Analysing External Support to Nonviolent Revolutions


Source: Johansen, Jørgen. 2010. “Analysing External Support to Nonviolent Revolutions.” In Experiments with Peace, Celebrating Peace on Johan Galtung’s 80th Birthday, edited by Jørgen Johansen and John Y Jones, 103-114. Oxfords: Pambazuka Press.

Analysing External Support to Nonviolent Revolutions

In recent decades we have witnessed many more successful non-armed than armed political revolutions. From Solidarity in Poland 1980 to the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan 2005 more than thirty cases of large scale nonviolent movements have forced regimes to step down (Johansen 2004; Johansen 2009). And a new wave of similar revolutionary processes followed in 2009 when the financial crises hit countries like Iceland, Latvia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. People gathered outside the Parliaments and forced their governments to resign. These political revolutions have different background, developed in many kinds of political and cultural contexts and had a wide variety of actors. Most actors were domestic, but some sort of external support took place in  all of them. This chapter will take a closer look at external support and present some tools for analysing and understand the impact of such support.

Complex processes

Peaceful political revolutions are complex processes. Media coverage are neither enough nor reliable if you want to understand the multi-facetted processes in the modern types of unarmed revolutions. The number of actors are high and many of them are not visible in public or at least want to hide parts of their activities from the scrutiny of media and other actors. Any reductions and simplifications in describing these societal processes will move away from an accurate picture of what is going on. But that is still what every researcher who want to understand need to do. To include everything is impossible. The skilled researches makes a wise balance of what to include and what to exclude. That goes for actors influencing the outcome as well as contextual factors with impact on the end result.

One, out of the many, ongoing discussions in the aftermath of these events are the roles of external financial supporters (Johansen 2009). An often used phrase in these discussions is ”He who pays the piper calls the tune”. To what degree that is true will differ from case to case. We hear this and similar types of arguments from representatives of regimes threatened by nonviolent revolutions as well as from people who believe the US elite is behind all peaceful revolutions. In these discussions we see too many oversimplifications. To argue that US State Department or CIA is ”behind” and are the main actor that decides the outcome is simply an too easy description.

A typical representative for this position is Ian Traynor who wrote about Ukraine in The Guardian on November 26, 2004:

“…. the campaign is an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged elections and topple unsavoury regimes. Funded and organised by the US government, deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organisations…” (Traynor 2004)

And there are a lot of similar voices. There is no doubt that several US and European institutions have been active in many different ways in the recent nonviolent revolutions, but that have been able to control the process is not probably and certainly not proven. We need to look at their role in the context of a much more complex picture. And it is certainly not only a question of dollars/money. If it only was a question of funding to install US-friendly regimes around the world we would for sure have seen many more cases. Despite several attempts over forty years the American Empire has not been able to remove the communist government in Cuba. The democratic oppositions in Iran, Belarus, China, Venezuela, Myanmar and many other places have got support from US government and private actors for decades without being able to force the existing regimes to step down. The support from US agencies are obviously not enough when it comes to covert violent actions nor public nonviolent attempts. To argue that ”the Americans” are behind every toppling of regimes around the world is both to put too much believe in their capacities and to reduce the skills and impact of domestic forces and the importance of massive mobilisation of ordinary people. The large scale demonstrations in front of parliaments does not take place due American financing.

Iran, Saudi Arabia (Wahhabi), Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, EU, the Vatican, and several other states, organisations and religious actors are also active in supporting oppositional movements around the world. Each of them have their own public and hidden agendas and they do not agree on a number of questions. On the contrary they have often opposite goals for their support to oppositional movements around the world. A lot is done under cover to protect the receivers from threats and prosecution. Some of it is classified for a period and will not be made public for decades unless someone leak or the support is detected by the authorities in the countries the movement is based and made public through court cases.

Nine categories of support

To understand what is going on there is important to separate different categories of support. There are of course many other possible forms of external help than financial. Some of the debated kinds of external interventions are: Moral, strategic, technical, diplomatic, practical participation, training, media coverage, and education. In the following I will categorise these nine forms of external support and discuss their role and importance. Here follows short descriptions and illustrative cases of different kinds support.

