Shades of influence: The West’s role in color revolutions in former Soviet nations

Shades of influence: The West’s role in color revolutions in former Soviet nations

By: pallavi sethi&
July 7 2023

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Shades of influence: The West’s role in color revolutions in former Soviet nations

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

In a March 2022 interview with Real America's Voice, Lara Logan, the former chief foreign affairs correspondent at CBS News, made several unfounded claims regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Logan, known for peddling conspiracy theories, alleged that the CIA funded Ukraine's Euromaidan protests in 2013. She also asserted the United States financed Ukraine's far-right Neo-Nazi group, the Azov Battalion. The interview led to an unsettling yet predictable alliance between Logan and Russia, as Russian officials lauded her controversial stance on Twitter. Clips of her claims resurfaced on numerous mainstream social media platforms in 2023. One Facebook reel alone received over 500,000 views and 40,000 shares. 

The claim that the CIA funded the Euromaidan protests is part of a broader narrative that suggests color revolutions in former Soviet states were part of a "Western coup." Russia and its supporters viewed such interventions as attempts to manipulate and control sovereign nations. They frequently accused the West, mainly the United States, of using non-governmental organizations and media outlets to orchestrate these revolutions. While there is no substantial evidence proving direct funding from Western nations, including the United States, dismissing their involvement would be inaccurate – but involvement does not amount to a coup. 

The vibrant struggle for change

Color revolutions often refer to peaceful political uprisings in mainly former Soviet nations. In "The Colour Revolutions in the Former Soviet Republics," edited by Donnacha Ó Beacháin and Abel Polese, these movements are described as a series of "nonviolent protests that succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian regimes during the first decade of the twenty-first century." Color revolutions typically involve mass protests and peaceful tactics for regime change, democracy, and transparency. These peaceful demonstrations began with the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and rapidly spread to Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan under the Orange and Tulip revolutions, respectively.

More recently, the masses in Belarus peacefully took to the streets following the 2020 election result, which was perceived to be rigged when the election resulted in President Alyaksandr Lukashenka winning by a considerable margin

Each country's unique political landscape led to different outcomes and challenges for the movements. However, such revolutions shared striking similarities. Widespread frustration among the public with corrupt and authoritarian regimes sparked many uprisings; for example,  the Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kyrgyz people were dissatisfied with economic inequality and electoral fraud. "All were political transitions rooted in stolen elections that saw a pro-Western, and, at least, initially, more democratic president come to power," writes political analyst Lincoln Mitchell in his book, The Color Revolutions. However, unlike Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, the Belarusian protests didn't lead to the fall of President Lukashenka. In Belarus, protests were driven by public outrage over the imprisonment of opposition figures, a stagnant economy, and President Lukashenka's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mitchell also points out that support from the international civil society was "pivotal" in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. All three revolutions drew varying levels of attention from international organizations and civil institutions that offered assistance in the post-revolutionary transitions. For instance, during the 2003 parliamentary elections in Georgia, the U.S. government, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe sent special representatives to monitor the election proceedings. The same was also true for the Belarusian protests. 

However, disinformation narratives have repeatedly targeted the color revolutions, claiming their intention is – or was – to install pro-Western governments and exert influence over post-Soviet nations.

Disinformation narratives

Following the various color revolutions in former Soviet nations, internal and external actors have accused the West, including governments, intelligence agencies, and non-governmental organizations, of orchestrating the movements and meddling in domestic matters to bring down the government. These narratives assert that the color revolutions were not grassroots movements and disregard ordinary people's significant role and grievances. Paul D'Anieri, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at the University of California Riverside, told Logically Facts that such tactics aim to undermine the legitimacy of popular movements and deflect blame for their own repressive actions. "The main motive has been to discredit these revolutions. They sought to portray the post-2004 and post-2014 governments in Ukraine as illegitimate. They also sought to create a moral equivalence between purported Western support for these "revolutions" and Russia's own subversion of neighbors' governments."

During the Rose Revolution, former President Shevardnadze made public accusations against the Open Society Foundation, or Soros Foundation, an international nonprofit organization promoting democratic governance. In a live broadcast on State TV Channel, Shevardnadze claimed the NGO "funds" the Georgian opposition parties. Project Manager Mariam Tsitsikashvili at Georgia's Reforms Associates, a multipurpose think tank in Georgia, shed light on the work done by the Soros Foundation. She told Logically Facts, "Soros Foundation was involved in several projects to fight corruption, promote educational reform, and improve the country's struggling healthcare network." Tsitsikashvili noted the organization financed "local NGOs on human rights, judicial, democratic, and political issues." 

