US campaign behind the turmoil
by Ian Traynor
The Guardian, November 26, 2004
With their websites and stickers, their
pranks and slogans aimed at banishing widespread fear of a corrupt
regime, the democracy guerrillas of the Ukrainian Pora youth movement
have already notched up a famous victory - whatever the outcome
of the dangerous stand-off in Kiev.
Ukraine, traditionally passive in its
politics, has been mobilised by the young democracy activists
and will never be the same again.
But while the gains of the orange-bedecked
"chestnut revolution" are Ukraine's, the campaign is
an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived
exercise in western branding and mass marketing that, in four
countries in four years, has been used to try to salvage rigged
elections and topple unsavoury regimes.
Funded and organised by the US government,
deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big
American parties and US non-government organisations, the campaign
was first used in Europe in Belgrade in 2000 to beat Slobodan
Milosevic at the ballot box.
Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade,
played a key role. And by last year, as US ambassador in Tbilisi,
he repeated the trick in Georgia, coaching Mikhail Saakashvili
in how to bring down Eduard Shevardnadze.
Ten months after the success in Belgrade,
the US ambassador in Minsk, Michael Kozak, a veteran of similar
operations in central America, notably in Nicaragua, organised
a near identical campaign to try to defeat the Belarus hardman,
That one failed. "There will be
no Kostunica in Belarus," the Belarus president declared,
referring to the victory in Belgrade.
But experience gained in Serbia, Georgia
and Belarus has been invaluable in plotting to beat the regime
of Leonid Kuchma in Kiev.
The operation - engineering democracy
through the ballot box and civil disobedience - is now so slick
that the methods have matured into a template for winning other
In the centre of Belgrade, there is a
dingy office staffed by computer-literate youngsters who call
themselves the Centre for Non-violent Resistance. If you want
to know how to beat a regime that controls the mass media, the
judges, the courts, the security apparatus and the voting stations,
the young Belgrade activists are for hire.
They emerged from the anti-Milosevic
student movement, Otpor, meaning resistance. The catchy, single-word
branding is important. In Georgia last year, the parallel student
movement was Khmara. In Belarus, it was Zubr. In Ukraine, it is
Pora, meaning high time. Otpor also had a potent, simple slogan
that appeared everywhere in Serbia in 2000 - the two words "gotov
je", meaning "he's finished", a reference to Milosevic.
A logo of a black-and-white clenched fist completed the masterful
In Ukraine, the equivalent is a ticking
clock, also signalling that the Kuchma regime's days are numbered.
Stickers, spray paint and websites are
the young activists' weapons. Irony and street comedy mocking
the regime have been hugely successful in puncturing public fear
and enraging the powerful.
Last year, before becoming president
in Georgia, the US-educated Mr Saakashvili travelled from Tbilisi
to Belgrade to be coached in the techniques of mass defiance.
In Belarus, the US embassy organised the dispatch of young opposition
leaders to the Baltic, where they met up with Serbs travelling
from Belgrade. In Serbia's case, given the hostile environment
in Belgrade, the Americans organised the overthrow from neighbouring
Hungary - Budapest and Szeged.
In recent weeks, several Serbs travelled
to the Ukraine. Indeed, one of the leaders from Belgrade, Aleksandar
Maric, was turned away at the border.
The Democratic party's National Democratic
Institute, the Republican party's International Republican Institute,
the US state department and USAid are the main agencies involved
in these grassroots campaigns as well as the Freedom House NGO
and billionaire George Soros's open society institute.
US pollsters and professional consultants
are hired to organise focus groups and use psephological data
to plot strategy.
The usually fractious oppositions have
to be united behind a single candidate if there is to be any chance
of unseating the regime. That leader is selected on pragmatic
and objective grounds, even if he or she is anti-American.
In Serbia, US pollsters Penn, Schoen
and Berland Associates discovered that the assassinated pro-western
opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, was reviled at home and had
no chance of beating Milosevic fairly in an election. He was persuaded
to take a back seat to the anti-western Vojislav Kostunica, who
is now Serbian prime minister.
In Belarus, US officials ordered opposition
parties to unite behind the dour, elderly trade unionist, Vladimir
Goncharik, because he appealed to much of the Lukashenko constituency.
Officially, the US government spent $41m
(£21.7m) organising and funding the year-long operation
to get rid of Milosevic from October 1999. In Ukraine, the figure
is said to be around $14m.
Apart from the student movement and the
united opposition, the other key element in the democracy template
is what is known as the "parallel vote tabulation",
a counter to the election-rigging tricks beloved of disreputable
There are professional outside election
monitors from bodies such as the Organisation for Security and
Cooperation in Europe, but the Ukrainian poll, like its predecessors,
also featured thousands of local election monitors trained and
paid by western groups.
Freedom House and the Democratic party's
NDI helped fund and organise the "largest civil regional
election monitoring effort" in Ukraine, involving more than
1,000 trained observers. They also organised exit polls. On Sunday
night those polls gave Mr Yushchenko an 11-point lead and set
the agenda for much of what has followed.
The exit polls are seen as critical because
they seize the initiative in the propaganda battle with the regime,
invariably appearing first, receiving wide media coverage and
putting the onus on the authorities to respond.
The final stage in the US template concerns
how to react when the incumbent tries to steal a lost election.
In Belarus, President Lukashenko won,
so the response was minimal. In Belgrade, Tbilisi, and now Kiev,
where the authorities initially tried to cling to power, the advice
was to stay cool but determined and to organise mass displays
of civil disobedience, which must remain peaceful but risk provoking
the regime into violent suppression.
If the events in Kiev vindicate the US
in its strategies for helping other people win elections and take
power from anti-democratic regimes, it is certain to try to repeat
the exercise elsewhere in the post-Soviet world.
The places to watch are Moldova and the
authoritarian countries of central Asia.