Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

The Democratic Revolutionary Handbook

First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2005
VHS-DVD, 54 mins., color
Sales, $390; rental VHS, $100

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Jonathan Zilberg


To be cynical, The Democratic Revolutionary Handbook is rather more a case study of how three student led revolutions were successfully orchestrated in Serbia, Georgia, and the Ukraine than a magic bullet for those hoping to overthrow more venal "democratorships." Indeed, though the documentary initially promises hope and tactical lessons for activists planning to follow in the footsteps of these youth movements, respectively OTPOR, KMARA and PORA (meaning Resistance, Enough and Its Time), it soberly ends with the failure of NAGAM in Azerbaijan in 2005 and the exceedingly unlikely possibility of any change there in the 2008 election.

The film begins in Baku, Serbia in late November 2000 with the classic images of chaos, tear gas, and the sounds of sirens before dramatically switching to an OTPOR activist’s calm presentation of the simple steps used to collapse three autocratic governments in short succession. It reveals that though these revolutions appeared spontaneous, they were in fact carefully coordinated by tiny groups of youthful democratic rebels following strict standard operating procedures and the three crucial elements for success: unity of the opposition, non-violent discipline, and a sound strategic plan. Technically, if followed properly, the methodology should allow activists to topple governments through orchestrating the convergence of a critical mass of demonstrators in the capital to expose voter fraud on Election Day.

The case of PORA and the Orange Revolution that overthrew Kuchma in the Ukraine was the "coolest" or "sexiest" of these political transformations. With the power of experience and deft media management, politics was turned into a lifestyle choice for youth. Television became a space for political theater, news became entertainment, football stars became celebrity political supporters, and flash mobs enacting 15 minute protests turned the streets into non-stop pro-democracy theaters. When one million supporters came out onto the streets at the crucial stage of demanding an honest final vote count, PORA was able to sustain the required pressure despite the freezing weather by erecting a tent city with the lightning cash injection of foreign aid. Late that night, snow falling fast and freezing, the government surrendered. Against this victorious backdrop, the narrator then asks whether it is really so easy to force democratic regime change simply by following the instructions in The Democratic Revolutionary Handbook.

To answer the question, the scene switches to Azerbaijan and the failure of NAGAM. Azerbaijan seemed a promising context except that international oil contracts were at stake, the state was fully prepared to use force and muzzle the media, and the demo-funders were predictably not interested. Though NAGAM did all it could with its limited resources despite the lack of the critical components of international support, an independent media and a nascent civil society, the regime easily kept the situation under control as would later happen in Kazahkstan and Belarus.

As the failure of NAGAM demonstrated, organizing a democratic revolution requires money and foreign expertise from demo-donors in order to produce training materials, create regional networks and implement the program. Enter the German Marshall Fund, Freedom House, Washington based Neo-Conservatives such as Bruce Jackson, Director of the Project of Transitional Democracies and creative figures such as Peter Ackerman at the International Center of Non-Violent Resistance, which exists for sharing such knowledge and providing materials for testing virtual scenarios for rehearsing regime change. The lesson is simple: If you want to succeed in leading democratic change, you will need foreign support — and if your nation is of strategic international interest — forget it. So much for the universality of the Jeffersonian ideal in the trade off of stability for democracy!

The important issue here is whether the information provided in this film can assist groups trying to effect change through the vote and non-violence in despotic democracies. For example, states such as Zimbabwe provide alternative cases of how to sustain democratorships even if the divided opposition has international support and the country is of no strategic value. How? Control the situation through sustained intimidation, voter registration manipulation, rigged elections, vote fraud, and food aid politics. Muzzle the independent press, hobble civil society, play the race card and the xenophobic blame game to externalize the political crisis, use maximum force through the police, the army and revolutionary youth brigades, alter the constitution to achieve these ends and finally, legalize the consolidation of power in the face of internal fragmentation and economic meltdown. Game over?

In the face of these overwhelming odds, and using similar tactics to those employed by OTPOL, KMARA and PORA, WOZA has suddenly emerged on the scene - WOZA being a group of exceedingly brave women working for non-violent democratic change in Zimbabwe. The current unfolding story of the crackdown on WOZA, and the apparently complete impotence of the Zimbabwean opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), unfortunately provides yet another scenario for the reason not to take this otherwise excellent liberation handbook overly seriously — or — to study it very carefully in an attempt to adapt its lessons to more extreme contexts.

Though such states make sure that OTPOR’s tactics cannot be applied, here are the essential ingredients for successfully creating a democratic revolution: brand and launch a new youth movement, recruit and train demonstrators to control their fear, stage protests so as to use the state media for free advertising and magnification of the brand and its aims, and then observe elections so as to expose vote fraud. Finally, organize a mass protest in the capital during the election count so as to create the necessary conditions for orchestrating a tipping point. But remember, the most important factor of all, the critical condition, is that these tactics will only work if the state is unwilling to employ extreme intimidation, unlawful incarceration, torture — and when required - murder.

Simply put, through sufficient surveillance and force a powerful and wholly committed police state can easily thwart each of the required steps for democratic transitions outlined in The Democratic Revolutionary Handbook.



Updated 1st October 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST