The Electric Yerevan protest provides us with an excellent opportunity to review some of the basic underlying mechanics and psychology of the Color-Spring tactic. It is important to share these publicly, for it is indeed probable that the Color-Spring tactic will be increasingly applied in the world as a “hybrid soft-power/hard-power tactic”.
A moral principle held by Gene Sharp, who was one of the tactic’s main developers, was that violence is not necessary for revolution. What is strange, contradictory, even dishonest here is that violence is reduced taxonomically to the physical violence of the state’s gendarmes against the civilians. But we know that violence comes in many forms.
We live in a time of great violence; physical, psychological, legal, economic, spiritual violence. Not only has the Color Revolution tactic engendered the latter four, but its mutation into the Arab Spring tactic also employs heinous physical violence. We can see today, tens of thousands dead in Libya, hundreds of thousands in Syria, and a mounting figure in Ukraine which threatens to surpass the precedents.
Novices to political science and political activism may be lured by the spectre and spectacle of the Color Revolution method that has characterized ostensible movements for radical social change in the last generation. The symbols have become iconic and clichéd: the tent city, the die-in, the girl placing flowers in the gendarme’s gun barrels, water cannons and tear-gas, the fist flag.
What is missing of course from this view is an understanding of the real social forces in a society, class and economic forces. For forty years, genuine activism, labor union militancy, has been marginalized. In place of direct action against the ruling class at the very places that make their wealth, is a strange simulation of late 1960’s student activism; shown to us on a never-ending film reel loop.
Others have caught on to the fact that the US has been funding these protest movements, and that these “grass-roots” movements are in fact astroturf movements. Still, it is misunderstood how the US viewed these governments before they tried to destabilize them.
One thing which is often popularly misunderstood about the Color-Spring tactic, by those who know that the US is behind them, is that governments being targeted for regime change by the US are not just those which have apparently bad relations with the US, but may in fact be generally US-friendly governments. By and large, in fact, the latter is the case. We will be exploring this aspect as it relates to Armenia.
Also we will look at some of the methods used in the application of this tactic in Armenia, and at the general psychological and technical framework of the organizing methods.
Why the US Targets ‘Regimes’ for ‘Change’
In the Color-Spring tactic, the US may target countries for “regime change” that it has had generally constructive relations with, but whose other ties are increasingly problematic. It may be also generally friendly countries that refuse to commit resources to reshaping regional power balances, such as with Mubarak in Egypt, who was reluctant to interfere with Syria. Another reason may be that the targeted country has a natural relationship with other countries in its region which, regardless of the official position of the government, promotes certain economic and meta-political relationships and developments which are contrary to US interests. In the latter case, it may be desirable to employ a scorched earth policy, known as the “failed state,” in order to destroy the material foundations of economic and political coherency.
Given the failure of the Orange Revolution to frustrate relations with Russia, the situation in Ukraine may be an example of this scorched earth/failed state strategy. Conclusively, the Color-Spring tactic is compatible with any number of strategies, and can be a part of producing any number of desired outcomes, and as such is a very useful weapon to possess.
How the US Sets up a ‘Regime’ for ‘Change’
In this tactic, the US can effectively hide behind itself. It works to create or at least catalyze the very situation which it later exploits. From one of the pioneers of the Color/Spring tactic at Dartmouth and Harvard, Gene Sharp – whose work follows that of Saul Alinsky and others – we can reflect on the following truths:
1) People often think of redressing grievances politically in terms of protests by citizens; it is under the legal-constitutional framework as citizens that protests are legitimate.
2) The mischief of mercantile and private interests: companies, corporations, investment consortia, etc., often are the source of public discontent.
3) Yet it is the government’s approval of (or inability to work against) these private interests which, by and large, becomes the focus of citizen protests.
4) People generally understand that one actor (such as the US) may benefit from being behind one side of a given conflict. But the idea that one actor may simultaneously generate the problem, provoke a public reaction, and then back a pre-planned solution of its liking, strikes many as either difficult to understand or “conspiratorial” in nature.
