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Roses, oranges... and coca

What remains of revolutions in the globalized world?

Why has no one called the victory of Bolivian president Evo Morales a "revolution", despite it sharing some of the characteristics of the "coloured revolutions" in post-Soviet countries? Because unlike the politics of the coloured revolutionaries, which has been about complying with Western norms and values, the leftist nationalism of Morales challenges the established hierarchy of the global order, says Tatiana Zhurzhenko. Is Morales's victory an anachronism, the last socialist revolution of the twentieth century, or a new type of response to social injustice from outside globalization's charmed circle?

The people had come from all over Bolivia to the capital La Paz. Playing music and dancing in the streets, their smiling faces full of hope and enthusiasm, they were celebrating the victory of the leftwing Aymara Indian presidential candidate, Evo Morales. Bolivia's first ever indigenous and working class president has promised a new start for a country drowning in poverty and corruption: "We have won and a new page in Bolivia's history has been turned", he told the jubilant masses.

As a Ukrainian, I had a feeling of déjà vu watching these television images from Bolivia. Just over a year ago the same joy and enthusiasm was witnessed on the streets of Kiev. People had risen up against fraudulent elections and a corrupt political elite. They took to the streets to insist on their choice, stayed there in the cold for days and nights on end – and won. Like the Bolivians, they also believed that they had finally elected a "people's president", one who was truly Ukrainian.

I will not touch upon the painful question of what remains of these hopes today. Rather, my considerations emerge from another kind of discomfort, one that has to do with the power of the dominant discourse and the authority of the political expertise that puts labels such as "authoritarian regime", "democratic opposition", and "peaceful revolution" on contemporary politics in order to sell it to the public. Compare events in Ukraine and Bolivia and you will understand what I mean.

Who owns the brand?

No commentator or journalist has used the word "revolution" to describe the events in Bolivia, let alone adjectives such as "velvet" or "peaceful". Why not? we might ask naively. What happened in Bolivia could not have been more "velvet": the victory of the leftwing candidate was so convincing that the election results were uncontested. And what better example of a "civil society" could there be than the peasants' movement and the trade unions that ensured Evo Morales's victory? Unlike the Ukrainian opposition, however, they have probably not been trained in NGO management by Western instructors and did not receive Western grants.

Naive as we are, we can also look at Bolivia from a geopolitical perspective and find some similarities: Georgia and Ukraine have left the orbit of the "Russian empire" as a result of their coloured revolutions; Bolivia can be considered a similar case in the backyard of the US. No, I am not going to equate Russian and American imperialisms. The indirect rule of the US via business conglomerates and international organizations such as the World Bank has little in common with Moscow's clumsy attempts to secure its presidential candidate in Ukraine last year. But Russians have learned quickly, and in the meantime have demonstrated their ability to use economic mechanisms to protect their interests, as the gas conflict with Ukraine has proved.

Unlike the leaders of the Orange Revolution, the new Bolivian president received no congratulations from the White House. On the contrary, the US Secretary of State expressed her concern about the "recent developments" in Latin America. And she has reason to be concerned. Unlike the Orange Revolution, which was about complying with Western norms and values, the leftist, defensive nationalism of Evo Morales challenges the "universal rules" of the global order, its established hierarchy of values and priorities. Most shockingly, Morales has promised to allow the cultivation of coca, the plant traditionally used by indigenous Indians for nutrition, and the source of cocaine. In defending the interests of the coca farmers, Morales is challenging the policy of the US government and that of the international organizations fighting against drugs. More significantly, Morales has promised the nationalization of the Bolivian gas industry and other strategic sectors, thereby threatening the interests of transnational corporations. Morales's campaign platform included free public health and education and the redistribution of land to those who tend it.

