus of a Serbian capitalist class loyal to the US.

The character of the Serbian revolution was not, however, to be defined by these imperial machinations; rather, its character was ultimately and conclusively stamped by the depth, intensity and nationwide scale of an uprising powered from below by years of accumulated disgust with Milosevic. As two Serbian chroniclers of the revolution, Dragan Bujosevic and Ivan Radovanovic, have observed of the opposition’s assessment of the driving forces of the revolution:

b. The euphoric wave of popular rebellion against the Milosevic…regime was swelling, and even DOS [the Democratic Opposition of Serbia] was afraid of it. Some leaders of DOS were convinced that Milosevic was heading for defeat at the elections, that he would falsify the results, and that the opposition would then be lynched by the people unless it took a direct stand against the usurper of popular choice.5

The depth and intensity of this euphoric wave found its sharpest expression in the working class base of the revolutionary uprising against Milosevic, spearheaded by 7,000 striking miners from the Kolubara strip mine, just south of Belgrade. For the first time in a decade, the opposition’s call for a general strike had found a resounding echo. Kostunica’s two visits to Kolubara and the constant presence there of opposition figures reflected what everyone in Serbia recognised: that the engine of the revolution had shifted perceptibly from the leaders of the opposition to the miners at Kolubara. Indeed, Milosevic’s fate was irretrievably to be sealed by his failure to break the Kolubara miners. This is why his downfall was a victory for the Serbian working class, bristling with revolutionary potential. In subsequent weeks, workers across Serbia struck demanding the removal of company directors tainted by their ties to Milosevic; others struck for higher wages; and riots swept prisons as inmates demanded the removal of hated wardens.

At the same time, however, Milosevic’s downfall was also a victory for the US, even if Kostunica has emerged as the dominant force in Serbian politics at the head of governments that remain stubbornly recalcitrant on important issues. Washington’s strategy of ‘electoral interventionism’,6 exploiting rigged elections in order to precipitate regime change, had worked; it could now serve as a template for future interventions elsewhere.

Georgia’s Rose Revolution 2003

Georgia today plays a central role in US strategic thinking. One reason for this is the $3 billion oil pipeline under construction across Georgia from neighbouring Azerbaijan, thereby avoiding both Russia and Iran on its route to Turkey. But a pro-US Georgia is also in any event a valuable obstacle to Putin’s more assertive Russia. Edward Shevardnadze, once Gorbachev’s foreign minister, became Washington’s man in Georgia in 1992. A supporter of NATO membership who welcomed a symbolic contingent of US troops onto Georgian soil, Shevardnadze also sent troops to Kosovo and Iraq. Under him, Georgia became the largest per capita recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration became increasingly disenchanted with Shevardnadze for two reasons. Firstly, his regime was visibly losing support amid a growing tide of popular anger at poverty, unemployment and crony privatisation. Secondly, as he sensed growing US disillusionment, Shevardnadze began to tilt his sails towards Moscow.

In Serbia, US strategy had been simple: to remove Milosevic. In Georgia, the strategy was twin-tracked: to maintain official support for Shevardnadze, but also to cultivate those pro-US Georgian oppositionists skilled enough to voice popular anger without jeopardising US hegemony. Three leading figures were cultivated: Mikhail Saakashvili, a 35 year old lawyer and graduate of Columbia University Law School in New York, who had been Shevardnadze’s minister of justice, Nino Burdzhanadze, the speaker of the parliament, and Zurab Zhvania, a former speaker. All were one-time Shevardnadze supporters. As the Wall Street Journal put it,

The[se] three politicians are backed by a raft of non-governmental organisations that have sprung up since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of the NGOs have been supported by American and other Western foundations, spawning a class of young, English-speaking intellectuals hungry for pro-Western reforms.7

The original purpose of this strategy was to oversee an orderly transition from Shevardnadze, due to leave office in 2005 having served two full terms as president, to the Saakashvili generation. But the US was also prepared to contemplate a Serbian-style solution if Shevardnadze outstayed his welcome or sought Russian help. It was not for nothing that Saakashvili visited Serbia, and veteran Otpor! activists, by now pale, degenerate shadows of their former selves, were hired to train members of Kmara, Otpor!’s Georgian counterpart.

