“Meddling” to promote democracy

What do the following people have in common?: Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, rightwing columnist Patrick Buchanan, and the leftwing Nation’s foreign correspondent Jonathan Steele.

All of them have accused the United States of meddling in the elections for president of Ukraine.

Well, yes. American organizations devoted to promoting democracy worldwide have “meddled.” But as Michael McFaul writes in The Washington Post, is that such a terrible thing?

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy and a few other foundations sponsored certain U.S. organizations, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Solidarity Center, the Eurasia Foundation, Internews and several others to provide small grants and technical assistance to Ukrainian civil society. The European Union, individual European countries and the Soros-funded International Renaissance Foundation did the same.

In the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential vote this fall, these American and European organizations concentrated their resources on creating conditions for free and fair elections. Western organizations provided training and some direct assistance to the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, Ukraine’s first-rate election-monitoring organization. Western funders pooled resources to sponsor two exit polls. Western foundations also provided assistance to independent media. Freedom House and others supported Znayu and the Freedom of Choice Coalition, whose members included the high-profile Pora student movement. And through their conferences and publications, these American organizations supported the flow of knowledge and contacts between Ukrainian democrats and their counterparts in Slovakia, Croatia, Romania and Serbia… Formally, this help was nonpartisan, because the aim was to aid the electoral process. Yet most of these groups believed that a free and fair election would mean victory for Viktor Yushchenko. And they were right.

Writing in The Nation, Steele puts a more sinister spin on US involvement.

US funding has ranged from bankrolling opposition websites and radio stations to paying for the exit polls, which play a powerful role in mobilizing street protesters. It follows a template used four times in the past four years. The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2000 and of Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia in 2003 were US successes. A similar effort to topple Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus in 2001 failed. So too did the campaign against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in 2002.

Was the overthrow of Milosevic and Shevardnadze, and their replacement by more democratic leaders, a bad thing? Is the failure to bring down Lukashenko and Mugabe a good thing? Steele is distinctly equivocal.

[I]ntervening in foreign elections under the guise of an impartial interest in helping civil society has become the run-up to the postmodern coup d’état, the CIA-sponsored Third World uprising of cold war days adapted to post-Soviet conditions. Even if conducted impartially around the world, this heavy use of money in another country’s elections (which would be illegal in the United States and most Western countries) raises serious questions. What makes it worse is its selectivity.

Like “humanitarian interventionism,” which has been used more than once recently as a cover for going to war, “electoral interventionism” has become a tool in Washington’s arsenal for overseas manipulation. The instruments of democracy are used selectively to topple particular rulers, and only when a US-friendly successor candidate or regime has been groomed. Countless elections in the post-Soviet space have been distorted by incumbents to a degree that probably reversed the result, usually by unfair use of state television and sometimes by direct ballot rigging. Boris Yeltsin’s constitutional referendum in Russia in 1993 and his re-election in 1996 were early cases. Azerbaijan’s presidential vote last year was also highly suspicious.

Writing in The Post, McFaul disputes the assertions of Steele and other anti-meddlers that these efforts at encouraging democracy are designed above all to serve the geostrategic interests of the United States.

Do these American democracy assistance groups carry out the will of the Bush administration? Not really. One of the greatest myths about U.S. democracy efforts is that a senior White House official carefully choreographs the efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy or Freedom House. While they are perhaps supportive philosophically, policymakers at the White House and the State Department have had almost nothing to do with the design or implementation of American democracy assistance programs. In some countries, they clash with one another. I witnessed this as the National Democratic Institute’s representative in Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union: “They” — the U.S. policymakers — supported Mikhail Gorbachev; “we” worked with Democratic Russia, Gorbachev’s opponents. The same divide is present in many countries today.

Steele’s point about selectivity is a fair one. But instead of urging democracy-promoting organizations to extend their reach, he warns that backing Yushchenko is “playing with fire.”

Ukraine has been turned into a geostrategic matter not by Moscow but by Washington, which refuses to abandon its cold war policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet republic into its orbit…

…Putin is not inherently against a democratic Ukraine, however authoritarian he is in his own country. What concerns him is instability, the threat of anti-Russian regimes on his borders and American mischief.

In other words, as I understand it, Steele thinks reassuring Putin that the US intends no “mischief” is more important than helping Ukranians achieve real democracy. Shades of Henry Kissinger.