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Martin Považan

Second-year student of Multilateral Diplomacy Master's Programme jointly organized by MGIMO University and UNITAR

In the second half of 2020, within a time span of two months, post-election protests occurred in two former Soviet countries. In Kyrgyzstan, the protests after the October parliamentary elections led to a swift and complete replacement of people at the very top of the decision-making structure, without attracting much international attention. On the other hand, in Belarus, where the presidential election sparked large-scale protests closely monitored by the international community, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to stay in power. The matter of the reasons for such different protest outcomes in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan is, therefore, of key interest. This article aims to explore the factors that might have led to the varying outcomes via a comparative analysis of the so-called colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space.

Post-election protests are not a new phenomenon in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Four of the protests, including the latest ones in Kyrgyzstan, led to a change of the executives in power. In his book “Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective," Henry E. Hale extensively discusses Eurasian countries' internal dynamics and identifies three common traits of the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. First, the succession struggle was already underway in the country due to the leader's expected departure. Second, the leaders that were replaced were quite unpopular amongst the population. The conjunction of the succession struggle and the low popularity rendered them lame-ducks, inciting the defection of certain segments of their power structure that had hitherto been loyal. Third, those that came into power in the wake of the revolutions were former high-ranking officials of the erstwhile regime. Hale also claims that external factors (possible foreign influence) fall short of explaining the outcome of these protests. Paul D’Anieri argues that although grassroots movements do indeed wield significant impact, it is the security structures that play a more substantial role in determining the outcome of the attempts to replace governments. Vicken Cheterian, author of "War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier," claims that the media played the main role in the colour revolutions. Hence, the above-mentioned factors are considered in individual cases.

On the eve of the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, being rather unpopular and serving his final term, signaled that he would stop short of tweaking the constitution to stay in power, which led to a succession struggle. The main contender, Mikheil Saakashvili, supported Shevardnadze in the presidential election of 2000 and was subsequently named the Minister of Justice, gradually gaining popularity. As Shevardnadze's approval ratings kept declining, active figured in the power structure, including Saakashvili, joined the opposition ranks. Saakashvili entered the 2003 parliamentary election with a new party, the National Movement, that, according to the official results, lost to Shevardnadze's party. The results were contested by a parallel vote count, Saakashvili found support among other opposition figures, media coverage was present, and protests followed. The demonstrators took over the parliament, the security forces refused to suppress the protests and, eventually, Shevardnadze resigned, paving the way for Saakashvili's victory in the 2004 presidential election.

Turning to popularity, it is very difficult to estimate the domestic popular support of Lukashenko and Tikhanovskaya - one could only assume that both enjoy the support of certain segments of the population, which inevitably leads to a societal rift. On the other hand, it can be presumed with a high probability that Lukashenko's support has decreased since the beginning of 2020, owing to the economic situation against the background of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as due to the election-related developments. On October 13, Tikhanovskaya gave Lukashenko an ultimatum, demanding the end of violence against protesters, the release of political prisoners and Lukashenko's resignation. With the time mentioned in Tikhanovskaya's ultimatum running out on October 25 and a national strike planned to follow, Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power.

As in the Kyrgyz case, regardless of his falling popularity, Lukashenko seemed to not suffer from the lame-duck syndrome, as his departure was not expected. Nevertheless, there are two things that could explain the differences in the Belarussian case. First, Tikhanovskaya, as the main contender, was not part of the state apparatus and structures of power, which could have diminished the likelihood of certain segments of elites rallying behind her. Second, the security forces did not disobey the orders to suppress the demonstrations and retained their loyalty to Lukashenko.

One could potentially consider other factors, such as the media or external support, to play a crucial role in the different outcome in Belarus. Concerning media, although there was an internet shutdown during the first days following the election, the protests continued and internet access was later restored. While the coverage of protests and the opposition by the state media has been far from favorable, the demonstrators have predominantly used social media to spread information and coordinate their actions. As social media is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the current era, the authorities' actions in the information sphere do not yield a sufficient explanation.

