Kazakhstan. Belarus. Bolivia. Lebanon. Ukraine. In the last two decades, each of these countries has experienced protests, demands against the government by the people, and in some cases, a change of leadership as the result of revolution. Maybe you’ve heard a peculiar term for these uprisings: color revolutions. What does it mean? The term “color revolution” first appeared in worldwide media sources around 2004. It describes a variety of movements that seek to reform governments.
Color revolutions first were linked to protests in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. (Think Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.) Now people also apply the term to movements in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. (Consider Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005).
The idea of color revolutions began with American political scientist Gene Sharp. He wrote a handbook in 1993 called From Dictatorship to Democracy. The book proposed 198 methods of nonviolent action. They include displaying flags and using colors and symbols. His handbook went viral. It has been translated into more than 30 languages.
Georgia’s Rose Revolution is a good case study. In 2003, widespread protests flared for 20 days. Citizens disputed a parliament election. Protesters who faced off with the military sometimes gave soldiers roses.
Georgians distrusted President Eduard Shevardnadze and his party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG). His regime became famous for gathering illegal wealth. Politicians began leaving his party. They founded new parties.
The CUG grew weak. Protesters waving red roses stormed a parliament session while the president was speaking. Shevardnadze had to escape with his bodyguards. He urged troops to guard his home. Military units refused support. Shevardnadze eventually resigned.
New elections gave power to a different party. The new president, Mikheil Saakashvili, promised to lead with more Western democratic ideals.
Many factors contribute to a color revolution that brings leadership change. Georgia’s citizens were suffering in a failing economy. The government tried to hide budget failures. It couldn’t pay international loans. Over half the population fell into the poverty.
In addition, Georgia permitted an independent television channel called Rustavi-2 to serve the public. A Freedom of Information law allowed media to criticize the government. When the CUG regime began to harass the media, groups like USAid and the Eurasia Foundation gave financial support. They also rallied international support for free speech.
In 2021, Serbia and Russia’s security officials depicted color revolutions as instruments of the West. They claimed Western nations wanted to destabilize “free states.” In 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that political upheaval in bordering Kazakhstan was organized by “terrorists” trained abroad. He continues to justify his invasion of Ukraine. He calls those supportive of Ukraine “terrorists.”
The United States says it does not equip people in other nations to launch color revolutions. It holds that political unrest in those countries is due to corruption and human rights abuses.
The United States does support countries moving toward democratic ideals. The U.S. ambassador to Georgia pressed Shevardnadze for free elections during the Rose Revolution. The United States gave money to help computerize Georgia’s voter rolls.
Shevardnadze permitted NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Georgia. NGOs are usually nonprofit groups committed to humanitarian efforts. The United States and European governments sent funds to NGOs in Georgia that pushed for fair elections.
A government that wants absolute power reacts swiftly to protests, especially over suppressed liberties. China makes it difficult for NGOs to operate at all. A law passed in 2017 requires foreign NGOs to register with the police and report all activities. China also heavily monitors the press and media. Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, runs pro-state propaganda headlines like “US wages global color revolutions to topple govts for the sake of American control.”
Governments groan with sin and political power plays. And revolutions that seem successful still struggle with brokenness. (Georgia’s president after the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili, is now in prison for abuse of power.)
Proverbs 16:12 declares, “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” Wise rulers recognize their citizens as image bearers of God, not masses to be controlled and used. And they submit their lust for power to God’s intentions that we serve one another well.
Why? Different countries have different views of color revolutions. We study international history and politicians’ worldviews to understand why leaders operate the way they do.
Pray leaders will act with humility and justice.