After the ‘velvet revolutions’ in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States of the Soviet Union, 1989-1991, and a period of political re-organization and consolidation, several countries involved developed relatively stable multi-party parliamentary systems. But many others (especially states formed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union) developed into authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. As a result, a second wave of protests to oust these autocratic rulers and to promote a multi-party regime took place in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. There were significant mobilizations by opposition parties, combining street protests with contesting elections, in Romania (1996), Bulgaria (1996-97) and Slovakia (1998 – five years after Czechoslovakia’s ‘velvet divorce’). In all these cases the opposition won in the polls and, despite fears to the contrary, the ruling party stepped down.
Communist Yugoslavia had been outside the Soviet military and economic bloc, since 1948 and had in varying degrees at different times developed a rather more open society. After 1990, however, internal economic pressures, political intransigence and separatist nationalisms led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia into the separate states of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia and the break-up of the former republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina into ethnically distinct enclaves, leaving Serbia and Montenegro to represent ‘Yugoslavia’ (until Montenegro’s eventual independence in 2006). The breakaway of Slovenia, where there was an active civil society and peace movement, was achieved with relatively few casualties. But Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and finally Kosovo became engaged in bitter wars that not only led to crimes against humanity, but promoted extreme ethnic nationalism and poisoned the prospects of internal democracy.
By the late 1990s the processes of economic and political change influencing other parts of Eastern Europe impacted on both Croatia and Serbia, and both adopted models of protest mobilization and attempts at regime change through elections. A popular movement in Croatia developed in 1999, and underpinned a coalition between opposition parties that won the 2000 elections against the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) that had been dominated by President Tudjman during the 1990s (until his death in late 1999). The struggle in Serbia against the autocratic rule of Slobodan Milosevic, which achieved success in reversing the rigged presidential election in October 2000, drew on the tactics of the movements in Slovakia and Croatia (although Slovak activists had earlier learned from the sustained Serbian protests against rigged local government elections in Belgrade and elsewhere in 1996-97).
The Serbian example was especially dramatic, with protest culminating in miners and others from the provinces converging on Belgrade on October 5 and joining with activists in the city to seize the Parliament building and the TV station. The security forces chose to side with the demonstrators, and Milosevic soon conceded electoral defeat. This example subsequently influenced groups in Georgia, December 2003, and the Ukraine, December 2004, to prepare similar campaigns against rigged elections and to mount large demonstrations in Tbilisi and Kiev. Although occasionally labelled the ‘Bulldozer Revolution’ after the single bulldozer at the front of the 5 October procession, the Serbian revolution has often been presented as the first of the ‘colour revolutions’, and bracketed with the ‘Rose Revolution’ in Georgia and the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine.
These successful (at least in the short term) combinations of people power with contesting elections in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union encouraged opposition groups in other countries in the region to use the electoral process to field opposition candidates and to organise protests against the rigging of elections. Similar protests – so far unsuccessful and on a smaller scale – have occurred in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Moldova. Kyrgyzstan achieved a change of political leadership in 2005, in what was hailed at the time as the ‘Tulip Revolution’, but the new president was ousted in turn amid widespread protests in 2010, and some commentators have queried whether Kyrgyzstan should be bracketed with Georgia and Ukraine.
Almost all the protests covered in this section have a number of common features that encourage comparison between them. They have all taken place in countries formerly ruled by communist one-party states. They have all occurred in semi-authoritarian regimes that included sometimes violent suppression of dissent but tolerated forms of civil society and formal political opposition – the most repressive ex-Soviet (Asian) republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have not experienced this type of movement. Russia itself has oscillated since 1991 in degrees of authoritarianism, without major electoral protests until 2012.
This region still reflects former cold war antagonisms and both Russia and the USA still compete for economic, strategic and ideological advantage. These countries are almost all susceptible to the pull of the European Union and the influence of other European intergovernmental bodies; and the oppositions have been open to ideas, modes of protest and forms of organization in neighbouring countries. In addition the oppositions have adopted a strategy of linking popular mobilization to formal elections – a strategy that encourages external funding and support both for electoral monitoring (internally and by international organisations) and for electioneering. This electoral strategy is not confined to Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet bloc – it was successfully pioneered in the Philippines in 1986, and unsuccessfully attempted in the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009 (see Section E). But it has been dominant in the former communist states, as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa (some of the literature attempts comparisons between the two regions).
Partly because of the political dynamics of the region, and partly because of the logic of a primarily electoral strategy, opposition movements have often (though not always) received an exceptional degree of external western support in terms of funding, organizational expertise and tactical advice. The role of various types of external support therefore often figures prominently in the literature. The post-communist states also provide a central focus for political and ideological debates about the underlying purposes of external intervention (although this is an issue that has also arisen in other parts of the world) – see commentary and literature under Section F.
Russia itself figures largely in the literature on electoral revolutions in former Soviet states as an external great power supporting authoritarian regimes. But developments within Russia itself are of course politically important, and there have been significant protests, though falling well short of threatening the Putin regime (see D.III).
Only one major and prolonged movement in this section does not fall into the pattern of electoral revolutions, and that is the unarmed struggle for secession and independence by the Albanian majority in the Serbian province of Kosovo from 1988 to the mid-1990s. This important movement committed to a nonviolent strategy was eventually superseded by a guerrilla wing that prompted Serbian armed attacks, which in turn led to NATO intervention in the conflict against Serbian forces. Kosovo is therefore covered first in a separate sub-section.