5) Thus, the US can with a relative degree of public stealth, be the promoter and main beneficiary of these above described private interests in the short term, while simultaneously using the public discontent that these logically produce, as a vehicle to leverage long-term pressure upon that same government, up to and including “regime change.”
The basic framework of the “Electric Yerevan” protests is a prime example of this dynamic. The reasons why average Armenians would take part in and support these protests are rational, and from the perspective of the public interest, even supportable at face value. The US, working through its network of NGO assets and favored charitable corporate entities, seeks to steer these protests in an anti-Russian direction.
Why the US wants to ‘Regime Change’ Armenia
When Armenia joined Eurasian Economic Union on January 2, 2015, it made history. This was a civilizational decision which would define its relationship to the world for the coming period. The US saw this coming partly as a result of the previous elections. The US had been a longstanding partner in various Armenian economic and political projects, ever since the collapse of the USSR almost twenty-five years ago.
Armenia never lost its close ties with Russia, and in the previous period – which in US foreign policy we might say ended with the 2007 economic crisis – it was acceptable for the US within the framework of the US’s lukewarm relationship with Russia, and the US’s course at that time, for Armenia to maintain good relations with Russia.
Nevertheless, the US never lost sight of the importance of Armenia to Russia, and vice-versa. The US continued to play the regional power politics, in terms of encouraging and promoting the pre-existing conflicts and problematic historical narratives between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Insofar as the US could not decisively improve its power base within Armenia, it simultaneously promoted a weak Armenia policy (similar to its Serbia policy) which significantly favored Georgia and others. The end of 2014 was when the US made a major decision.
Indeed, when the winds of change were felt a few years ago in Armenia, the US changed its policy and appointed a new US ambassador in December 2014, and declared that the US will substantially cut funding and assistance to Armenia, and will terminate several projects that were in development. The February 13th, 2013 presidential elections, as well as the May 6th, 2012 parliamentary elections were critical. It has been discussed for some years that Armenia would be joining the Eurasian Union, and US efforts to steer that discourse ultimately failed.
The general context here is that going back to 1994, Armenia joined the important Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This, as it is known, is what the Russian Federation has been building with former Soviet republics as a replacement to the unified command structure of the Soviet Army.
Despite Armenia’s willingness to globally diversify its partnerships (including in the energy markets which are critical to “Electric Yerevan”), the post-2007 period has been characterized by a change in US tolerance for balanced or multi-polar foreign policies in other countries. The US has never been a paragon of free market liberties, and to the contrary, as a realist oriented actor on the global stage has always used tariffs, exclusive agreements, and gunboat diplomacy within its repertoire in pursuit of its own interests; i.e., the interests of its ruling elite. But the upping of the ante vis-à-vis the BRICS and friends nations has significantly changed the climate and the rules of the game.
Despite Armenia’s willingness to allow US companies and NGO’s to operate in Armenia, it’s membership in the Eurasian Union and CSTO remains the US primary reason for targeting Armenia for regime change.
Why the US Thinks it can get Armenians to ‘Regime Change’
As we have explained, the US use of the Color-Spring tactic does not negate the fact that the Armenian government has faced massive public discontent over several ongoing issues. Because Armenia’s economy and public budget is so tied to the global economy, government initiatives to increase prices or taxes related to public sector services are essentially a public recognition of economic fact; a rubber-stamping of a reality being created far beyond Armenia’s borders or the reach of its government.
A number of protests preceded this one, and while they were popular for tangible reasons, they were also a training ground for the organizers of “Electric Yerevan.”
Protests happened two years ago when the government indicated its need to increase the transportation fare by 50%. In this case, elements of the public protested for a week and the government heeded these demands.
Additionally, this type of protest happened last year in opposition to a new pension fund system, and the struggle to abolish this lasted for six months.
