zondag, december 19, 2004

Otpor, Zubr, Kmara, Pora, Mjaft: Eastern Europe’s children of the revolution or front groups for the CIA?

I had said I was going to take a break until January, but I just have to say something about this whole non-debate about US financing of student democracy groups in Ukraine.

Plainly, the United States has been backing Ukraine’s ongoing ‘Orange Revolution’ financially as well as diplomatically. Further, over the past half-decade, the US has quite perfected the orchestration of student and civil society pro-democracy groups as part of campaigns of destabilisation against governments of which they do not approve.

A year ago, Kmara (meaning ‘Enough!’), the student organisation that was the backbone of the movement that toppled Georgia’s gerontologic semi-former-Stalinist, Eduard Shevardnadze, in favour of the telegenic, English-speaking, US-educated young nationalist, Mikhail Saakashvili, was indeed funded in large part by the US.

The Georgian group was modelled on Otpor (‘Resistance’), the student movement that led the 2000 rebellion against Milosevic in Yugoslavia, which had received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy. Students from Kmara had met with Otpor organisers to learn effective opposition organising and civil disobedience techniques, and received some $500,000 in funding from billionaire financier George Soros.

The previous year, in Belarus, the US embassy paid for young anti-government activists from Zubr (‘Bison’) to meet with Otpor activists from Belgrade. As Ian Traynor, the Guardian’s Central Europe correspondent has reported, the co-ordinator of that particular operation was Michael Kozak, the ambassador in Minsk and a veteran of similar but dirtier campaigns in Nicaragua. However, as Viktor Lukashenko ultimately won his election by a considerable margin, the Belarusian organising was for nought. Nonetheless, Zubr is still organising against Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.

And now, Pora (‘It’s time’), another student group, has been one of the key groups organising the protests in the Ukraine against Viktor Yanukovitch. Pora, in turn, has received organising advice from the Otpor and Kmara activists and funding from the US-Democratic-Party-linked National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Last weekend, George Kandelaki, a Kmara organiser, was detained by Ukrainian border guards.

At the end of November, a pair of Zubr activists were also detained by special forces on their way from Kyiv to Minsk, where they participated in pro-Yuschenko rallies.

Watch for a similar ‘revolution’ from the Albanian kids in Mjaft (which, intriguingly, also means ‘Enough!’), which receives support from the US embassy in Tirana, the German embassy, the UK Foreign Office, OSCE and, here he is again, the Soros Foundation. Albania’s general election is scheduled for 2005.

The branding and image of these organisations is all-important, as slick as any campaign from Nike or the Gap. The ‘brand logo’ in Serbia was a black fist on a white background; in Georgia, it was a black fist on a yellow background; in Belarus, it is an orange bison, in Ukraine, it is the ubiquitous orange scarves; and in Albania the logo appears as an open red palm on a black background. ‘Mjaft is now a product of a brand,’ says Erion Veliaj, the group’s twenty-four-year-old leader, ‘The Coca-Cola of activism.’

The Guardian has also reported that the US spent some $41m on such civil society organising against Milosevic, and has so far spent $14m on the Ukraine operation.

But what interest has the US in the forward advance of democracy? Gullible rubes would have you believe that it is because they are genuinely committed to freedom and parliamentary democracy. If this were the case, then the US would be publicly supporting the wildly popular social-democratic president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, instead of backing the abortive right-wing coup that overthrew him for a couple of days in 2002. The US would also be condemning the death squad goons that this year overthrew the democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Interestingly, pro-war liberals who may be losing their faith as the war continues to go badly for the Coalition, are not denying the meddling at all, but hold up the financing perhaps to prove to themselves the benevolence of Washington, as if to say: ‘See, the US at least means well, and honestly believes in the spread of democracy, even if Iraq is a total shit sandwich.’

Timothy Garton Ash has even proposed a list of principles under which such foreign interference in elections should operate.