Washington’s initial reaction, therefore, when OSCE election monitors issued a statement pointing to ‘serious irregularities’ with Georgia’s parliamentary elections in November 2003, was to call allegations of fraud an ‘overstatement’. As the Financial Times reported, ‘Observers believe the US had hoped to keep Mr Shevardnadze, its old favourite, in office until the scheduled 2005 presidential election.’ Three weeks later, on 21 November, the US changed tack, declaring that it was ‘deeply disappointed’ with the way the elections had been run.8

By then, Washington was faced with mounting popular revolt. The opposition, led by Saakashvili, had embarked upon a campaign of demonstrations against electoral fraud that was soon being driven by popular anger at poverty and unemployment. After three weeks, Shevardnadze’s authority had all but evaporated and a reported compromise the US tried to broker was abandoned in favour of unqualified support for Saakashvili. This Georgian scenario has recently been very well summarised by Russian socialist, Boris Kagarlitsky:

As soon as Washington realises that popular dissent is rising in a country and that regime change is imminent, it immediately begins to seek out new partners among the opposition… The money invested in the opposition by various [non-governmental organisations] is a sort of insurance policy, ensuring that regime change will not result in a change of course, and that if change is inevitable, it will not be radical.9

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution 2004

The ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy of outgoing Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, shorthand for an unpredictable balancing act between Washington and Moscow, had always irritated the US. Typically, Kuchma despatched troops to Iraq while also leaning towards Russia. This policy reflected the split in Ukraine’s ruling class between pro-US and pro-Russian wings, a split over which Kuchma had presided as ultimate arbiter. His departure from the political scene meant that the presidential election of November 2004 would be dominated by two presidential candidates who embodied Ukraine’s ruling class divide.

The November election therefore resulted in a tense and potentially explosive ruling class and imperialist stand-off. On the one hand, Viktor Yushchenko, once Kuchma’s prime minister, represented the oligarchic clans – closely knit capitalist groups – of the Ukrainian-speaking western Ukraine. Backed by the US, their principal object was to forge closer economic and political links with the West. On the other hand, Viktor Yanukovych, Kuchma’s last prime minister, stood for the oligarchic clans of the largely Russian-speaking western Ukraine. Backed by Russia, their aim was to maintain their hegemony in Ukraine and to sustain, if not deepen, links with Russia.

Anticipating electoral fraud by Yanukovych, US strategy prior to the election closely followed the Serbian prototype of direct regime change. Via a number of US foundations and other Ukrainian NGOs, the US State Department channelled $65 million to Yushchenko in the two years prior to the election to fund his campaign, train election monitors and organise exit polls. According to one report as many as 150,000 people were trained to spot electoral fraud. Some 10,000 cameras were distributed to election monitors to record fraud. And Yanukovych’s victory was instantly challenged by exit polls that gave Yushchenko an 11 point lead. Indeed, the aura of meticulous, well-funded planning pervaded the Ukrainian election. Symptomatic was the level of organisation in Kiev’s Independence Square where Yushchenko’s supporters were encamped. Multiple soup kitchens were organised and large supplies of tents arrived; 10,000 loaves of bread and 5,000 tonnes of porridge were provided every day; 300 toilets were set up and a fleet of doctors fielded 5,000 calls a day while in the background ten-hour daily rock concerts played on.10