But what was popularly promoted by the NGO leadership among protesters in both of these policy-protest movements, was that people are doing this without any leadership or organization.
Because there is an organizational history of protests, with organizers taking notes and perfecting various methods and strategems on the ground, US financed organizers may now believe they are in the position to escalate the present protest into a “regime change” scenario.
They might believe this because they have been escalating the whole time. In labor and community action-organizing, planning works by the method of escalation. Each step that escalates is harder to pull off, but is harder for the target to withstand. If you have accurately assessed your organizing results so far, and if the prior escalations have succeeded, then the next step stands a better chance at success.
Now this protest dubbed “Electric Yerevan,” organized under the project name ”No To Plunder,” against the electricity cost increase, is being promoted as a self-organised internal protest which has no leader and no political affiliation, including with the opposition.
Activists claim, and many believe, that there are no political dimensions, no political slogans, and no call for resignations. They claim that they are not against any country (Russia), are not for any country or international body (USA or NATO), and that they do not call for revolution or demand any change in government policy.
At this stage, we can see they have attempted to sanitize the protests as being purely a demand for an investigation into the workings of the Electric Networks of Armenia.
The Protester’s ‘Demand’ Reveals the real Target
The reason that this demand is indeed political, geopolitical, and geostrategic, is that the power distributor Electric Networks of Armenia is controlled by one of the successors to Russia’s electricity giant, Unified Energy System of Russia (RAO UES). Under a reorganization plan in 2008, RAO UES technically ceased to exist, with its 51% government shares being largely privatized as well, but the successor network is commonly referred to by this name as a matter of habit, and because the various entities are essentially managed in the same centralized manner.
This makes a perfect narrative to steer this in an anti-Russian direction, and lay the blame at the government’s relationship with Russian firms. The purpose of this call for an investigation into Electric Networks of Armenia is more clear when we understand who the protest organizers ignore: the US company, ContourGlobal.
ContourGlobal purchased the Vorotan Hydro Cascade, a complex consisting of three hydroelectric plants, on June 6th, 2015. ContourGlobal then increased its projected operating costs, compelling the government to recognize this, which the distributor, Electric Networks of Armenia, was forced to pass on to consumers.
In other words, the demands of the protest organizers exclude both the facts and the recent history of the issue, focusing instead on a downstream element, the distribution end of the industry.
Rather than demanding socialization of the Vorotan Hydro Cascade, protest organizers – not without reason – are hyperventilating the public into an anti-Russian direction. This direction focuses just on Electric Networks of Armenia and its control by RAO UES. This relationship is reinforced by the Eurasian Union.
Economies of scale tend to deliver goods and services at a lower cost when compared to smaller scale operations. Armenia has a population of about 3 million. “RAO UES”, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, is and was well positioned to manage the affairs of Electric Networks of Armenia. “RAO UES” essentially inherited the system used by the USSR, which was already designed to maximize output on a non-profit basis, by using a centralized management system. However, “RAO UES” and its successors are not non profit, and public outrage against a basic utility such as power being run on a for-profit basis is rooted.
Nevertheless, we may believe at first that the relatively limited demand to focus just on the “RAO UES” could be relatively benign: heed the protester’s demands, conduct the investigation, and shift budgetary items around, or take on further debt in order to cover the cost of the rate hike reduction.
Organizing and Manipulating: The Course of Escalation
Ultimately, the Color-Spring tactic – in borrowing from the rich history of left-wing social protest movements, as reflected upon by Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals – begins with minimal demands before moving forward to the maximal ones. This moves the protest movement from a relatively benign one; based upon a popular framework of peaceful assembly and seemingly realistic and necessary demands, into a full-scale scene of chaos and disorder which forces the gendarmes of the state to act, thereby finally de-legitimatizing the already shaky government.
The demands change as “things change”; the nature of the Color-Spring tactic always involves a developing list of demands which grow and change in strategically planned stages. Each reform that the government commits to as a compromise, to meet the demands of the protest organizers, is not promoted by the organizers as a sign of goodwill on the part of the government.
