Successful political revolutions in the last three decades have been dominated by masses of unarmed people. They have challenged the present political establishment and refused to obey orders, often at central places in the capitals. Different from the traditional armed guerillas confronting the state army these movements have not used deadly means, not even when confronted with violent police and militaries. These cases are on crucial points different from the traditional revolutions like the French, Russian, Chinese or Cuban ones. The understanding of these movements draws on research on social movements as well as revolutionary theories and the nonviolent tradition within peace research. The role of the nonviolent means by large groups has been vital but not sufficient for the successful outcomes.
A revolution is a social change that happens relatively fast and in which a society goes from one social system to another. It is distinguished from a “reform” by being carried out outside the established channels for societal changes (parliament, constitution etc) and can take place in any combination of the political, cultural or economic systems in a society. If all these three social systems are changed simultaneously we may talk of a social revolution. Most of the peaceful revolutions are limited to the political system, but with frequent unintended effect on the economical system as well. Large peaceful masses are not the only feature these revolutions have in common. In addition most cases take place in connection with elections. Often a domestic coalition confronts the people in position and there are frequently external actors involved in one way or another.
Almost everyone of these peaceful revolutions seems to have short or limited preparations; they take place when there is a “window of opportunity”. When they are successful and the old leadership falls, they often face serious problems both with internal cooperation and establishing a sustainable alternative. History proves it is easier to remove the old establishment than to create a new and better society for the majority. Almost every case has been forced to establish a neoliberal market economy and to privatize public services. The results have been growing economies but no systems to distribute the surplus. Growing gaps between poor and rich have left many unsatisfied. One frequent improvement is establishment of multiparty systems and more formal democracy.
These commonalities do not contradict the fact that each revolution is unique. The combination of contexts, actors, processes, and results makes each case complex and distinctive. With some exceptions the recent three decades of revolutions can be divided in four waves. There are some overlapping time wise and some exceptions The first wave include Iran 1979, Poland 1980-88, Bolivia 1982, Uruguay 1984, and Philippines 1986 and 2001. In all these cases trade unions were central in the protests and the Catholic Church played important roles. The next wave came as a consequence of the development in Poland and took place in former Warsaw Pact states 1989-1991. This wave includes some of the new states as a result of the collapse in Soviet Union.
Communist dictatorships were replaced with more formal democracy and they ended the Cold War. Almost in the same period of time a wave of unarmed revolutions took place in Sub-Saharan Africa with main focus in the Francophone states. Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Malawi and Madagascar experienced massive protests against the one-party systems and changes took place. Celebrating the 200 years anniversary of the French Revolution and inspired by the students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing these African states organized protests, demanded National Conferences and forced the power holders to step down, call for free elections or share power with the opposition.
The last wave started in Serbia in 2000 with the removal of Milosevic and spread to Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004, Kyrgyzstan 2005 and Lebanon the same year. In this wave the revolutions were dominated by well organized youth groups that led protests with spectacular confrontations outside the parliaments. Partly financed by American foundations and trained by experienced foreign activists they were able to make use of modern marketing techniques and had good international media coverage.