As for the external factors, Tikhanovskaya enjoys the backing of Western governments, while Lukashenko was offered support by Russia. While these factors might have wielded influence, they do not seem to be decisive when put in a comparative perspective with the other cases discussed in this article, which indicate that it the intricate internal processes in the respective countries determine the outcome of protests after an election in the post-Soviet space. The Belarusian case suggests that there could be two closely tied determinants. First, whether the main contender has previously been part of the power structures, which could affect the possibility of the elite shift. Second is the loyalty of the security forces to the incumbent’s administration.

In the second half of 2020, within a time span of two months, post-election protests occurred in two former Soviet countries. In Kyrgyzstan, the protests after the October parliamentary elections led to a swift and complete replacement of people at the very top of the decision-making structure, without attracting much international attention. On the other hand, in Belarus, where the presidential election sparked large-scale protests closely monitored by the international community, Alexander Lukashenko has managed to stay in power. The matter of the reasons for such different protest outcomes in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan is, therefore, of key interest. This article aims to explore the factors that might have led to the varying outcomes via a comparative analysis of the so-called colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space.

Post-election protests are not a new phenomenon in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Four of the protests, including the latest ones in Kyrgyzstan, led to a change of the executives in power. In his book “Patronal Politics: Eurasian Regime Dynamics in Comparative Perspective," Henry E. Hale extensively discusses Eurasian countries' internal dynamics and identifies three common traits of the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. First, the succession struggle was already underway in the country due to the leader's expected departure. Second, the leaders that were replaced were quite unpopular amongst the population. The conjunction of the succession struggle and the low popularity rendered them lame-ducks, inciting the defection of certain segments of their power structure that had hitherto been loyal. Third, those that came into power in the wake of the revolutions were former high-ranking officials of the erstwhile regime. Hale also claims that external factors (possible foreign influence) fall short of explaining the outcome of these protests. Paul D’Anieri argues that although grassroots movements do indeed wield significant impact, it is the security structures that play a more substantial role in determining the outcome of the attempts to replace governments. Vicken Cheterian, author of "War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia's Troubled Frontier," claims that the media played the main role in the colour revolutions. Hence, the above-mentioned factors are considered in individual cases.

On the eve of the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, being rather unpopular and serving his final term, signaled that he would stop short of tweaking the constitution to stay in power, which led to a succession struggle. The main contender, Mikheil Saakashvili, supported Shevardnadze in the presidential election of 2000 and was subsequently named the Minister of Justice, gradually gaining popularity. As Shevardnadze's approval ratings kept declining, active figured in the power structure, including Saakashvili, joined the opposition ranks. Saakashvili entered the 2003 parliamentary election with a new party, the National Movement, that, according to the official results, lost to Shevardnadze's party. The results were contested by a parallel vote count, Saakashvili found support among other opposition figures, media coverage was present, and protests followed. The demonstrators took over the parliament, the security forces refused to suppress the protests and, eventually, Shevardnadze resigned, paving the way for Saakashvili's victory in the 2004 presidential election.

A similar pattern was to be observed during the 2004 Orange Revolution. The Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma scored low on popularity, and it was expected that he would not attempt reelection. With Kuchma becoming a lame-duck, a struggle for succession began to unravel. The main figure of the revolution, Viktor Yushchenko, was the Head of the National Bank of Ukraine for six years during the 1990s and served as Kuchma’s Prime Minister from 1999 until 2001. In 2001, Viktor Yanukovych replaced Yushchenko, who decided to form a coalition that soon became the strongest opposition force. Being able to mobilize popular support, he also managed to attract some elites previously loyal to Kuchma. Official results of the 2004 presidential election placed Yanukovych in front of Yushchenko by a small margin, while exit polls showed Yushchenko’s victory. Notable voting irregularities were observed and covered by some media. Soon, a significant number of protesters gathered in Kyiv, with the city authorities and the security structures becoming more supportive of the protest’s cause, indicating that they would not have carried out a crackdown had it been ordered. In the end, the election came to be repeated later that year, and Yuschenko was elected president.