Moral: When the Catholic Church and the Polish Pope openly supported the Solidarity movement in Poland 1980 and onwards they gave the workers a strength no money in the world could produce (Monticone 1986 pp. 152-182; Luxmoore and Babiuch 1999 pp. 225-254). It is obvious that the willingness to take risks grew when the religious authorities blessed the actions and even took part in them.

Strategic: During the preparation for the removal of Milošević the student movement Otpor got help to develop their strategy by the retired US Army Col. Robert Helvey from Albert Einstein Institute. His seminars on nonviolent strategies were conducted outside Serbia and later disseminated within the movement.

Technical: The so far failed revolutionary attempts in Burma/Myanmar has been helped from Norway in setting up the technical equipment for short-wave radio station and broadcasting TV to Burma. Norway only support with the technical side, all editorial decisions are in the hands of people from the Burmese Diaspora. Similar support is given by the Norwegian government to the oppositional movement in Tibet.

Diplomatic: In was was going to be called the People Power Revolution in Philippines 1986 we saw a shift in US diplomatic support for Marcos from the days of president Carter and his human right  campaigns. President Reagan distanced himself even more from the regime. The diplomatic support decreased even more and came to a complete halt. Without the backing from US Marcos fled his country when he was confronted by massive demonstrations and an army refusing to follow orders.

Practical Participation: In the many nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe from Poland 1980 to the fall of Soviet Union a number of external supporters helped the domestic movements with practical things like smuggling letter and books, participating in planning meetings, taking part in demonstrations, and lobbying in foreign parliaments. Civil society actors from Europe took active part in the support (Randle 1991)

Training: When the Rose Revolution in Georgia was planned a number of activist from the Serbian Otpor Movement went to Tbilisi to train local activists.  Their experiences from the revolution in Serbia a few years earlier was both regarded as relevant and very helpful.

Media Coverage: Mainstream media has been very selective in their coverage of nonviolent struggles. Their reports vary enormously when it comes to both quantity and quality. There are a number of biases in the coverages. On the other hand hand we have seen the growing use and importance of alternative electronic media in revolutionary processes. Local activist record events and through cellphones, Internet and global networks they are able to disseminate their messages quickly (often on-line) and widely. Reports from the revolutionary processes are crucial for the international interests. While very few TV-Networks or newspapers in the English speaking world followed the nonviolent revolutions in Benin 1989 (Johansen 2009 pp. 127-151) the coverage of the Polish or Ukrainian cases were extensive.

Education: Oppositional groups in authoritarian states are frequently invited to participate in seminars and other educational events. Organisers can both be civil society groups and bodies more close to a government. They also often get scholarships to study abroad. Some of these invitations are labelled ”export of democracy”. To get new perspectives, learn new skills, and prepare themselves for a different future are outspoken goals. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance is a typical representative of the on going wave of ”Democracy Export”.

Financial:  There is no secret that foreign donors are giving money to oppositional groups. What sort of expectations and impact money brings are the most debated issue in these types of revolutions. We have seen that many more countries makes it either difficult or illegal to accept foreign financial support. This is neither unique nor new. American candidates for presidency are not allowed to accept foreign money either.

This list of categories of external support could have been much longer by listing more specific forms of support. The categories above are broad and meant to illustrate main categories, not a complete list of all forms of support.

Categorising External Support

When it comes to the effect of external support it is not easy to present reliable answers. There is a lack of research done and the political discussions are often based on general attitudes about the different external actors as such. To judge such external support it is useful to divided it in five possible outcomes. The impact can be: 1. Counter Productive, 2. Irrelevant, 3. Important, 4. Necessary, or 5. Sufficient. In the following all these outcomes are discussed from the perspective of the opposition; not the old power-holders or the external actors themselves.

In the first category we will have cases of external actors either harming the revolutionary process with intention or support with good intentions but harmful effect.

The Irrelevant category cover cases of external actors trying to influence the revolutionary process but not achieving their goals with any substantial effect. Or it can be too small/little to have any real impact on the revolution.

In the category ”important” support I include a lot of the financial help and practical engagement in developing strategies etc. The support in this category is very useful for the revolutionary process but not absolutely necessary for a success.

The category of ”necessary” includes cases of external support that must be present for the revolution to achieve their goals. Here we will in some cases, but far from all, find financial contributions, but can also include moral support from a religious actor, and diplomatic support from foreign states.