This is not to deny the real enthusiasm of the Independence Square crowds who supported the campaign to overturn Yanukovych’s initial victory. But it is to recognise that here was a ‘revolution’ whose popular forces were, from the very outset, carefully controlled and manipulated by Yushchenko. Unlike in Serbia, where the engine of the revolution shifted perceptibly to the miners at Kolubara, it is striking that in Ukraine no such shift to the crowds assembled in Independence Square ever took place. And by contrast with Serbia, where revolt bristled with revolutionary potential, events in Ukraine bristled instead with the threat of civil war. ‘People power’ in Ukraine never appeared as a force in its own right but was cynically wielded by Yushchenko’s camp as a weapon in its constitutional struggle to have Yanukovych’s victory overturned by the Supreme Court. The tense, Cold War-style character of this electoral stand-off certainly helped both camps control their supporters; squeezed between two sharply opposed ruling class blocs, each with their own imperialist allies, there was much less scope for discontent from below to find expression.

Ukraine in 2004 represents the low-point of the ‘democratic’ wave that swept all before it in 1989. This is because it also represents the high-point of ruling class and imperialist manipulation of ‘people power’. What was once an inspiring expression of mass popular discontent had now transparently degenerated into a cynical and dangerous game of power politics.

Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution 2005

Ukraine was a well-planned and controlled affair. Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 was not. Here two rounds of rigged parliamentary elections in February and March led to mounting protests against President Askar Akayev. The fractious nature of the Kyrgyz opposition, some of whose leaders languished in prison, meant that the scope for expressing popular discontent from below was significantly greater than in Ukraine.

The revolution was initially centred on an uprising in two southern towns, Osh and Jalalabad. Here, shortly after close of voting on 13 March, government buildings, police stations and airports were seized by opposition supporters. In Jalalabad a mass opposition congress, or kurultai, attended by thousands, passed a resolution demanding Akayev’s removal, and was followed shortly afterwards by another in Osh. One leading opposition figure, Ishengul Boljurova, described the situation in Osh and Kyrgyzstan in these terms: ‘The governor has fled. The authorities are afraid of the ordinary people. There is now dual power in the country. Popular rule is on its way’.11 Eventually, on 24 March, the protests spread to the capital, Bishkek, where a mass demonstration, swelling to some 50,000, stormed the presidential palace, forcing Akayev from power. Widespread looting and arson then followed. Something of the flavour of these events was captured by Times reporter Jeremy Page when he visited the presidential palace:

In Mr Akayev’s personal quarters I found a protester in a general’s hat raiding the fridge. Another was having a go on the president’s exercise bike and a third was trying on his multicoloured ceremonial felt robes. The president himself had fled.12

These events demonstrate that, to use Page’s phrase, ‘geopolitics was not the driving force behind the Kyrgyz revolution’.13 Although Kyrgyzstan has the rare pleasure of hosting both US and Russian air bases that are no more than 20 miles apart, the revolution caught everyone by surprise, even opposition leaders. What drove it forward was mass popular anger at poverty and unemployment and the Akayev family’s corrupt monopoly of power and wealth.

Nevertheless, many of the opposition leaders who came to the fore during the revolution, such as Roza Otunbaeva, a former ambassador to Washington, had links with the US. This is not surprising. As in Georgia, the US followed a dual strategy in Kyrgyzstan; while supporting Akayev, it also financed an entire ‘democratic’ infrastructure capable of sustaining a network of opposition parties. Asia Times Online may not have been exaggerating when it noted that ‘practically everything that passes for civil society in Kyrgyzstan is financed by US foundations, or by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). At least 170 non-governmental organisations charged with development or promotion of democracy have been created or sponsored by the Americans’.14 In November 2003, US assistant secretary of state Lorne Craner officially opened a publishing house in Bishkek with the capacity to produce 18,000 newspapers per hour. Funded by the US state department and the US foundation, Freedom House, it published some 60 titles, including opposition newspapers the state publishing house refused to print.

This infrastructure also served as an important pole of attraction for disillusioned former Akayev loyalists turned oppositionists. What is striking about the Kyrgyz revolution is how many leading ex-loyalists have returned to the posts they once held under Akayev. Kurmanbek Bakiyev, a former prime minister is now acting president and prime minister; Felix Kulov, a former interior minister, is again in charge of security; and Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister is once more foreign minister. These are people Washington can trust to ensure that very little will change. Indeed, when Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, visited Kyrgyzstan in April, Bakiyev promptly assured him that the US airbase in Bishkek could remain.