The 2005 Tulip Revolution followed an analogous logic. As in the previous two cases, the first Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev did not enjoy particularly high popularity during his final term in office, which he repeatedly pledged not to extend. The opposition to Akayev started to grow and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former Prime Minister under Akayev, became the opposition’s primary coordinator. Moreover, for Kyrgyzstan, the South-North clan and regional division of the country is characteristic, with Akayev coming from the North and Bakiyev being a representative of the southern network. In the 2005 parliamentary election, Akayev’s network (including his relatives) officially gained more seats than the regime's legitimacy would have rendered realistic. This sparked protest rallies predominantly in the South, where the opposition set up a parallel power structure. The developments were reported on by some media, as the protests spilled over to the capital Bishkek (in the North) and the number of elite shifts to the opposition started to grow, including also members of the security forces. With loyalty to him withering away, Akayev decided to leave the country and resign, bringing Bakiyev into power.

Fifteen years later, Kyrgyzstan lived through yet another post-election revolution.[1] In the parliamentary election on October 4, the pro-government parties from the South won 91 out of 120 seats, leaving the North of the country without sufficient representation, as information on electoral corruption started emerging. One of the pro-government parties even featured the brother of then-President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who himself comes from the South. According to Article 60, clause 1 of the Kyrgyz Constitution, Jeenbekov could only serve one six-year presidential term. This very constitutional limit makes each Kyrgyz President potentially vulnerable to the lame-duck syndrome. Moreover, Jeenbekov could not count on the general public's support due to the worsening economic conditions in the country in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with media covering the alleged mishandling of the pandemic by the authorities. On October 5, protests started in the capital of Bishkek—the protesters broke into the White House (the building of the Presidential Office and Parliament), set it on fire, and later, ex-president Alzambek Atambayev as well as Sadyr Japarov, the former Head of Nurneftegaz and ex-advisor to former President Bakiyev, were freed from the detention center by the protesters. The security forces did not prevent their release, reportedly even offering the demonstrators a helping hand. The next day, the Central Electoral Commission of Kyrgyzstan annulled the election, Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov resigned, and the opposition set up not one but two Coordination Councils attempting to bring about the transition of power.

Although on October 6 Jeenbekov officially claimed that he ordered the security forces not to fire on protesters, the subsequent developments could indicate that he might well have lost the security structures' loyalty. On October 8, Jeenbekov stated that he would leave the office once the situation returned to usual, and although a state of emergency was introduced on the next day, the protests were not suppressed by the security forces. On October 14, Jeenbekov, after a meeting with the new Prime Minister Japarov, signaled a willingness to resign after a re-run of the parliamentary election. In the end, on October 15, Jeenbekov resigned, reiterating that he did not intend to be a president that spilled the blood of citizens. Prime Minister Japarov became the acting president, with the power subsequently resting in his hands. On November 15, Japarov resigned in order to be allowed to compete in the January 2021 presidential election.

While Jeenbekov was indeed unpopular, it does not seem that a succession struggle had already been underway on the eve of the parliamentary election, as he was only half-way through his presidential term, and the election aimed to strengthen the influence of the South. While the regional division could have acted as a trigger of the events, it in itself does fall short of accounting for the outcome. Hence, the explanation seems to lay somewhere else. Japarov used to be part of the power structures, although he did not serve in the previous administration and was not deemed to be the main contender. Nevertheless, it is plausible to assume that due to his previous involvement in the state structures, he was able to rally some of the elites behind him in paving his way to the post of Prime Minister. Jeenbekov’s twists regarding his resignation could also signal the shifting loyalty of the elites. The available information on the role of the security forces suggests that it could have been their reluctance to suppress the protest rallies that was the other factor that contributed to the power structure’s change. The events were followed by the local media, which also might have played a role. On the other hand, there are contemporarily very few instances where at least some degree of the free flow of information is not present, especially due to the widespread use of various social media platforms. As for the external factors, these were largely absent in this particular case.

