Friendly Dictators and Hostile Democracies

Taking the risk out of civil society

by Michael Barker, November 3, 2006


Commonsense dictates that it would be easy to obtain public support in the Western world for the promotion of democracy in non-democratic countries, which in part is one reason for the success of overt political interventions undertaken in the name of democracy by groups like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other "democracy promoting" organizations ( However, who makes the final decision as to whether any given country needs to be democratized or to put it another way, is democratic enough to be "spared" from intervention? This complicated decision is not necessarily left to individual countries, even though a country like the US may appear to be "acting on behalf of a US elite" when promoting democracy. Robinson concludes that they are in actual fact "playing a leadership role on behalf of an emergent transnational [capitalist] elite." (1) Considering these propositions, one might conclude that any non-democratic country supporting this transnational elite will be less likely to be democratised.

History shows us that there are "good" dictators and bad dictators, which basically depends on their position with regard to transnational elites. For example for many years both Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were considered to be "good" dictators due to their usefulness to various Western governments, but later on, when they stopped being so useful both turned "bad." The Marcos example is interesting, because the US was effectively "forced" to promote polyarchy in the Philippines, as grassroots movements' resistance to the dictator were becoming so popular that the collapse of his regime seemed inevitable to the US government. Therefore, in 1985 the US successfully intervened to ensure that Marcos was replaced with the "right" elite, instead of leftist popular organisations who had led the opposition to Marcos's regime until then. (2) On the other hand Hussein's transmogrification from "good" to "bad" was due to the conflicts concerning the oil reserves he was holding and his invasion of Kuwait. On the contrary, repressive elites in countries providing reliable oil sources to the West (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) were ignored by "democracy promoters." (3) Likewise, strategically placed allies, who have proven their usefulness by embracing the "war on terrorism", for example Azerbaijan, Egypt, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have been left alone. The Guardian newspaper noted this selective support for democracy, reporting that: "While the Serbs and the Ukrainians, for example, benefited from US support and money, the Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis are bitter about the lack of American backing in the face of formidable repression." (4)

As in the other color revolutions, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Azerbaijan in October 2003 after fraudulent elections, in which authoritarian Heydar Aliyev passed the reigns of the country on to his son, Ilham Aliyev. Unlike in other successful color revolutions the government in Azerbaijan "launched a brutal crackdown on the political opposition immediately after his election." (5) The crucial difference was that Azerbaijan's government was already serving a useful purpose for transnational elites, so instead of facilitating a revolution US diplomats "pressur[ed] the opposition to compromise"; US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even congratulated Ilham on his election victory. (6) Prior to 9/11 Azerbaijan was considered an international pariah due to its atrocious human rights record (subject to US economic sanctions), but after becoming one of the first countries to offer assistance in the "war on terrorism", it now ranks alongside other fore-mentioned "good" authoritarian states. Consequently, US sanctions were lifted and military aid started flowing (in 2005 this aid was doubled to nearly US$23 million). Azerbaijan is also supporting American and British energy interests in the development of the US$3.2 billion Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan pipeline - an "oil pipeline set to carry a million barrels of Caspian oil daily to Turkey and the American market." (7) In the November 2005 parliamentary elections, Ilham Aliyev was able to maintain his hold on power through US support.

Like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan's gruesome dictatorship, led by President Islam Karimov, has been a strong supporter of the "war on terrorism" and was rewarded with US$500 million in aid from the US in 2002 (of which, US$120 million was for military aid, and US$79 million went to Uzbekistan's secret police). (8) Interestingly, this strong support does not exempt Uzbekistan from US "democracy promotion" efforts, because it seems that as far as the US is concerned it would be more advantageous (PR-wise) to have a less brutal elite running the country. This has resulted in the US spending almost US$32 million to encourage "democratic reform" in Uzbekistan between 2003 and 2004. (9) This support probably serves more as a propaganda tool for US foreign policy rather than as any serious effort to challenge Karimov's government. So while Belarus meets strong international criticism for its attempts to kick out unwanted "democracy promoters", Uzbekistan's ejection of such groups has been met by silence, even during the run up to the December 2004 parliamentary elections. (10)

"Good" dictators are often able to avoid the vagaries of the ubiquitous democracy promoters, but "bad" dictators (that is, Belarus's Lukashenko) or "hostile" democracies (those prone to challenging transnational elite interests, e.g. Chile in the 1970s) can't avoid the unwanted and in some cases unwarranted attention of the harbingers of "democracy." When Bulgaria held its first democratic elections in 1990 and the old communist party won (renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party), the "democracy promoters," who had already injected US$2 million (through the NED) into Bulgarian organisations in an attempt to influence the election, were roused to full alert to undermine the election results. This happened despite the fact, that of all the international observers present, only the Americans were unhappy with the electoral process. (11) Subsequently, the NED ramped up the "democratic" ante and provided:

