woensdag, mei 18, 2005

Weaning the Eastern European democratic resistance from the Yankee teat

[I've done it again. This one's a bit of a long one (seven pages in Word); You might want to print it off rather than give yourself eye pathologies]

News about the extent of the massacre in Uzbekistan was just beginning to filter in over the weekend as I attended a conference in Amsterdam, 'Wave of Resistance', about the recent cluster of democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. While some of the defenders of America's intervention in the East were having none of it, could there be a more timely proof of that country's, er, inconsistency in its support of democracy and human rights?

UK foreign minister Jack Straw has at least gone some way condemning President Islam Karimov, but then he really couldn't do anything but, seeing as he not days before had only just seen off a formidable challenger for his Blackburn seat, Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan, canned for criticising the fact the Karimov had a predilection for boiling his political opponents alive. Really, we have Murray to thank for embarrassing Straw into at least saying something, however late it has come. However, as Murray himself now says:

'[T]he Uzbek people can keep on dying. They are not worth a lot of cash, so who cares? I travelled to Andijan a year ago to meet the opposition leaders, and kept in touch. I can give you a direct assurance that they are - or in many cases were - in no sense Islamist militants. They died an unwanted embarrassment to US foreign policy. We will doubtless hear some pious hypocrisies from Jack Straw. But when I was seeking funding to support the proto-democrats, the Foreign Office turned me down flat.

'The US will fund "human rights" training in Uzbekistan but not help for the democratic opposition, in contrast to its policy elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. When Jon Purnell, the US ambassador, last year attended the opening of a human rights centre in the Ferghana valley, he interrupted a local speaker criticising repression. Political points, Purnell opined, were not allowed.'

Judging the situation by the American response to the biggest political slaughter in Asia since Tiananmen Square, you would think that all that had happened was that the country had slapped a tariff on butter imports:

'We've been very clear about the human rights situation there, been very factual about it, but unfortunately the facts are not pretty,' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

At the same time as the statement was issued, according to CNN, State referred reporters to a Department 'background note' from February outlining the US government's analysis of the Uzbek situation [from the CNN report]:

'The United States believes Uzbekistan "plays a pivotal role in the region" and "has developed a broad relationship covering political, human rights, military, nonproliferation, economic, trade, assistance, and related issues."

'"Uzbekistan has been a strong partner of the United States on foreign policy and security issues ranging from Iraq to Cuba, and nuclear proliferation to narcotics trafficking" and "is a strong supporter of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the global war against terror."

'The note says the United States "values Uzbekistan as a stable, moderate force in a turbulent region. The United States urges greater reform to promote long-term stability and prosperity. Registration of independent political parties and human rights non-governmental organizations would be an important step."'

Yes. That would be a good idea. But if it gets in the way of us retaining our vitally important air base on the Uzbek-Afghan border, then, um, well, just try not to boil quite so many towelheads, mmmkay?

At the conference, four documentaries were shown detailing various aspects of the cascade of Eastern rebellions over the last couple of years and activists from the youth and student groups that formed the backbone of the various democratic movements - Otpor (former Yugoslavia), Kmara (Georgia), Pora (Ukraine), Zubr (Belarus) and Mjaft (Albania) - gave talks on their own experiences. There were also individuals from Yox (Azerbaijan) and Yabloko Youth (Russia).

The second documentary, Anatomy of a Revolution - in fact an extended reportage for Correspondent, a long-form current affairs programme on Canada's twenty-four-hour news channel, CBC Newsworld - was an exposé of the role played by U.S. funding and training and the general cloak and dagger escapades of the various N.G.O.s engaged in what, it turns out, is officially termed 'democracy promotion'. The producer of the piece, Alex Shprintsen, is Canadian, but was born in the Ukraine and lived there till he was twelve years old. He introduced his doc by saying 'the U.S. and other Western countries have been involved behind the scenes in these revolutions, and we should ask ourselves: "is there anything wrong with that?"'

But Mr. Shprintsen, who has been making documentaries in the former Soviet Union for the last ten years, had already decided for himself the answer to his own question, and would brook no counter-position at all.

