For 15 years, the social movements commonly referred to as "color revolutions" have been taking place throughout the world. Most Americans have a tangential awareness of this phenomenon, but typically, only through the images of riots distributed in western media, rather than an understanding of the often complex power structures involved. These movements, however, had an immense impact on how activists in semi-authoritarian states view their resources to challenge oppression.
Kyiv, Ukraine was the site of one of the largest movements that distinctly fit the "color revolution" paradigm in 2004. Ten years later, some experts have hypothesized that the current uprising in Ukraine is indicative of the end of the color revolutions. While there is importance in dispelling the myth of a simple formula bringing democracy to any country, at any time, there is also importance in acknowledging what the color revolutions really were and how their legacy is playing out in the unique context and experience of Ukraine today.
Samuel Huntington once described a revolution as the explosion of political participation that overtakes the power of established structures, but further explained that "[A] complete revolution, however, also involves a second phase: the creation and institutionalization of a new political order." As the Orange Revolution coalition fell apart and Yanukovych came into power through generally free and fair elections, ushering in a steady decline of democratic standards to pre-2004 levels, it was clear that the Orange Revolution never met that second mark.
Other countries that went through color revolutions have experienced varying results. Serbia, the location of the first color revolution, appears to have succeeded in establishing a new democratic political order more than a decade after the Bulldozer Revolution of Yugoslavia. Georgia, on the other hand, has made impressive progress in changing the status quo in areas of corruption and elections for the better, but has declined in the areas of independent media and judicial framework.
Simply put, the color revolutions did not have a uniform result and, for the most part, were not true revolutions. They were generally social movements that espoused the beliefs of nonviolent civil resistance, but faced different leaders, economies, cultures, infrastructures and external relations. It really is debatable whether any fully succeeded in establishing strong democracies and a number of them involved some level of aggression by protestors and the state, albeit isolated and brief.
So then, why are they important, and why do they matter for Ukraine now?
The Orange Revolution was not a complete "revolution," but rather a social movement that changed civil society and how activists can respond to authoritarian actions. Looking at Freedom House's analysis of democratic structures in Ukraine since 2004, it is clear that while other areas have declined, civil society and independent media have both developed. This can be substantially attributed to legacy of the Orange Revolution which built civil society in a variety of ways and significantly to the development of online media -- social media and news media -- in the country.
This legacy also brought the skepticism towards any one politician or party as a solution to the problem and, more importantly, a watchdog tendency within the activist community toward all politicians leading to the development of organizations like Chesno. Throughout the Euromaidan protests, there has been strong pressure for no one person to be the leader. While this has created some challenges on occasion, this has been a powerful force to keep protestors united behind one front.
The laws passed on January 16, draconian and terrible as they were, reflected an understanding of the power of democratic potential in Ukraine and the fear of those who want to keep the status quo. Beyond censorship and restricting the resource potential and freedom of civic organizations, violence has been directed at members of the media ranging from breaking equipment to firing live ammunition at them, using their orange vests as targets. The photos and the writing that have been coming from Ukraine have caught the world's attention and every effort is being made to silence these powerful voices.
What matters most for Ukraine right now is to remember the lessons of 2004 -- a revolution requires sweeping systemic change, and nothing short of it. Thus far, protestors and the opposition have remained united behind goals that would have this needed impact. While the Yanukovych administration has made some concessions that would likely have assuaged much of the early protests, these have not been accepted as a solution.
What perhaps matters just as much is for the international community to recognize the overwhelming desire for real change in Ukraine. Compromise is a valuable concept, but pressure to do so must be informed by due justice required for protestors and put into the context of dealing with a corrupt and violent government. Diplomats and politicians must consider not only what is being asked and offered, but what has been done against the citizens of Ukraine and seek a path to supporting a just society in the country. Without due process and the rule of law, neither of which have a real potential to exist with the current president, the change protestors seek cannot happen.
Euromaidan may yet bring true revolution in Ukraine into fruition through or in spite of the violence that has defined the protests in most of the media coverage in the West. Violence is not a necessary characteristic of true revolutions, though it is common and happening in Ukraine. Practicing non-violence is not unique to the color revolutions and it has been a far more common practice of protestors than the molotov cocktails littering the images most people see. While the color revolutions were relatively brief, real change does not happen overnight or in a single election and, perhaps, this is one of the most important lessons protestors have learned.
Ultimately, the lessons of the color revolutions have helped make Euromaidan possible and may yet bring democracy to Ukraine. The helmets of 2014 are not the same as the orange wave of 2004, but the fabric of Euromaidan was woven with the colorful threads of over a decade of social movements.