Roses in Georgia, oranges in Ukraine, and tulips in Kyrgyzstan became the symbols of the recent revolutions in post-Soviet countries, especially for the international public. However, the arbitrariness of these symbols is striking: they call to mind corporate logos. Subject to rapid inflation, they quickly lose mobilizing power after the end of the elections. In Soviet kindergarten, similar symbols helped children remember their personal boxes – the apple was for Masha, the tulip for Katja. Georgian roses and Ukrainian oranges fulfil the same function on the global scale: they help the international public introduce and welcome far away countries, which before had not existed on the mental map, into the "civilized world". Put the coca leaf in this series of symbols and one can see the difference. The symbol of the coca farmers' movement is more than ambiguous; to the Western eye, at least, it symbolizes a challenge.

From "hard" to "liquid" revolutions...

The historical parallel most often evoked by the events in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004) was of course the "velvet" revolutions of 1989 in eastern central Europe, marking the collapse of communism as a political system. Velvet revolutions differed in the degree of consolidation of the political opposition and by the levels of civic activism and mass mobilization. Timothy Garton Ash's neologism "refolution", which combines "revolution" and "reform", expresses well this type of revolution. But the radicalism of the political and economic transformations initiated in 1989, and the mass mobilization against the communist authorities, are good reasons to call these changes "revolutions".

Having said that, the revolutions of 1989 put forward no grand project or social utopia, as was the case with their predecessors. Their only project was to catch up with a "normal" social and political order, in other words market society and liberal democracy. In this sense, the "velvet" revolutions marked a new historical situation – they were "revolutions after the end of history". Instead of creating new alternatives, they disposed of failed ones. Maybe they should be called "liquid" revolutions, since they marked the transition to "liquid modernity"[1] in eastern and central Europe, in other words, from communist rule and planned economy to pluralist democracy and neo-liberal capitalism.

The coloured revolutions in the post-Soviet space have conformed closely to this pattern, although instead of old-style communist regimes, have challenged corrupt democracies acting as a screen for oligarchic elites' monopolization of political and economic development. These revolutions have been led by modernized parts of the national elites, which have understood the necessity for further modernization and westernization. Their political programmes have had an important geopolitical dimension, in so far as they have sought the global community's recognition of their countries as "markets" and "democracies". In practice, this means membership in European and transatlantic structures, or at least close cooperation with them. The new "revolutionary" elites stand for more efficient integration into the global economy, but in compliance with "Western norms" and under the protectorate of the US and the EU. More importantly still, these revolutions are products of the globalized world: they owe their success to the professionalism of local NGOs, with their international contacts and financial support, and are welcomed and embraced by the West.

The coloured revolutions have been typically supported by the most educated and mobile part of society, above all by the new middle class. The motor of these revolutions has not only been small and medium-sized business, but also the former "intelligentsia", which has learned to earn money through its social and intellectual capital. On the whole, this social strata has not been the winner of the post-Soviet transition, and hopes to gain if the rules of the game become fairer. The middle class hopes to profit from an open society, an open economy, and from globalization.

Like the "velvet revolutions" of 1989, the "coloured revolutions" in the post-Soviet space have coupled democracy with market liberalism. Their intention has not been to scare foreign investors, but to attract them – quite a novelty for a social revolution! The new revolutionary elites have been expected to carry out the institutional design of their transitional societies into fully-fledged market democracies. To put it differently: if the objective of "hard" socialist revolutions was a socialist project that would never be reached, the "liquid" revolutions succeed when they turn people into consumers with the "freedom of choice" in both politics and in the supermarket.

In "liquid" revolutions, the working class is no longer the political vanguard. Of course, trade unions can play an important role, and strikes are still used as a political weapon. However, the hegemony of the working class belongs to the twentieth century – the age of industrialism, the tamed market economy, and the welfare state. Does this mean that the ideas of social justice articulated in the twentieth century by the workers' movements are outdated? Indeed, it does seem that today's "liquid" revolutions understand "justice" mainly as "fair elections". But this is only half of the truth.

In my eyes, the classical idea of social justice was implicit in the Orange Revolution, and even played a mobilizing role. Like other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine has experienced some devastating effects of neo-liberal reforms over the last decade, namely the ugly domestic version of "oligarch capitalism". The social inequality and impoverishment that emerged in the 1990s is reminiscent of Third World countries. However, the demand for social justice was not articulated by the traditional forces of the Left – the communists or social democrats – which are evidently ill equipped for the challenges of "liquid modernity". Instead, it was the anti-oligarchic, "quasi-socialist" populism of Yulia Tymoshenko that mobilized the public's deep feeling of injustice attributed to the capitalist transition. It was this long accumulated anger, and not only the electoral fraud, which brought the people to the streets.