A number on the left, and geopolitical realists, have suggested that, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the US is primarily interested in encircling its old imperial enemy, Russia, with pro-western regimes. And that Russia, in its backing of Yanukovitch, is resisting the west’s imperial reach with a counter neo-colonialism and a meddling of its own in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. Ian Traynor in the Guardian has described the whole process as nothing less than ‘a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing,’ while the same paper’s Jonathan Steele described the Orange Revolution as a ‘postmodern coup d'etat.’

While still others have wondered how the US would react if foreigners began to meddle in American elections. Although really there is no need to wonder: the Guardian’s spectacularly hapless Operation Clark County showed us what Main Street USA felt about what they described as ‘limeys with dental hygiene issues’ when they sent letters urging them to vote for candidates who believe in science.

However, what this narrative of either nefarious or noble (depending on the given commentator’s inclination toward the US) meddling as the wizard behind the curtain for these movements misses, is that in each of these cases, the regimes were indubitably already hated by large sections of the people. The US funding of these student groups would have achieved nothing if there were not already extant reservoirs of anti-government feeling in each of the countries.

If all it took to foment a revolution were a few student picket lines and some neat-o stickers with groovy logos and sarcastic slogans prankishly placed on bus shelter timetables, governments the world over would be a lot more concerned about Trotskyist undergraduates meeting in student union building basements, and would most likely go ahead and shut the meetings down rather than just send the token moustachioed, middle-aged infiltrator who always volunteers to take the minutes.

In Yugoslavia, while student organising played its part, the event that broke the back of the Milosevic regime and delivered Vojislav Kostunica to power was the general strike of October 2000, led by workers at the Kostolac and Kolubara mines serving the republic's two biggest thermal power plants, who had disrupted power supplies throughout the country. There is far more to national revolutions than the local US consulate renting a sound system and a pair of Jumbotron TVs for a demo in the piazza.

It should also be pointed out that the model for these groups, Otpor, said at the time of its early successes against Milosevic that many of its activists had been inspired by the Teamsters and Turtles of Seattle, who had taken on the WTO a year before the Yugoslav revolution, an event which itself took place against a background of ongoing mass anti-globalisation demonstrations around the world, just as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution today takes place against a background of ongoing mass anti-war demonstrations around the world. In Albania, Mjaft’s leader claims the tactics of Michael Moore as inspiration, organising publicity stunts outside the home of the country’s minister of public order, resulting in his resignation, and successfully forcing the government to increase its education budget. Veliaj calls these media-friendly tactics ‘civic blackmail’.

America, like every other state on the planet, is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. If backing democrats in one country furthers its interests, it will do so, and it certainly helps with the PR campaigns. If in another its interests are furthered by backing the likes of a Pinochet or that Karimov fella who boils dissidents alive in Uzbekistan, or, heck, whatshisname – that chap who used to be in charge of Iraq that Rumsfeld was pals with in the eighties – it will do that instead. The US does not seek out dictators, it seeks out client states.

It is a happy accident that America’s regional strategy of containing her old rival, Russia, for the current, brief period dovetails with the goals of democracy activists. Elsewhere, the fact that many Iraqi Kurds were in favour of the invasion of Iraq does not negate the generations of oppression of Kurds in that country, in Turkey and elsewhere. Equally so, the fact that the American Empire has been bankrolling activists in Eastern Europe does not diminish the real crimes of Milosevic, Lukashenko, Shevardnadze and Kuchma.

Furthermore, the students and their organisations themselves should not be denounced as puppets or dupes. They may yet be aware of their benefactor’s fickle and transient attention. Or more likely, the issue of US backing is simply irrelevant. In Ukraine, they just want to get rid of Yanukovitch. Thus for progressives in the west to be suspicious of these student groups simply because they have received funding from the States and George Soros is unfair. They are fighting for democracy; George Bush has not been camping out for weeks in Kiev’s Independence Square. The Ukrainian people have.

And they deserve our support, however much money they have received from the US.

And when the Ukrainian people discover in a couple of years that Yushchenko (assuming he is elected on Boxing Day), remains as privatising, deregulating, corrupt and dioxin-in-soup-slipping as his rival, and they return to Kiev public squares to protest again, this time to find that the American funds have dried up and the Washington Post no longer describes them as ‘democracy activists’, but as ‘the mob’, we will still support them.