People Power or a One-Shot Deal? The Legacy of the Colored Revolutions Considered from a Collective Action Framework

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Joshua A. Tucker
New York University


In the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, it was clear something special was occurring in the post-communist world. In a series of stunning developments, a number of countries that had by and large failed to establish viable democratic governments in the original period of post-communist transitions ten years earlier suddenly rose up to demand democratic accountability following a series of fraudulent elections in such previous hotbeds of democracy as Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. Scholars of course took notice, with a flurry of articles on each individual “Colored Revolution”, as they collectively came to be known, as well as a number of more recent papers that have tried to make sense of them collectively (e.g., McFaul 2005; Beissinger 2007; Bunce and Wolchik 2007; Tucker 2007). The focus of these papers, not surprisingly, lay in trying to explain how and why the Colored Revolutions took place. To the extent that they looked at all to the future, it was largely to speculate as to the next country that was likely fall in the path of this democratic onslaught (Belarus anyone?). Left relatively unexplored, however, was the legacy of the Colored Revolutions for the future of political protest for the countries in which they had occurred.

In this paper, I take up precisely this question. More specifically, I lay out two possible legacies of the Colored Revolutions for the countries in which they take place. The most intuitive expectation would be one that highlights citizens’ discovery of their own “people power”, leading us to expect to see protests again in the future when democratic development is threatened by corrupt or inept leaders. Surprisingly, though, when we consider in sufficient detail the micro-level motivation of protestors that took to the streets in the original Colored Revolutions, a paradox emerges: to the extent that the need for a second “Colored Revolution” might emerge in a country, it will simultaneously call into question whether the gains from the original Colored Revolution was worth the cost paid by the people who participated in it. I will spend the bulk of this paper drawing out this paradox, noting why it is especially serious in the case of protests that followed electoral fraud (as all the Colored Revolutions did), and attempting to highlight the specific variables that would make it more likely that the Colored Revolutions will in fact turn out to be “one-shot deals”.

In order to do this, I draw upon a framework that I have presented in detail elsewhere that suggests one way to think about the Colored Revolutions is in terms of the collective action problem faced by citizens who are confronted by an abusive or unrestrained regime (Tucker 2007; see Weingast 1997, 2005 on the idea of unrestrained regimes1). In a sense, I utilize a “bottom-up” approach to understanding the Colored Revolutions by focusing on the motivations faced by individual citizens to participate in protest following instances of electoral fraud; most of the rest of the literature on the Colored Revolutions tends to focus on the actions and motivations of elites (although see Way 2006; Fournier forthcoming for an exception in the case of Ukraine). In this paper, I will then extend this bottom-up approach to considering the longer-term future of protest in the Colored Revolution countries.

I proceed as follows. I begin by laying out a very concise summary of the events of the Colored Revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. I then briefly sketch out the arguments that I have made previously regarding how we might consider the Colored Revolutions as an example of how the prevalence of publicly known major electoral fraud is a particularly useful confronted by abusive governments. In what is the heart of the paper, I then expand upon this argument to consider what it has to teach us about whether we ought to expect to see more protest in the future in these countries, concluding with the somewhat counter-intuitive observation that the set of circumstances in which we might expect this to occur is actually rather limited. I conclude the essay with a number by briefly speculating about how I might further develop this argument in the future.

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