The category ”sufficient” is still to be filled with content. Here belong external support that in itself is sufficient for a revolution to be successful. I have not found any revolutionary process in which one single sort of external support has been sufficient for the revolution to be successful. But I have included this, so far empty, category for two reasons: It may be that I will find such a case and in the debate it is often claimed that one single type of help ”made the revolution”.

External support in three different phases

Each of these three categories should be studied in three different phases of the revolutionary processes. The three phases are here labelled: Early, Peak, and Post -Phase.

The Early Phase includes the recent history prior to escalation of the revolutionary process. Even if it can be argued that ”all” history is relevant and may have an impact I included maximum years, not decades and centuries in this phase. It could also be months, weeks or even days. There should be possible to see a probable direct correlation between the events in the Early Phase and the actual change of regime. The battle of Kosova 1389 may have been used as an argument in the events in Serbia in 2000, but is too far back in history to be included in the Early Phase. The same with the division of Yugoslavia 1990 and onwards; those events hard just a very weak impact on the events  10 years later.  But the students demonstrations in Serbia in the winter 1996-97 had a direct impact and should be seen as part of the Early Phase. The experiences from those demonstration helped the Otpor movement with planning strategies and tactics. The events in East Germany 1989 was neither prepared nor planned well in advance. The research by Opp, Voss, and Gern proves that it was a spontaneous revolution with a maximum of months preparations (Opp, Voss et al. 1995). In this case the Early Phase was very short.

The Peak Phase is the most intense part of the process when large scale public demonstrations, strikes, and other forms of protests are frequently used by the opposition. This is when the mainstream media cover the events and a peaceful escalation creates the most tense situation. All main stake-holders are doing their best to get the initiative and win support for their case. This phase can last for hours, days or maximum weeks. In the case of Solidarity in Poland we saw several escalating phases from 1980 to 1989. One was obvious the first weeks of strikes at the shipyard in Gdansk, but the last round of strikes in the first half of 1988 ending with the round table discussions beginning August 31 count as the Peak Phase in this revolution (Garton Ash 1991 pp 382-390). There are not exact lines between the different phases but it still makes sense to look at  the support and the effect of it in different stages of the processes.

Not all of the activities takes place in public, and covert operations are probably most intense in the peak phase. The diplomacy are working on high gear behind the scenes while the spectacular massive mobilisations takes place in public places. A good understanding of the intense work of diplomats and politicians can be found in the book Deutsche Einheit which has a very good collection of relevant documents from the Bundeskanzleramtes 1989/90 (Küsters, Hofmann et al. 1998, pp 269-1558).

The Post Phase is when the new regime is installed and the difficult processes of establishing a new sustainable power-structure begins. In most cases it looks like this phase is less prepared and more difficult than the actual removal of the old power holders. The process is less covered in media and other actors than the masses are important. Support from external sources is probably more important in this phase than any of the two other phases. And the main needs for support are financial and practical. A number of the new people in government are not educated, skilled, and trained in ”how to run a country”. Very often the new leadership asks for financial support from other states or banks. And they are more or less forced to accept specific conditions of privatisation and liberalisation the achieve loans. This has a substantial impact on the socio-economic development for the years to come.

In summery: What is an important form of support in an early phase may well be irrelevant in the actual accomplishment. When the revolutionary process is at its peak, typical with a large group of people in front of the Parliament, the external support they need is different from what is useful in the initial phase.  And other important sorts of support is needed in the post revolutionary period; after the old regime has left their positions.

These five categories and three phases gives us fifteen types of external support to study.


To conclude that financial support from a single donor in the early and/or peak phase is sufficient for a successful outcome is premature and still to be proven. Future research should study in detail empirical cases of support and analyse them so we can get a better understanding of impacts of different kinds of support. For now we have little research to back up all the political rhetoric in the ongoing discussions. But the complexity of the processes and the many different actors indicates that giving one single supporter all credit for the outcome is probably far from the truth. And to reduce the discussion to financial support is probably too limited as well.

Who are the supporters?