"generous funding and advice to the specific opposition groups which carried out a campaign of chaos lasting almost five months: very militant and disruptive street demonstrations, paralyzing strikes, sit-ins, hunger strikes, arson parliament was surrounded, the government was under siegeuntil finally the president was forced to resign, followed by some of his ministers; lastly, the prime minister gave up his office." (William Blum, 2000, Rogue State, p. 157)

New elections were held in 1991 and "democracy" prevailed when the US-backed opposition party was voted in (with externally supplied "democratic" support). (12)

A current example of democracy being "promoted" in a democracy is Venezuela. Both the US government and the US media are uncompromisingly hostile to Hugo Chávez's government which was democratically elected in 1998. (13) It appears that Chávez has drawn the attention of the "democracy promoters" by promoting the "wrong kind" of democracy, popular democracy instead of polyarchy. In fact, the NED has been busy financing "democracy" in Venezuela since 1992, supporting Venezuela's pro-US opposition party and even supporting the 2002 attempt to overthrow Chávez's government. (14) The NED has also provided ongoing funding to the Solidarity Center, a group with close associations to the organisations involved in the major strike actions against Chávez in 2003. (15)

"Democracy promotion" activities are also playing an increasingly important role in determining the shape of civil society in Iraq, with the US providing more than US$100 million in 2004 towards this goal. As in all previous examples, this funding appears to be designed to promote polyarchy; government documents show that money was only distributed to groups the US considered to be "democratic or moderate." (16) Lastly, and more ominously still, other techniques to marginalise and reduce dissenting voices in society have even included the creation of "peace camps" for children and youths, which USAID reported to have "prevented [a Haitian] demonstration from being larger and giving greater legitimacy to the protesters." (17)


"There are those that are marginalised and pushed aside, and then there are those that the US cannot or it is not in the interest of US foreign policy to marginalise or challenge, and then they attempt to co-opt these organisations and to moderate them. Very often you get well intentioned people and you get people who have a legitimate political agenda: democratisation, regime change from an authoritarian regime, and so forth, that because structural or on-the-ground circumstances don't allow anything else, become sucked up in US and transnational elite foreign policy operations or interventions." (William I. Robinson & Jonah Gindin, 2005, The Battle for Global Civil Society)

Unfortunately, there are no magic bullet solutions to the problems outlined in this four-part article, but perhaps the best way to tackle the critical problem of the purchase of democracy is to talk about it. Talking is something that has yet to happen, but needs to, urgently. While this paper has focused on the US's democracy promoting efforts, similar organisations and groups exist all over the world and the activities of these groups have for the most part been ignored. In 1998, the Australian government created the Centre for Democratic Institutions, described by the NED as their "sister institution in Australia"; yet to date, there has been almost no critical examination of its role in society. (18) In the UK there is the Westminster Foundation, which also has eluded any critical commentary. Thus, any dialogue around the promotion of democracy could begin with the exploration of the activities of local "democratic promoting" organisations and how their work is tied to the larger, more powerful agents of democracy in the US and the agenda of the emergent transnational elite.

Many democracy promoting activities may be welcomed by under funded and repressed social movements all over the world, including those in rich democratic countries like Australia and the UK. However, even though some of these movements may be supported by "democracy promoters," they might not be aware that selective support can erect funding barriers to progressive social movements challenging the status quo. For example, the Australian government recently cut all its funding for any environmental organisations involved in advocacy work, effectively making environmental educational work increasingly untenable. Thus democratic governments are working to promote polyarchy at home as well as abroad, with financial rewards attracting talented activists or organisers to the best funded (read: elite friendly) organisations. At some point, activists in democratic countries may have to rely solely on corporate funding from "socially responsible" corporations. Already corporate spending on political philanthropy is massive and a recent study of Fortune 500 companies estimated that:

"the corporate outlay on political philanthropy in the 2000 election cycle [in the US] was probably a minimum of $1-2 billion. This compares to roughly $200 million on PAC contributions and $400 million on soft money contributions. The clear picture that emerges is that CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] is a resource that corporations can and do use to advance their objectives in the political arena." _(Gretchen Sims, 2003, Rethinking the Political Power of American Business: The Role of Corporate Social Responsibility, Unpublished PhD thesis, Stanford University, pp. 166-167; For further details see, Sims, 2003, Hidden Power: Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Political Power,