Rather, the concessions are couched as proof that the government was wrong in the first place, proof that all alleged excesses of law enforcement were indeed criminal acts, and proof that the power of the people is growing, that the government is afraid, weak, and divided; and that now is the moment to push forward with more and more demands.
An interesting distinction that Alinsky makes is between organizing and manipulating. Organizing is when the “leading from behind” is done in the best interests of those being led. Manipulating is when the leading is done against the interests of the led. Given the results of the Color-Spring tactic in the last few decades, the US’s co-option of Alinsky’s work probably fits the latter description; and by their own professed ideas the employees and volunteers of these US backed NGO’s in Yerevan ought to be called “Manipulators” instead of “Organizers.”
From Riot to ‘Revolution’ and the Dynamics of Group Psychology
The group psychology of the encampment in Yerevan changes by the day. The more time the protesters spend with each other, the more they have common memories and the more they think and act as a single unit. The tone of the protest movement becomes more severe, more fatalistic: it becomes the final, last stand.
The protesters are manipulated by the organizers and lose any sense of history or proportion. Those who speak the most, who call the regular meetings, seem like natural, honest, charismatic figures. They symbolically project and communicate “goodness.” In reality they are highly trained organizers whose first area of expertise is in downplaying or concealing the organization that trained them, and the organized nature of the proceedings. The “sworn testimony” of the regular encampment participants that there was “no leadership” is honest testimony; the simulation has been executed very well.
One reason also that regular protesters in Armenia do not believe they are being led, is that leadership is commonly conceived of as a person in front, pulling people with him.
Leadership is conceived of as being done by people who are well spoken, professional, like the people we see on television, like those who win elections.
Alinsky teaches in Rules for Radicals that leading is done not by pulling, not by standing in the front, but rather by leading from behind, or leading by pushing. Most people do not want to lead, and they fear public speaking. Effective labor and community organizing tactics teach that effective leaders act like they do not want to lead, they may even feign a little discomfort and humility with speaking publicly. The mass then begins to identify very intimately with this person who leads by pushing.
How the 1% Pretends to Be the 99%
One method in the tactic, used in Yugoslavia, Syria, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Armenia, works like this, and it is identical to the method of inciting a riot: In a crowd of a thousand, ten or fifteen individuals shout from the crowd. Their words are emotive, their affect seems honest; but their timing and content is planned. They may seem to disagree with each other on minor things, but the core things they agree on – things must escalate and ”we will not leave until we win”. The state will respond “and we must be ready to stand here to take their violence. When they use violence, it is because they are afraid of us; it proves we will win and they know it.”
While representing at first only 1% of the protesters, their monopoly on time and message creates a sense of unanimity, mutual consent, and consensus within the crowd. Each individual erroneously believes that what these planted organizers are saying reflects the majority; but through this process the simulation of consensus is reified, and in actuality becomes the majority view.
Organizing science describes that mass protests without organization and leadership do not occur effectively, if at all. When they are effective and appear as spontaneous and leaderless, that is intentional on the part of the protest organizers.
Freud and Reflexive Anarchism
This mass attraction to leaderless resistance fits into a simplified “emotional” variation of anarchist/radical-liberal idealism: abstracted conceptions of freedom and liberty which are irrationally connected to physical material life.
These are often cognitized and even verbalized as social concerns about conditions of work, social expectations about sex, or government and corporate wrongdoing. However on the subconscious level these yearnings for freedom are rooted in struggles with existential questions that are innate to the human experience, and subsist on the level of the psyche as a motive force. This is written about with remarkable clarity by Color Revolution theoreticians, and borrows tremendously from Sigmund Freud’s work Civilization and its Discontents. For Freud, human beings had evolved over millions of years under conditions of pre-civilization, where the human experience was defined by a struggle for survival and marked by adversity.
