Colour revolution – an American analysis

Book: The Color Revolutions
Author:  Lincoln A. Mitchell
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
Year: 2012.

This proved an interesting book to review for two main reasons. First it discusses a region that I do not have a strong background with, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Balancing that however is the second factor of looking at the arguments presented in The Color Revolutions, and seeing how they fit in with the more global context of U.S. foreign policy.

Mitchell’s main thesis has two facets. The first is that in reality, the revolutions were never really revolutions, but progressions in the development of governance in the countries involved. He argues that the societies were generally open to begin with, were not overly repressive - allowing a relatively free press and free speech, as well as allowing the peaceful demonstrations to proceed without violent intervention. Along with this, the political system was somewhat developed, but not overly strong enough to resist the pressures of public protests for reform.

The second facet follows on the first: the non-revolutions were mostly not effective in promoting democracy and creating freer societies. Particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia, the post- ‘revolution’ period showed a decline in freedoms as the new governments consolidated their power in more repressive ways. In the Ukraine, he argues that the republic achieved an equilibrium as the opposing parties, representing separate regions of the country, were essentially forced into a more balanced position, as well as having to deal with a larger, more geopolitically important environment.

As part of the second idea, Mitchell argues that the main change was in governing elites, that regime change was more of old elites putting a new face on the political landscape. The new leaders had been part of the governing elites previously, and were now put into power. As well, the old leaders who were removed were not dictators nor authoritarian, but were moving forward from the Soviet era.

For this narrowly focussed discussion on the internal politics of the Colour Revolution countries, Mitchell succeeds in convincing the reader. Where he is not so convincing is on his examination of the larger geopolitical context, that of the U.S. relationship with Russia, and with its ongoing interests in the Middle East.

Lincoln Mitchell is a political science research scholar at Columbia University. His CV indicates that he was at one time “Chief of Party for the National Democratic Institute.” The NDI is the Democrats’ equivalent to the International Republican Institute. The NDI is headed by Madeleine K. Albright, not known for her democratic and peaceful tendencies. She is the one, if the readers need reminding, who thought that the deaths of an estimated five hundred thousand Iraqi children was worth the price for U.S. success in Iraq.

Both the NDI and IRI are involved with democracy promotion in countries where there are concerns about democratic development. Unfortunately, that last statement, while believed by many, is not true. Yes, it is true that those working in the institutes may well believe that they are acting for democracy, but it is the ‘what they do’ part where the failures and contradictions occur. Further, democracy is mostly conflated with capitalism and free markets, and anyone who has followed U.S. foreign policy will know that any democratic socialist government, or any government that opposes U.S. intentions for its empire, will be in political and military trouble. Conversely, those that support the U.S., no matter how authoritarian (sometimes for the better as they will process U.S. renditions) or militarily repressive, will only receive minimal attention from those concerned with democracy. The oil must flow and the corporations must gain wealth.

I sometimes wonder if authors read their words correctly and reflect them back on their own situations. It is implicit throughout the work that the U.S. is a free democratic state and that it is operating with the “best intentions” in its democracy promotion. Frequently the words do not match the context, and also highlight the double standards of U.S. foreign policy.

Kyrgyzstan is described as having a strong president willing to commit election fraud and other illegalities, if not widespread human rights abuses,” leading to a “decreased confidence in the country’s democracy both domestically and overseas.” And the U.S.? Certainly Obama is not a strong president, but the institutions that surround him are strong and essentially represent only elitist interests. Election fraud? Always alleged in the U.S., from the problems with electronic elections, to the gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the ongoing disenfranchisement of various citizens through a web of voting rules and regulations. Human rights abuses? For certain, maybe not too much at home (the largest prison system in the world, ongoing racial tensions, immigrant problems, a little bit of torture here and there), but certainly historically and currently abroad. Yes there most certainly is a decrease in confidence in the country’s democracy.

There are errors of omission as he broadens his scope on democracy. He does not mention the Palestinian elections (2006) that were fully democratic yet denied by the U.S. and its allies. He does question whether the U.S. would accept foreign NGOs operating in U.S. elections cycles – without stating that there are laws against this, something he should well know.

Jim Miles

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 August 2012 on page no. 21

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