The doc itself was quite good: there are interviews with Richard Miles, who was the chief of mission in the U.S. embassy in Belgrade at the time of Milosevic's ouster, and who, coincidentally, was ambassador to Georgia at the time of that country's 2003 house-cleaning. But of course, as Ambassador Miles admits, there is no coincidence at all. The Americans aren't hiding anything at all, apart from the exact figures spent. Ambassador Miles without pressure admits to the U.S. having spent US$100 million on the Georgian operation. A representative of Freedom House, a U.S. N.G.O. exclusively engaged in democracy promotion activities admits to having spent 'a couple hundred million' on the same project. These figures most likely represent the costs associated with training and other support that did not include the direct supply of cash, as Giorgi Kandelaki, a Kmara who spoke a number of times at the conference, was adamant that the U.S. supplied them with no funds whatsoever: it was only financier George Soros's Open Society Foundation from whom they received direct cash grants, although he did say that Kmara would readily have taken money from the U.S. had it been offered.

The funding supports a variety of activities: the key one being the collection of independent exit polls to expose rigged election results - a task which is enormously expensive and one that individual activists by themselves would never be able to carry out. Secondarily there is the cost of the opposition materiel - posters, leaflets, Jumbotron TV screens, stages for rock bands and opposition politicians from which to compere rallies, and - in the case of the Ukraine tent city - food, port-a-potties, tents, medical assistance, etc. Lastly, there is the training of the activists themselves via workshops, meetings and training camps in civil disobedience techniques, leadership, public speaking, how to organise rallies, how to raise awareness, methods of coalition-building, etc. - the meat and potatoes of campaigning that any lefty will instantly recognise.

So, far from being the fevered conspiracies of leftish tin-foil helmeteers (and, Lord knows, we have a few. Barely an evening's worth of campaigning on the left - or, worse still, witnessing what happens during an open mic session at a public meeting - will severely test one's support for care in the community), both the Americans and their protégés readily admit to there being a 'revolution' franchise applied in the East.

Mr. Shprintsen, was not attempting to denounce all this, but instead hopes that his documentary will convince viewers of America's benevolent role in the world. America is the architect of these revolutions, and thus America is Good. Needless to say, he and I, the sole two Canadians in the room (as far as I was aware), did not get on like a house on fire. As readers of this blog will be aware, I have no problem with these groups taking money from the U.S., just as I have no problem with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez accepting doctors and teachers from Cuba. In any case, I asked the activists how they felt they could reconcile receiving financial support from America, a country that elsewhere uses bombs and death squads (in particular in Latin America, I said, which seemed uncontroversial - I didn't want to get into any arguments about Iraq or Israel) to achieve its foreign policy objectives.

Interestingly, it was the young people from these groups who were more than cognizant of America's dilletantish support for democracy movements. The representative of Azerbaijani youth group, Yox, was particularly disappointed that, as he put it, the west's interest in maintaining stability in order to extract oil and gas from his region trumped a more robust support for his group. Giorgi, of Kmara also found this to be disappointing, and he was also well aware of America's (and the UK's) support for Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov. The representative of Otpor, Stanko Lazendic, seemed less concerned.

Oleh Kyriyenko, of Pora, however, put the dilemma quite succinctly: 'If a child is dying and the only thing that can safe it is the kidney of a serial killer: would the mother refuse the kidney out of principle?'

Mr. Shprintsen chafed at this epigraph, blimpishly asking: 'Do we have to accept this characterisation of the United States as a serial killer?' I was sitting right behind him and, of course, replied 'yes', at which point he got a little humpty at me in that passive-aggressive way that Canadians are best at. Give me a gruff, arrogant American argument any day over falsely polite Canadian terseness.

Interestingly, it later transpired that it was Oleh who posted my earlier essay on these youth groups on the Pora website, as he, in his words, very much agreed with what I wrote. So ner. Although I got the impression that there was a range of views on this subject amongst the activists. The way that Oleh came up with the analogy so quickly and precisely suggests to me that this was, or is, a discussion that the activists have regularly had amongst themselves.