Thus each concession by the government tends to solve real existing problems, but simultaneously excites the limitless nature of the imagination in relation to the realm of perceived possibilities. So the relatively simple initial demands of the protesters are not as important as what the organizers will say the demands are, or were, at any given time. What matters is the interplay of forces and the creation of new facts on the ground, which in turn generate shifts in collective consciousness. In the context of many global actors with several competing hegemons, it is irrational to think that these hegemons do not compete for control of the protest movement. In many cases, they have financed them.
What we might Expect from the Protesters
At a certain later stage in the protest, western media will only focus on or interview certain people who have already been selected by the organizers to be interviewed. This is common in both labor and community organizing within the US. The staff organizers will only speak to media when posing as protesters; visibly they are almost indistinguishable, with most organizers only seeming a bit more bookish or intelligent than the average person. Organizing guidelines indicate that selecting protesters to present to media for interviews, who already think what you want them to say, is most desirable.
This also requires a qualified media liaison or communications director working for the NGO, but more importantly a willing media counterpart. The BBC, CNN, “Vice,” and other similar pro-NATO propaganda outlets, must be willing to cooperate.
At this later stage, the person interviewed will exaggerate, invent, or distort narratives about the nature of the police intervention, which provides western audiences with the appropriate western cultural cues and narratives that justify “change” action by their own governments against the target “regime.”
Other times, the BBC, CNN, et al, will purely invent or read a script of what the protesters are there for. They will simply say:
“What began as a protest over electricity rates has, after brutal crackdown by the regime’s security forces, transformed into a protest for the government to step down”.
The viewer sees tens of thousands of protesters, either at present or from stock footage from weeks before, who are simply there for the electricity rate protest, but hears the BBC narrative. In this application, the language and the images combine to create a perception based upon an expectation that the images are proof of the language. Thus, the combination of media sounds and imagery create a “truth” which is distinct from what actually occurred.
This will create the justification the west requires for sanctions and other forms of Arab Spring warfare against the target regime. This last narrative is how the Color Revolution transforms into the Arab Spring.
How to Counter the “Color” before it “Springs”
What the government of Armenia can do is utilize the same science of organizing, and work the protests in reverse. They should not, under most conditions, use the state gendarmes to evict the encampments. Rather, they must cut the head and take control of the body.
They need their own team of community organizers and protest workers to infiltrate and counter-agitate, using the same methods of “leading from behind” to discredit the established “non-leading” leaders on the ground. In some cases, one-on-one fist fights can be provoked with identified lead organizers in order to justify their individual extraction from the site. This is why governments that may be targeted for this tactic should already have a mirrored operation in place; we saw this used with high efficacy in both Russia and Macedonia.
Then, they must proceed externally to arrest organizers for various charges, off camera. The courts must be ready to order asset seizures of the NGO’s, closures of offices, even if temporary, even if the funds are ultimately released.
The protester encampment on the ground functions as a siege. A direct sallying forth of the government gendarmes against the protesters will be perceived as a crime against humanity.
The correct method against this is to conduct a counter-siege. The encampment functions on a network of supply-lines both actual and virtual. These supply-lines must be cut, while increasing access to the same for the government operatives who do counter-work. Eventually the “normality” line will prevail as the predominant ‘meme’ among the protesters, as the old leaders are marginalized, and new ‘sane’ leaders emerge.
Only then can and should the government announce any concessions, in this case a repeal of the rate hike or some kind of subsidy. A government concession before the proper protest leadership is in place to accept the concession will only be used to further the crises as described in the sections above.
To prevent these in the first place, and looking long term, societies must work to create rich cultural lives, based upon friends and families, and societies based on collective purpose. These can be constructed and reinforced in whichever ways their traditions provide. This can be reinforced in opposition to the relatively purposeless life provided by the western-liberal, commercial/consumer, individualist model. The western model breeds alienation, depression, introversion, repression, and angst. These are prerequisites for these unaddressed psychological problems to be redirected and manifested as a protest movement which loses sense of proportion and reality.
