The Structure of Peaceful Civic Revolutions:
Slovakia, Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine
February 15, 2005
Staff-prepared summary of the EES discussion with Pavol Demes, Director, Transatlantic Center for Central and Eastern Europe, German Marshall Fund

Transitions to democracy are about a lot more than just holding elections: even after elections are held the goal of democratic consolidation can be easily derailed by democratically-elected leaders with authoritarian leanings. While most countries in postcommunist Europe were able to consolidate their democracies, some transitions were held up by neo-authoritarian leaders, such as Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine. Although these regimes were clearly authoritarian and undemocratic, they did not dismantle democratic institutions, but simply drained them of power. This sham allowed them to claim legitimacy on the world stage, making it difficult to imagine how to effect change. Nevertheless, in swift succession over the last eight years, Slovakia, Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine have managed to launch peaceful revolutions to put democratic consolidation back on track.

Pavol Demes presented the unifying characteristics of these peaceful civic revolutions. First, these revolutions targeted elections. Unlike the velvet revolution, which first required the collapse of the communist political and economic institutions, these revolutions aimed at reinvigorating existing democratic institutions through mass civic participation. Revolutionaries took advantage of elections because that was when the regime was most vulnerable and when the international community puts a spotlight on the country.

The second strategy was organizing mass participation. This is difficult to do, since it requires political sophistication and large resources to combat the authoritarian leader's monopoly on information and power. Therefore, a well-connected network of NGOs with ties to Western organizations was essential in providing knowledge and funding to local grassroots movements. These NGOs operated along five principles. First, their campaigns were non-partisan so that they were able operate above the political fray and achieve a high level of credibility. Second, they operated within the laws and the constitution, even when the authoritarian regime did not. Third, they promoted non-violent revolution. Finally, they recruited a strong youth component. The youth were essential because they demand unambiguous answers from their leaders. They are strong and courageous—a necessary element in braving two months in a tent city during Ukraine's bitter winter. Moreover, they have a strong sense of identity and good communication skills, which were essential in allowing the ‘t-shirt' campaigns to succeed. Most importantly, the peaceful revolutions created an ethos of neopatriotism, which gave citizens a reason to be proud of their state, such that the goal of protecting democracy became a top priority.

International factors also played an important role. The EU and the US, along with private and public support, was necessary for bringing in technical—skills, such as voter education and electoral observation—to these countries. Financial assistance to local NGOs from the West was extremely useful, but moral support from abroad was essential to push these countries through a very uncertain period. Most importantly, EU and the US unity in supporting the revolutions was indispensable.

There was also a tremendous amount of moral support from nationals in fellow ‘managed democracies'—Slovak NGOs participated in the Serbian revolutions and, more recently, Belarusians, Georgians and Russians waved their countries' flags during demonstrations in Kiev. The common experience and democratic aspirations of these and other countries will be discussed at a symposium held in Bratislava, Slovakia next week, which is to coincide with George Bush's and Vladimir Putin's meeting there. The President's global campaign to foster democracy and freedom will surely find support among the colloquium participants.