Indeed, one of the elements that has been lost in all the discussion about the so-called 'McRevolutions' is that these groups are not monolithic, either internally or amongst each other. (I should probably say now, I am embarrassed that I came up with that term. The young people involved are so much more savvy and aware of the contradictions of their benefactor than sometimes even those critics, such as the mysteriously dodgy Guardian contributor John Laughland. These are not 'McRevolutions'. These young people are as committed to democratic change as the anti-globalisation/global justice movement is in the West)

The films about the various groups showed something that cannot be shown in all the reams of newspaper column inches and blog postings: what the kids actually looked like. This is not as frivolous a thing as might be imagined. There is a look to the anti-globalisation movement. Not everybody adheres to it, but you know that a certain combination of particular styles of t-shirts, piercings, baggy jeans, hoodies and kefiyehs works as something of a uniform. You can't always put your finger on it, but you know it when you see it, that sets them off from regular kids. There is also something of a uniform or outfit for student leaders and student unionists. They dress a little bit smarter. Maybe their shirts have collars, although they are likely to be untucked. They wear sweaters rather than hoodies. They haven't as many piercings, but they won't hide what ones they do have either. Occasionally they may where a suit - they certainly know to which occasions a suit should be worn - but it may be ill-fitting. Then there is the uniform of the aspiring young social democrat. The women dress in the same way that aspiring young conservative women dress, and the men have suits that not only fit, but they have a few of them, and Paul Smith ties and maybe even some cufflinks. There will be exceptions to all of these - the slobby Blairite and the GQ-reading member of the Hands off Venezuela Campaign (I, for example, may wear jeans around my bum, do own a hoodie and have a keffiyeh in my wardrobe, but the latter tends to make me look like a granny in a shawl and the hoodie somehow just doesn't work and, in the end, I end up wearing a lot of checked shirts and band t-shirts - which is some ways away from the strict anarchist black hoodie and cargo pants/combat trousers costume [Ooh! You're all in black! No one will notice you now! The police will never be able to pick you out of a crowd!] - but taken as an aggregate the uniform is unmistakable.

You can tell a lot from how activists dress. It is in this same way that the police plant in the room is always noticeable from his dough-nut bum and moustache. The Otpor guy dressed like a social democrat, the activists in the room dressed like student unionists; and the grunts in the films handing out the leaflets, doing the postering and graffiti spraying - they looked the same as every kid in Genoa, Seattle and Quebec City looked.

The offices out of which these revolutions were organised could have been any infoshop, musty leftie bookshop, squat, PIRG office, or local Palestine solidarity group headquarters. The same posters bluetacked to the walls, the same beardy keener manning the phones, the same stickers on computers and filing cabinets. You could almost smell the patchouli oil and cold coffee. The bright orange stages decked out like a U2 stadium concert in Kiev public squares may have been thoroughly professional (and I'm sure whoever rigged the lighting must be the same dudes who indeed do it for U2), but the rest of the operation would be instantly recognisable to any Western altermondialiste.

A number of the activists in Amsterdam were keen to point out that each of the groups were anti-hierarchy, had no leaders and were strictly not aligned with any political parties. Does this sound familiar, Social Forum attendees? It should. They adhere to Gandhian principles of non-violence and their main activities involve awareness-raising, occupations, demos and direct action.

These are, unmistakably, our kind of people.

Furthermore, while the outside world knows of this one, monolithic entity known variously as the anti-globalisation movement, we know amongst ourselves how riven with debate and even sectarianism we are. We are all opposed to neo-liberalism and the war, but there are thousands of answers to the question, 'What is to be done?' Thus why should we assume that all these groups and their members are monolithic in their resistance to authoritarian regimes? I can't be sure, but it seemed that the activists from Pora, Kmara and Yox were less comfortable with their Yankee erstwhile comrades than the others, but then again, there was another member of Pora in the audience in an Orange sweater who seemed to be contemptuous of any criticism of the United States.

Within Pora itself, there are in fact two Poras: the Yellows and the Blacks. Diplomatically both groups say they were founded more or less at the same time, as when both Marconi and Popov simultaneously invented the radio (although one gets the impression, behind the diplomatic words, that the Blacks feel the Yellows copied them). Both opposed to Kuchmism and Yanukovych, they had a 'civil marriage' in August, 2004. If one can give a brief analysis of the distinction - and this is almost certainly an oversimplification - it is that the Blacks are more 'grassroots'-oriented, or 'civic', and the Yellows are more leadership-oriented, or 'political'. (At the same time there are activists that are both Yellow and Black. Confusing? No more so than the multiple, overlapping and contradictory loyalties one finds in your quotidian committee to save the local hospital or anti-war group)

Oleh publicly said that while there is a difference, they are united in their opposition to the former regime. However, himself a Black, Oleh later sent me a couple of links from the Black Pora website about an organizational conference on the future of Pora, at which was discussed the role of leaders, and, while he doesn't use this word himself, what we would describe as 'careerists', in a tone that is courteous but pointed and that will be familiar to those who have engaged in similar arguments within the anti-globalisation movement:

'In theory, any merger should lead to an increase in strength and power. On top of that both Pora’s nicely complemented one another – “blacks” had a broader “street” experience, “yellows” apparently were better in media relations.