Finally, a “good culture” cannot solve or mask real corruption stemming from adventures in capitalism. The real existing economic problems are often political, as with the case of Armenia’s energy markets. People must learn how to create real social movements which aren’t part of the same Color-Spring tactic. The difference is that the Color-Spring tactic only works with massive foreign support, and works primarily through the way that western audiences interpret media narratives, which justify western government action against the target governments. The tactic also breeds distrust and divisiveness in societies, as a rule and as a goal.
If the Armenian government had not allowed the sale of one of its most valuable resources to the US, then they would have had more control over the costs to the Russian managed distributor, and there would not have been a price increase.
To remedy this problem requires a shift in commitments and thinking in Armenian governance. Basic infrastructure is a critical part of economic and social life, but also is a large part of sovereignty. Armenian prosecutors can probe the very issue that the protesters are interested in, and find that the US colluded to create this problem in order to instigate instability in Armenia. This could be used as a legal pretext to unwind the deal with ContourGlobal. Then, the state would be in a good position to nationalize this valuable resource.
The re-directed “protest movement” would add the demand that an independent public oversight/review board be established, composed of trusted leaders, academics, and whistle-blowers. They would have authority to veto certain decisions of the governing board of the nationalized hydro-electric enterprise.
The protest movement in Yerevan over the electric bill hike has many of the clear signs of the Color-Spring tactic.
The US involves itself in much financing of protest movements, and does so with the aim of working against the interests of the protesters themselves, but this does not mean that the demands in Yerevan and elsewhere are not real, not legitimate, or do not reflect the real interests of the people on the face of them. These are not incompatible spheres, and it is problematic to understand this through the lens of dichotomy.
The US creates concrete economic problems, exporting its chaos – it then also reaches around from the other side and manages the direction of the efforts against these problems. But the solutions it offers in fact creates more problems.
Protest organizers and participants tend to stress that their aims are limited, simple, defined, and realizable. This is true at the early stages, but the discourse can rapidly shift when the conditions are met. Ultimately the organizers will work closely with western media to shape the perception of the events, sometimes giving a very different rendering of reality than what actually is occurring. This will be shaped first for citizens of the target country in local media whose owners are part of the western network.
People in modernity tend to share vague and frustrated aspirations for freedom and individuality, feelings that many people share, from a childhood of being misunderstood. The particular difficulties of growing up which are specific to westernization, are politicized in a manipulative way in post-modern political organizing schemes. Sex and sexuality are also not off limits in terms of manipulation. Abstract or innate problems related to the human experience are concretized and given shape in the Color-Spring organizing campaign.
These are combined with real existing problems, often economic and political, but are combined in such a way that all workable solutions and concession from “the authorities” are rejected for irrational reasons based in the psyche as a motive force.
The “Color” tactic can be reversed before it goes “Spring” if the targeted “regime” also has access to the same community organizing technology. The occupy “siege” can be both infiltrated, and the supply lines to the destabilizing leadership can be cut.
The “Color” tactic requires certain pre-requisites, including US access to the societies under the guise of pluralism and civil society. This access can be done through non-profits and charities, whose managers can be forced, for starters, to register the organization as a foreign one. One problem is that some of these organizations come through the UN, so a common global movement to raise awareness and against the abuse of UN institutions, doing the work of empire, needs to be waged.
Color Revolutions can be prevented if:
a.) there is a strong multi-generational mono-culture which provides people with a stronger sense of purpose, history, and community than the “citizen” model. This later model is provided by atomized, western, modern social projects as typified by US society.
b.) critical economic and infrastructural assets are publicly owned and managed, and all necessary cuts in health, housing, education, and general welfare are last resort and not first resort measures.
Joaquin Flores is a Mexican-American expat based in Belgrade. He is a full-time analyst and director at the Center for Syncretic Studies, a public geostrategic think-tank and consultancy firm, as well as the co-editor of Fort Russ news service.
Reprinted with permission from Fort Russ.