Dr. Francoise J. Companjen, a senior lecturer at the VU University Amsterdam, researched the growth of civil society in Georgia during the Rose Revolution, discovering that local NGOs became politicized following the closure of Rustavi 2, a prominent independent media outlet, by Shevardnadze's regime. Dr. Iryna Solonenko, an expert in civil society and domestic politics in Ukraine, drew similar findings, highlighting the strengthening of civil society in Ukraine due to the declining democracy under President Yanukovych's leadership. 

Blaming the West for organizing movements in post-Soviet nations was also a theme during the 2020 Belarus protests. In September 2020, Belarusian President Lukashenka accused the U.S. of orchestrating the uprisings, stating, "We did not allow their plans to come true and we will not allow that." However, the authoritarian leader failed to provide evidence to support his claims. 

It is not only domestic actors that promote such propaganda; in 2020, Sergey Naryshkin, the director of Russia's foreign intelligence services, claimed that the West had trained activists in Belarus before the country's elections. According to Naryshkin, "It is noteworthy that the West had launched the groundwork for the protests long before the elections."  Russia and Belarus share close political, economic, and military ties. Besides backing President Lukashenka during the 2020 elections, Russia also provides loans and subsidized energy to Belarus. Further, Belarus holds strategic significance for the Russian military as the Ukrainian capital Kyiv is geographically closer to Belarus than Russia. NPR reported that Russia launched its “largest military training exercise” in Belarus in February 2020, right before it invaded Ukraine. 

This is not the first time Russia has accused the West of interfering in neighboring nations. Pawel Terpiłowski, Chief editor of Demagog, a Polish fact-checking organization, explained to Logically Facts that even before the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, there was a misinformation campaign by pro-Russian politicians and organizations, which attempted to distort the anticipated consequences of signing the Association Agreement with the European Union. Terpiłowski states, “The narrative promoted general anti-Western sentiments such as false claims that signing the agreement with the EU would imply consenting to same-sex marriages.” Following the Euromaidan protests, Russian officials asserted that the "West organized the state coup in Ukraine" and used extremist tactics as a "geopolitical instrument" to orchestrate protests and uprisings in other nations. 

The gray truth

While most accusations against the West – especially U.S. and international nonprofit organizations – seem far-fetched, it would be inaccurate to say they had no role in such revolutions. Dr. Companjen acknowledges that although there was no evidence of direct foreign funding in the Rose Revolutions, International NGOs did have a long-term financial impact through "conditional grants" and aid. For instance, the Open Society Foundation Georgia proposed that local NGOs identify issues in Georgia and support "political forces that would recognize the problems as guideline principles." 

Two political parties, including the New Democrats and the National Movement, officially adopted this proposal. Many in Georgia found this support helpful, crediting the West’s influence as a positive impact on the Rose Revolution. Levan Ramishvili, Chair of the Board of the Liberty Institute that received funding from the U.S., believes Western support was vital to the Revolution's success, "The success in Georgia is a result of the people's commitment to democracy, but without foreign assistance, I'm not sure we would have been able to achieve what we did without bloodshed."

Some believe that the existence of democracy assistance programs in a country does not prove American attempts to alter governments. Prior to the Orange Revolution or Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, the U.S. had supported Ukraine's pro-Western political forces. It provided financial and political support to the country for over two decades. Speaking to PolitiFact, U.S. State Department spokesperson Nicole Thompson confirmed that since 1992, the U.S. government had invested $5.1 billion to support "democracy-building programs" in Ukraine. In addition, the former Soviet nations that saw revolutions, including Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, were already American allies in "varying degrees.” As such, there was “no compelling reason” for the U.S. to pursue a change in government in any of these countries. 

The revolutions in former Soviet nations were driven by political, social, and economic factors. People were dissatisfied with the corruption, lack of political freedoms, financial hardships, and authoritarian rule that persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ordinary yet decisive citizens joined in solidarity against the ruling regime, and although grassroots movements and civil society organizations received support from the international community, it was their own efforts that raised awareness and advocated for change. The revolutions were not part of a Western coup but emerged organically from people's desire for democratic reforms. 

(Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 8, 2023, on Logically Facts and has been updated to reflect that the 2013 Euromaidan protests were the product of people’s desire for democratic reforms. We have spoken to experts to shed some light on the available facts and understand the possible reasons behind the narratives blaming the West for supporting these protests.)

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