'Nonetheless very soon the process of merging slowed down drastically. The “blacks” say it happened because the “yellows” did not adhere to one of the fundamental principles (by the way taken from “Otpor”) of the Civic Campaign – leaderless and horizontal structure. For instance it is frustrating that one of the coordinators of the “yellows” – Vladyslav Kaskiv (who is also a Chairman of NGO coalition “Freedom of Choice”) – keeps appearing in media as a leader or chairman of “PORA!” (while no surnames of the activists of “black” PORA! were ever released to the media except for the cases of arrested activists, when it was crucial to ask for help from the public - correction by “black” PORA!)

'“We are like sand” – explains one of the “PORA!” activists. “We consciously chose this niche, where nobody has an opportunity to take advantage of our movement”.

It seems that the Yellows want to form a political party taking advantage of the prestige Pora has won over the past year, while the Blacks want Pora to remain a clearinghouse for democracy activists in the rest of the region - especially for those activists in Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan - and remain a democratic watchdog - a 'Cerberus of democracy', as one activist puts it - in their own country, as Yanukovych and thousands of other 'Kuchmists' remain in office. Furthermore, it seems the Yellows have already made arrangements in this regard, angering their Black comrades in so doing:

'…leaders of the “yellows” [have] made their choice already – in favour of the last alternative. They have allegedly made phone calls to some regions and portrayed the perspectives of creating a party on the basis of “PORA!” offering to join. What one of the activists who made a presentation at the forum found most disturbing was a fact that complete outsiders were approached with those proposals in the regions, behind the backs of actual “PORA!” activists. In this respect an angry activist even said “it is a treachery!”'

[The author of the piece subsequently goes on to note that when Otpor transformed itself into a political party, it managed to win just 1.65 per cent of the vote]

Anyone event tangentially involved in the anti-globalisation movement will recognise these debates over leadership and taking part in parliamentary activity.

The Wave of Resistance conference was put on by the Alfred Mozer Foundation, a project of the PvDA, the Dutch Labour Party. The Foundation was established in 1990 to aid in the development of (social) democratic parties in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since then it has played a similar role to that of the various U.S. N.G.O.s and semi-N.G.O.s in the region.

A number of commentators have pointed out that much of the funding for these groups does not in fact come from the U.S. government, but from N.G.O.s. This is true in a sense. The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute are connected to the U.S. Democrat and Republican Parties respectively. The sugar-daddy that bankrolled the Georgian Revolution was George Soros' Open Society Institute, which is ultimately small-L liberal in political orientation, but some of Soros' money has found its way into some decidedly left-wing outfits in the U.S. and elsewhere - including even some anarchist prison abolition groups. Further, Soros is openly hostile to George Bush and the neo-cons, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars last year attempting to defeat him.

Freedom House, another of the groups offering funding and advice, is a non-partisan N.G.O. originally founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to promote democracy. However, over the years, as lobby-group watchdog Right Web, a project of the International Relations Center, an American progressive think-tank, has pointed out, Freedom House has overwhelmingly focused its attention on authoritarian regimes that are enemies of the U.S. government, and even non-authoritarian but left-wing governments. Historically its focus has been Central America, in particular Nicaragua (no points awarded for guessing which side it supported in the civil war). Unsurprisingly, today it does not have many good words to say about Venezuela.