On the other hand, it is likely that the working class of eastern Ukraine opposed Yushchenko for other "quasi-socialist" motives, above all the fear of a neo-liberal restructuring of the coal mining and heavy industry. The miners of the Donbas region preferred local oligarchs and "red directors" to the imagined and real dangers of globalization, represented by Yushchenko and his allies. While the Orange Revolution was not about a socialist alternative, ideas of justice and equality inspired many Ukrainians in both political camps.

...and back to "hard" revolutions

Those who remember the portraits of Yushchenko styled as Che Guevara on the T-shirts of Ukrainians, and those who saw the huge Che posters in the streets of La Paz, will understand what I want to say. Even the politics of citation show how different the events in Ukraine and Bolivia were. Indeed, they probably belong to two different paradigms: the postmodern and the modern. In the world of modernity, the spiritual leaders of a revolution are taken seriously. This is no longer the case in the "rainbow world" of postmodern revolutions: posters of Lech Walesa on the streets of Kiev would have been unimaginable.

Evo Morales refers to Fidel Castro and other Latin American revolutionaries as his predecessors. If what happened in Bolivia can be called a revolution, it was a socialist and working-class revolution, supported, classically, by the poorest and most marginalized part of the population. From Europe, this looks like an incredible anachronism, inspiring nostalgia among some old leftists. Maybe Bolivia really has staged the last revolution of the twentieth century, one that was possible only in a poor, marginalized, and underdeveloped country.

On the other hand, one might see in this revolution a ghost of the future. Bolivia, an absolute loser of globalization and a victim of neo-liberal politics, arrived in the twenty-first century a long time ago. Its political elite failed to represent the interests of the nation, and the income gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world. The country's water supply was privatized by foreign companies, which raised prices for the local population and made water unaffordable for many, while Bolivia's huge gas resources do not help Bolivians alleviate their misery. Does this mean that the socialist alternative reemerges in the twenty-first century as an answer to global capitalism, as in the twentieth century it was the answer to national capitalism?

I have no answer, only questions. However, they seem important to me. Must the socialist alternative always end with the "hard" project of imposing a social utopia? Do "hard" revolutions today happen only at the very periphery of "liquid" Western modernity? And who says that "liquid" modernity will prevent today's diffuse social conflicts from crystallizing into new "solid" forms and structures?

But what does the Bolivian revolution, which does not fit into our civilized botanic garden with its roses and oranges, have to do with us? Europe need not worry, since here the age of twentieth-century revolutions has evidently ended – exotic coca does not grow in our climate. The EU is designed as a club of globalization's winners, not losers. More important still, it was the tradition of social solidarity and class compromise, the tradition of social democracy, one could say, which made the European model so successful and attractive. Despite the EU's present crisis over the constitution, enlargement, the welfare state, and so on, it still protects European citizens efficiently from the risks of global capitalism. However, at the periphery of Europe, in countries such as Ukraine, citizens have very little control over local oligarchs or transnational business, and can only dream of EU standards of social security, health care, and environmental protection.

Ukrainian president Yushchenko will probably never meet Evo Morales. He goes to Davos and Washington, not Porto Allegre. Therefore, there is one lesson of the Bolivian revolution he will probably miss: that one cannot build a nation on a growing gap between rich and poor, on a gap between a "cosmopolitan elite" making their living from off-shore business at the expense of the general public. Coca does not grow in Ukraine either. But whether orange trees will adjust to the climate also remains to be seen. If Ukraine fails to profit from the opportunities created by the Orange Revolution, what will be the next one?


  • [1] See Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press 2000. I am grateful to Mieke Verloo for her suggestion to apply Bauman's concept to the coloured revolutions.

Published 2006-02-23

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

© Tatiana Zhurzhenko
© Eurozine

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