Another round of protests is scheduled for Russia on Saturday, raising the question of whether a “color revolution,” this one characterized by the demonstrators’ white ribbons, capable of toppling the government is in the cards. Media attention invariably focuses on mass demonstrations, banner-waving crowds and Twitter-savvy organizers, yet what happens behind the scenes is usually much more important to the outcome of such movements. Protests are not enough, and for all the color revolutions that succeeded over the past decade -- in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine -- there were also some glaring failures, as in Azerbaijan and Belarus.
While Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian government officials have darkly warned about Western efforts to fund protest movements, the reality, as events in Egypt have shown over the past year, is that outside assistance has an impact only at the margins. For a major political shift to take place in Russia over the next several months, several preconditions must be in place.
The first is a split in the ruling elite that can no longer be resolved internally. Sometimes it might revolve around questions of succession, which was a critical element in setting the stage for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. It might concern deeper political and ideological questions, such as moving ahead with economic reforms or opening up the political system. It might be much more basic and crass, involving how to divide the spoils of political privilege. Whatever the motivation, if some of the powerbrokers no longer trust the existing system to protect their interests, they have a major incentive to leverage an outside source of pressure to come out on top. The leaders who drove Georgia’s “Rose Revolution”, for instance, were not outsiders, but disaffected insiders of Eduard Shevarnadze’s system.