Between 2000 and 2005, a series of popular protests, which later became known as ‘colour revolutions’, swept away authoritarian and semiauthoritarian regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. The common trigger for these revolutions was an attempt by leaders to falsify election results in their favour. Via various non-violent regime-change strategies, the protests sought to change political configurations in a democratic direction. The ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine was archetypical. In 2004–2005, the Orange Revolution – so called because this was the colour worn by many protesters to illustrate their solidarity – helped bring to power a pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, who defeated his rival Viktor Yanukovych in a repeat run-off election. Protesters claimed that the integrity of the initial election, which Yanukovych ‘won’, was undermined by massive corruption, voter intimidation and direct electoral fraud. Subsequently, thousands of protesters demonstrated daily, in events characterised by widespread civil disobedience and labour strikes.
Events in Ukraine echoed wider examples of vote rigging, voter intimidation and electoral irregularities that characterised many countries in Central and Eastern Europe following the collapse of Communist governments in the 1990s. In addition, the colour revolutions demonstrated the increasing volatility of international relations, the spread of ideas and the associated demands by citizens for political and economic change. In some countries, the colour revolution swept away the authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime. In others, it did not. Thus, the issue of the ‘voices of the people’ is not just about success but also failure and the causes of failure. Today’s political and economic protests tend to have both longevity and wide ramifications. At the very least they change the relationship between ruled and rulers. If harnessed fully they can lead to profound political upheaval.
In other Central and Eastern European states, attempts to replicate successful strategies in the earlier colour revolutions, such as peaceful protests, public demands for democratisation, the use of election monitoring and post-election mass protests to contest fraudulent elections, failed. Moreover, in those states where no serious attempt to launch a colour revolution was made, governments took action to avoid the possibility of regime change by espousing policies sometimes referred to as ‘anti-colour insurance’. For example, rulers in Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan adopted strategies such as strongly attacking local, independent civil society and political activists as ‘foreign agents’, unfairly limiting electoral competition and portraying colour revolution ideas and techniques as subversive and alien to the country’s culture and traditions. Thus, to understand why some protests succeeded and others failed, we need to take into account the ability of authoritarian regimes to prevent democratisation and significant economic reform. This amounted to the ability of the regimes to study democracy promotion techniques at the heart of protests and directly combat these techniques. As there was variation in activists’ choice of strategies across the various protesting nations, rulers’ responses also differed according to the perceived seriousness of the threat to regime survival and the regime’s strength in relation to the opposition it faced.
Although not connected by geography, time or culture to the colour revolutions, Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ (also known as ‘Occupy Central’ and the ‘Umbrella Movement’) in 2014 similarly involved popular protests against authoritarian rule and lack of democracy. The name ‘umbrella’ refers to the fact that many activists held umbrellas as a symbol of protest during the events. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous island territory and a former British colony. It passed from British to Chinese control in 1997 and part of the deal was that China would allow at least a measure of democracy to continue. China, of course, is ruled by a Communist government and is a one-party state that strictly limits political competition. Protesters believed that the Chinese government was going back on an agreement to allow Hong Kong to have open elections and was progressively governing Hong Kong more like mainland China. There were also underlying economic issues, with Hong Kong’s citizens experiencing some of the highest levels of wealth and income inequality in the world. For several weeks, Hong Kong’s ultra-modern business centre was transformed into a conflict zone, with up to 200,000 protestors confronted by police in riot gear. The protests eventually fizzled out, with the protesters not only failing to persuade the government of China to accede to their demands but also experiencing dwindling support as people grew tired of the disruption to their lives. As was the case in some Central and Eastern European countries, this highlights the ability of entrenched rulers to stay in power without making significant concessions. Yet it is also clear that the protests have had an impact on how many Hong Kong citizens view their political future. This may be significant in years to come as a large proportion of the protesters were students and young people.
Although separated by a decade, the colour and ‘Umbrella’ revolutions were both indicative of a wide sense of disconnection from power. When this is matched by an ability for people to use their voice to influence political and economic outcomes, mass action can quickly follow. Here, we can see the double-edged impact of globalisation at work. On the one hand, the end of the Cold War unleashed the forces of democratisation and economic reform that many authoritarian elites did their best to prevent – sometimes with success. On the other hand, ideas set free by the end of the Cold War found resonance in diverse cultural contexts and expression in the form of street protests that reflected the power of the voice of the people. In fact, so extensive was the spread of such thinking that even established democracies in the West were affected.