However, those who actually made the revolution may have other ideas. As Rumsfeld was visiting, several thousand landless squatters were seizing land they say should have been distributed to them after collective farms were disbanded in the early 1990s. As one report noted, ‘Many of the new squatters say it was their revolution and insist that they have every right to take land after years of requests went unanswered’.15


In recent years, the US has worked hard to instrumentalise the velvet revolution, to exploit it for its own ends. With massive funds, it has used rigged elections to help trigger regime change, as in Serbia and Ukraine. It has anticipated revolt by cultivating oppositionists to lead it, as in Georgia. It has established and maintained a ‘democratic’ infrastructure of NGOs, media outlets and publishing houses that has spawned a host of intellectuals and activists for whom the most viable economic and political model is still the one offered by the victor of the Cold War. This infrastructure sustains US-friendly opposition groups who can emerge to lead sudden revolts, as in Kyrgyzstan. For all these reasons, US imperial manipulation today is qualitatively greater than it was in 1989. Now it has largely unfettered access to societies closed to it before the fall of the Soviet Union. And there it can freely target established opposition groups instead of secretly infiltrating the twilight world of the lonely dissident. This is why it is justified to talk of the degeneration of the ‘velvet revolution’.

Nevertheless, there is another side to this story. If US strategy is indeed to work, it has ultimately to rely on popular forces to push change through. And this carries real dangers. Above all, there is the danger that the popular forces the US seeks to manipulate will sooner or later strike out in an uncontrollable direction of their own, well beyond the remit of the bourgeois oppositions the US would have them follow. Indeed, from the miners at Kolubara to the landless squatters of Kyrgyzstan, the potential of these revolutions has been palpable. This is the core contradiction at the heart of US strategy. And this is why every crisis the US seeks to manipulate is also an opportunity for socialists to voice independent demands that can help to push the revolution to altogether greater democratic heights.


1: ‘First Know Your Donkey’, The Guardian, 27 January 2005.
2: ‘The Revolution Televised’ and ‘The Mythology of People Power’, The Guardian, 27 November 2004 and 1 April 2005.
3: See for this information R Cohen, ‘Who Really Brought Down Milosevic?’, The New York Time Magazine, 20 November 2004 and Michael Dobbs, ‘US Advice Guided Milosevic Opposition’, Washington Post, 11 December 2000.
4: P Watson, ‘US Aid to Milosevic’s Foes Is Criticized as ÒKiss of DeathÓ’, Los Angeles Times, 28 August 2000.
5: D Bujosevic and I Radovanovic, The Fall of Milosevic: The October 5th Revolution (Palgrave, 2003), p4.
6: Jonathan Steele’s phrase in his ‘Ukraine’s Untold Story’, The Nation, 20 December 2004.
7: H Pope, ‘Pro-West Leaders in Georgia Push Shevardnadze Out’, Wall Street Journal, 24 November 2003.
8: G Dinmore, ‘The Americas & Europe: Flaws Exposed in Strategy of ‘Realpolitik’’’, Financial Times, 27 November 2003.
9: Quoted in P Escobar, ‘What Kind of Revolution is This?’, Asia Times Online, 2 April 2005.
10: See for this information D Wolf, ‘A 21st Century Revolt’, The Guardian, 13 May 2005 (based on his BBC4 documentary, ‘Inside the Orange Revolution’ shown on 15 May 2005).
11: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Reporting Central Asia no 358, 18 March 2005.
12: ‘President Ousted as Kyrgyzstan Revels in its Spring Revolution’, The Times, 25 March 2005.
13: As above.
14: P Escobar, ‘The Tulip Revolution Takes Root’, Asia Times Online, 26 March 2005.
15: Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Reporting Central Asia no 367, 12 April 2005.