Challenging some myths about so-called ‘colour revolutions’

A child is wrapped with presidentilal candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral poster during Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. AFP
A child is wrapped with presidentilal candidate Viktor Yushchenko’s electoral poster during Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. AFP

Challenging some myths about so-called ‘colour revolutions’

Wednesday’s conference of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly provided the forum for a high-level discourse on the dire consequencesof “colour revolutions” which I had the privilege to follow – food for thought to some ideas of my own, which I would like to share with the reader.

No doubt, the possibility of a colour revolution is haunting the mind of many a political leader here and elsewhere. The images of leaders chased from power and – in some cases – ending up not just in exile but in humiliation and death must be horrifying indeed. Who would like to share that fate?

In fact, there has been a statistically significant occurrence of such events in the past 10 years: Georgia, Kyrgisztan, Ukraine, the Arab Spring (if one chooses, as did the discussants, to include it into the array). Chances are that we will see more of them. Reason, indeed, for contemplation.

The simple formula in Wednesday’s discourse was such: Foreign agents (whoever they may be) instigate the masses, the masses topple the long-time leader, resulting in chaos, anarchy, terrorism, poverty and scores of dead people. The underlying working hypothesis being: If only the long-time leaders were left to their own devices, all these dire consequences could easily be avoided.

But has it occurred to anybody that cause and effect could be mixed up here? Could it not be that because leaders have been in power for an extended period of time, sclerotic political systems have emerged which under the existing
circumstances are beyond remedy,no matter how long the leaders remain in power? Could it be that, even if we assume that there, indeed, are external influences, this is but the spark in the powder keg rather than the root cause of colour revolutions?

History has shown continuously that it punishes all those without mercy who fail to recognise that life moves on. Yet it is a fact of life that human beings (political leaders not being an exception) want to keep what they have as long as they can, including power.

The longer people enjoy power, the more difficult it becomes for them to imagine that one day it may be gone. As time goes by, keeping power becomes an end in itself, seems to legitimise itself. In the process, there is an increasing risk that the leaders’ awareness is waning for all those who live in circumstances very different from their own and whose situation is not comfortable enough to accept the status quo.

A growing gap in the comfort levels of leaders and society is the consequence, especially when and where a population is growing fast.

If this should not lead to undesired results (including colour revolutions), governance mechanisms are required that help to find the optimal mix
between continuity (represented by those in power and by state institutions) and change (ie: a fair chance for new players in the political game to participate in it).

Any attempt to hamper, distort or curtail these mechanisms will, sooner or later, lead to severe frictions between leaders and society.

The eventual and inevitable turmoil may be accelerated by external influences of various kinds (and not necessarily illegitimate), but its root causes lie much deeper and are almost always homemade. Blaming these developments on external conspiracies, therefore, appears to be more of a self-delusion than a convincing explanation.

Colour revolutions happen, with or without external influence, if there is fertile ground on which new ideas and/or frustrations can flourish.

The good news is that there is a way to eliminate the risk of colour revolutions: being prepared to give political newcomers, including those holding differing opinions, a fair
chance to share power or to take it over altogether in line with constitutional provisions where they exist, and to abstain from repressive measures to avert peaceful change.

Joachim von Marschall is the ambassador to Cambodia of the Federal Republic of Germany.

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