If we look still further, at those individuals who make up the group's board of trustees, we get a clearer picture of what sort of an organisation it is. James Woolsey, the former director of the C.I.A. and one of the country's main neo-conservatives, is Freedom House's chairman. Other members of the board include Samuel Huntington, the racist neo-con theorist and author of that neo-con bible, Clash of Civilisations; Diana Villiers Negroponte - guess whose wife she is; Jeane Kirkpatrick, a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Reagan and famous for the 'Kirkpatrick Doctrine' - which posited that the U.S. should support authoritarian regimes so long as they were anti-Communist, one of the States' strongest supporters of the Argentine dictatorship of Gen. Galtieri, and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (intriguingly, or not, she started out her career as a Marxist); Ken Adelmen, another of Reagan's ambassadors to the U.N., member of the Defense Policy Board, a signatory of the Project for a New American Century, regular commentator on Fox News and - wheels within wheels here - a trustee of George Soros' International Crisis Group; Steve Forbes, former Republican presidential candidate and editor of Forbes Magazine; and the person who used to be called the right-wing's Christopher Hitchens until Hitch claimed that mantle for himself, P.J. O'Rourke.

Freedom House is neo-con from slappable bald patch to gout-enlarged toe.

So, in a strict sense, it's true that some of the funding and advice does not come from the U.S. government directly. During the conference's debate portion of the day, in which the chair of the Alfred Mozer Foundation, Prof. André Gerrits, of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, sparred with the Guardian's Jonathan Steele, who has written a number of articles on the Americans' intervention in Eastern Europe, Prof. Gerrits said that the American funding for these groups came fifty per cent from the U.S. government directly, and fifty per cent from N.G.O.s, while the groups' European funding nearly all came from governments and the E.U. But this is merely reflective of the political culture in the U.S., where there is a revolving door for personnel of think-tanks and N.G.O.s and the U.S. government. They are not truly separate at all. In Europe, this happens to some extent as well, but not nearly to the institutionalised extent that it does in America.

The democracy movements in Eastern Europe should know that the groups that are helping them out are not interested in 'democracy promotion', but Western foreign policy promotion. Of course they should take their money. Where else are they going to get it? But they, like Faust and the Québecois coureurs du bois in their flying canoe, have made a pact with the devil. They should know that their benefactors will some day come to collect their quid pro quo.

But that is their concern. For us on the European left, this is all an embarrassment. Why should democracy groups in Eastern Europe have looked first to the U.S. embassy and American N.G.O.s that are crypto-fronts for the C.I.A. and State Department? Why were our own organisations, more than qualified in solidarity work and the development of civic resistance, not first in the rolodex? Firstly, it is because of our relative weakness historically, and we certainly cannot come up with the moolah that can be made available at the snap of a consular finger, but I think there is also an institutional hangover from the Cold War.

Too many organisations of the European left, even if they did not openly support the U.S.S.R., were at a loss upon its collapse, and even now continue to be suspicious of opposition movements in the former Soviet Bloc. I remember during the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, the Vancouver Anti-War Coalition of the time (there have been many Vancouver Anti-War Coalitions before, since and, sadly, at the same time), there were not a few activists whose analysis of the situation was that a socialist state was being attacked by the capitalist West. Michel Chossudovsky's Centre for Research on Globalization, for example, which has done some tremendous work exposing the thievery of international financial institutions, remains to this day an unrepentant defender of Milosevic.

Thankfully, for the most part these sorts are disappearing, and the anti-globalisation movement has no time for Stalinists of any description. But we have not done enough to welcome young activists from the East.

If for no other reason than to wean these activists from the Yankee teat, we must open our own organisations and meetings up to these genuine revolutionaries. We must make links and build solidarity with them. We must bend our organisations to help those still under the yoke of authoritarians such as Lukashenko in Belarus and Aliyev in Azerbaijan. Students and others that protested Shevardnadze are now back in the streets protesting Saakashvili. We must support them, because now that the U.S. has what it wants - a president that calls George Bush a 'freedom fighter' and is hostile to Moscow - the U.S. embassy won't be returning the students' calls any more.

At the very least, representatives from Otpor, Kmara, Zubr, Mjaft, Pora, and Yox should be invited to the next preparatory assembly (Paris, 19-18 December) for the 2006 European Social Forum in Athens. Perhaps some work can be done through the ESF Working Group for Integration of Central and Eastern European Countries. Any other conferences, organising meetings or protests that are appropriate should also be opened to these groups

Fighting demagogues today wherever they are is as much an act of the left as it was in Prague in the spring of 1968. They are our comrades.