In Belarus, the process and the outcome of the post-election protests are different. The protests already commenced before the election due to the authorities’ handling of the contenders of the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko. The main one was deemed to be the former Belgazprombank CEO Viktor Babariko, who was detained in June under allegations of embezzlement and subsequently banned from participating in the presidential election. Neither was Valery Tsepkalo, former Belarussian Ambassador to the U.S. and ex-head of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park, allowed to run for Presidency. The Central Electoral Commission’s decision on Babariko’s and Tsepkalo’s ineligibility to compete in the election was followed by protests. Yet another to-be candidate, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, was also arrested and put on trial. With Tsepkalo leaving the country, and Babariko and Tikhanovsky under arrest, the opposition rallied behind Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who decided to run in place of her husband, Sergei. Shortly before the election, she succeeded in attracting tens of thousands of people to protests, indicating that she had sure support among the population.

It was on August 9, 2020, that, according to the official exit poll, Tikhanovskaya was said to have received 6,8 per cent, while Lukashenko reportedly obtained 79,7 per cent of the vote.[2] Reports about voting irregularities immediately appeared and protesters rallied in the capital Minsk, where they were met with a harsh response by the security forces. Since then, the protests have continued every weekend and were often suppressed by the security forces, which, according to available information, have continued. The same can be said of the state apparatus, which has not witnessed large shifts to the opposition, despite the formation of the Coordination Council by the latter.

Turning to popularity, it is very difficult to estimate the domestic popular support of Lukashenko and Tikhanovskaya - one could only assume that both enjoy the support of certain segments of the population, which inevitably leads to a societal rift. On the other hand, it can be presumed with a high probability that Lukashenko's support has decreased since the beginning of 2020, owing to the economic situation against the background of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as due to the election-related developments. On October 13, Tikhanovskaya gave Lukashenko an ultimatum, demanding the end of violence against protesters, the release of political prisoners and Lukashenko's resignation. With the time mentioned in Tikhanovskaya's ultimatum running out on October 25 and a national strike planned to follow, Lukashenko has managed to hold on to power.

As in the Kyrgyz case, regardless of his falling popularity, Lukashenko seemed to not suffer from the lame-duck syndrome, as his departure was not expected. Nevertheless, there are two things that could explain the differences in the Belarussian case. First, Tikhanovskaya, as the main contender, was not part of the state apparatus and structures of power, which could have diminished the likelihood of certain segments of elites rallying behind her. Second, the security forces did not disobey the orders to suppress the demonstrations and retained their loyalty to Lukashenko.

One could potentially consider other factors, such as the media or external support, to play a crucial role in the different outcome in Belarus. Concerning media, although there was an internet shutdown during the first days following the election, the protests continued and internet access was later restored. While the coverage of protests and the opposition by the state media has been far from favorable, the demonstrators have predominantly used social media to spread information and coordinate their actions. As social media is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in the current era, the authorities' actions in the information sphere do not yield a sufficient explanation.

As for the external factors, Tikhanovskaya enjoys the backing of Western governments, while Lukashenko was offered support by Russia. While these factors might have wielded influence, they do not seem to be decisive when put in a comparative perspective with the other cases discussed in this article, which indicate that it the intricate internal processes in the respective countries determine the outcome of protests after an election in the post-Soviet space. The Belarusian case suggests that there could be two closely tied determinants. First, whether the main contender has previously been part of the power structures, which could affect the possibility of the elite shift. Second is the loyalty of the security forces to the incumbent’s administration.


1. The 2010 Kyrgyz Revolution is not discussed in more detail, as it did not occur after an election.

2. The final results announced by the Central Electoral Commission slightly differed (Lukashenko – 80,1 per cent; Tikhanovskaya – 10,1 per cent)


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