The role of civil society in democratic transformations: what can we learn from “colour revolutions”?

GT 6.9 Inestabilidad política en los regímenes autoritarios y semiautoritarios euroasiáticos 20 años después de la desintegración de la URSS y Yugoslavia

Abel Polese

To address the question contained in the title we need first of all to explore the newly defined relationship between civil society in undemocratic countries and the efforts of international forces to foster changes by supporting civil society actors. In recent years support to civil society organisations has had two main effects. Firstly it has accelerated a social transformation and boosted social capital, providing civil society actors with more skills and knowledge. This in turn has had a positive effect on the quality and quantity of social capital active in a country. Secondly it has granted political oppositions a clear signal that civil society, along with the people, was a political force that could be exploited and used against a regime. This synergy acquired enhanced significance and has led to the spread of the colour revolution phenomenon in the former USSR and its diffusion to non CIS countries like Myanmar, Lebanon and Nepal.

However this strategy has been possible only as long as other structural conditions (see Skocpol 1979) were fulfilled. It is the “permission” of local regimes that allowed a degree of interference that has made possible for international organisations to operate locally (Ó Beacháin and Polese 2010). This also means that human agency has been of utmost importance for it has listened, interpreted, and conveyed the message coming from formal institutions (domestic and international). In this respect the paper looks at the way re-elaboration and re-negotiation of instructions succeed, or fail, in boosting social capital and develop civil society as a primary agent of change (this can also take another form, that of when civil society organisations that support the regime).


Ó Beacháin, Donnacha and Abel Polese. 2010. The Colour Revolution in the Former Soviet Republics (London: Routledge)

Skocpol, Theodore (1979), States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)