In discussions on supporters impact there are different comments dependent on who the supporters are. In some discussions the identity of the donor seems more important than the type of support given. That there are differences if the supporter is for example the US government compared to a small NGO from Serbia is obvious. But it is not easy to specify the actual differences in impact based on the identity of the supporter. The figure below is from a text on financial support (Johansen 2009, p 200) but can just as well me used to illustrate the diversity of identities among other forms of support. Financial support from states with aggressive foreign policy will be viewed very differently from a state with a reputation for  solidarity and support as leading guidelines in their relations to other states. Practical support in the form of nonviolent training carried out by grassroot activists will be seen as a different kind than political support from a regional military alliance. And of course the identity of the recipient will have an impact on the judgement.


If the donor is Iran most people will see it as very different from donations from State Department in Washington DC. This differentiation of supporters add to the complexity of external support in nonviolent revolutionary processes. And there is important to remember that a lot of the support has domestic origin. In the Orange revolution in Ukraine the overwhelming majority of financial and material support came from domestic sources (Wilson 2005 p. 184; Åslund and McFaul 2006 p. 98). While in the case of the students movement Otpor in Serbia almost all the money came from foreign sources.

What sort of returns?

In addition to the question of impact on the outcome, a part of the discussions focus on what the donors and other supporters get in return. One thing is what supporters and receivers claims are their motives for giving and receiving, another question is what the consequences are. Both intended and unintended consequences are important to study prior to any conclusions. Donations and gifts demands returns as described by Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1996, pp 131-148) and others. What the supporters/donors gets in return for their help will vary a lot. We have an obvious and well know case from Georgia 2004.

George Soros helped financing the Rose Revolution in Georgia  through Open Society Georgia Foundation (OSGF). It was not a coincidence that Alexander Lomaya, executive director of OSGF become a minister of education and science after the revolution. Giorgi Papuashvili, coordinator of the Rule of law and human rights program at the OSGF – has become a minister of justice, he is now chairman of the constitutional court of Georgia; Executive director of OSGF (in 2004-2008) David Darchiashvili is a head of parliamentary committee on European integration; Goka Gabashvili, program manager at the foundation in 2003 has become a Minister of Culture of Georgia. And the list is in fact longer.

In addition to such immediate returns we have the case of Sweden and ANC in South Africa. Substantial financial support was given from the Swedish government while ANC was labelled ”terrorist organisation” by most government (Sellström 2002, pp 394-810 and 899). When the post-Apartheid South Africa government in wanted to renew their airforce they decided to buy the Swedish JAS air fighter. Coincidence or was it a case of giving back something to former donors? There are decades between the main support and the order for air fighters. It is difficult both to argue and prove that those who decided to smuggle money to ANC had such future business deals in mind. But it it is also difficult to argue that South Africa did not had the donations from their old friends in mind when they made the order.

Are these two cases arguments against donations and support? Absolute not, but they are examples that the relations between supporters and recipients are complex. There are not necessary always purely motives of solidarity and altruism behind acts of support.

When several US organisations and governments supported the students movement Otpor in Serbia prior to the removal of Milošević in 2005 they got relatively in immediate return. Vojislav Koštunica who replaced Milošević was not a typical US-friendly politician. In an interview with Spiegel Online he said his policy was ”fairly close to de Gaulle”. He criticised ”the West” for both the bombing in 1999 and their policy on the question on Kosovo. In an interview with Washington Post eight years after the take-over he still criticised US:  Koštunica demanded that the United States rescind its recognition of Kosovo, warning that “there will be no stability” until the “fake state” is annulled.

And then we have all the support and donations given to those who do not win. The return is then minimal. To get a good understanding of the impact of support in these processes there is a need to look at more than the successful cases. There should not be a surprise if the conclusion of such a study would be that most forms of support is neither, necessary nor sufficient for a success.


Anyone taking part in the political discussions on external support should must recognise the complexity of these issues. There are no easy and direct causal relationships between donors and the outcome of the conflicts. The relationships are multifaceted, cannot easily be analysed, and are often described in much more simplified pictures than they should have been. Multi-layer agendas, many of them hidden, makes the effects of external support neither easy to understand nor easy to judge. There are many important questions to discuss and topics to research for us to better understand these relations. Easy political rhetoric is not the way to move on for those who want understand these questions.


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Åslund, A. and M. McFaul (2006). Revolution in orange : the origins of Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough. Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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