International philanthropist George Soros's foreign "democracy promoting" initiatives are well known, but his recent efforts to "promote democracy" in the US are less established. In the November 2004 presidential elections, Soros provided US$10 million (of an estimated total of US$75 million) to a NGO initiative called Americans Coming Together, which campaigned in an attempt to defeat Bush. (19, 20) Many people in progressive social movements would agree that working to defeat Bush is a laudable goal, but the precedents set by such privately funded activities may be dangerous and need to be discussed within the wider context of other international "democracy promoting" schemes. For example, in Belarus the government has become so concerned about US manipulated social movements, that it passed an anti-extremism bill to clamp down on all street protests. (21) In the future, such changes will continue to make it harder for social movements - especially those not aligned with transnational elite interests - to make any headway into promoting popular democracy. This is an intolerable situation, and Robinson suggests "that exposing and denouncing and fighting against this new type of intervention [the faking of civil society] should top the agenda of the global social justice movement and of international solidarity work"; however, this will be difficult to do within the confines of our current corporate media systems. (22) Therefore, any efforts to bring discussion of the "promotion of democracy" into the public sphere should be carried out alongside efforts to reform the mass media itself.


Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at Michael.J.Barker [at]


The full article was presented by Michael Barker at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference (September 2006), see,%20Michael.pdf

For further information on groups involved in the "promotion of democracy" see: and


(1) Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 20._(2) Ibid., pp. 117-145._(3) Denis J. Sullivan, 'The US Egypt Partnership: Are Human Rights Included?', in Debra Liang-Fenton (ed), Implementing US Human Rights Policy: Agendas, Policies, and Practices, (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2004), pp. 401-431._(4) Annon, 'Rotten regimes', The Guardian (UK - Foreign Pages), 6 June 2005, p. 16._(5) Nick P. Walsh, 'US sidles up to well-oiled autocracy', The Guardian (UK), 2 July 2004, _,3604,1252221,00.html (6) Bradley Graham, 'Rumsfeld discusses tighter military ties with Azerbaijan', The Washington Post, 4 December 2003, p. 23; Michael Mainville, 'Opposition activists eager to mount revolution; "wait" is the word from leaders worried about lack of support', The Washington Times, 16 November 2005, p. A12._(7) Walsh, 'US sidles up to well-oiled autocracy'._(8) Martin Samuel, 'Boiling butcher's bill is paid for by Bush', Irish Independent, 17 May 2005, _(9) Olcott, Central Asia's Second Chance, p. 256._(10) In 2005 Karimov crushed his opposition when 500 demonstrators were killed during a protest opposing his regimes corrupt and arbitrary detentions. However no critical investigations or reports were forthcoming from the international community, and instead the US government followed the Uzbek government's line in blaming the protestors for the violence, and more specifically 'Islamic terrorists.' For further details see Chaulia, 'Democratisation, Colour Revolutions and the Role of the NGOs'._(11) Blum, Killing Hope, pp. 315-316._(12) During the 1980s the NED even took steps to 'promote democracy' in Europe, where it spent US$1.5 million to counter the rising power of leftist groups in France (see B. Raman, 'The National Endowment for Democracy of US', South Asia Analysis Group, 2000, _(13) Justin Delacour, 'The Op-Ed Assassination of Hugo Chávez' Extra!, Vol. 18, No. 6 (2005), pp. 24-27. _(14) Bart Jones, 'US Funds Aid Chávez Opposition', National Catholic Reporter, 2 April 2004,; Harley Sorenson, 'National Endowment for Democracy's feel-good name belies its corrupt intent', San Francisco Chronicle, 17 November 2003, _(15) Kim Scipes, 'AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà Vu All over Again', Labor Notes, 2004, _(16) Lisa A. Croke & Brian Dominick, 'Iraq's election: controversial US groups operate behind scenes on Iraq vote', The New Standard, 13 December 2004,; K. J. Saltman, 'Creative Associates International: Corporate Education and "Democracy Promotion" in Iraq', The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 28 (2006), pp. 25-65._(17) USAID cited in Kevin Skerrett, 'USAID Boasts "Success" with Pacification Program in Haiti', Znet, 10 October 2005, Louisa Coan, 'Promoting Democracy in Asia', Congressional Testimony by Federal Document Clearing House, (1997); Michael J. Barker, 'Fidel Ramos and the Australian Centre for Democratic Institutions', Znet, 16 April 2006, ; for a recent examination of the "promotion of democracy in Canada see, Anthony Fenton, 'Legitimizing Polyarchy: Canada's Contribution to "Democracy Promotion" in Latin America and the Caribbean', Znet, 29 October 2006, _(19) Soros is chairman of the Open Society Institute (OSI), a well know 'democracy promoting' organisation whose annual budget has at times reached US$450 million. OSI has 'promoted democracy' all over the world, especially in Eastern European countries where it has played an important role in challenging socialism, but it now has its sights firmly set on democratising China. For further details, see Heather Cottin, 'George Soros, Imperial Wizard', CovertAction Quarterly, Vol. 74 (2002). _(20) Leslie Wayne, 'And for his next feat, a billionaire sets sights on Bush', The New York Times, 31 May 2004, p. 13._(21) Kiryl Paznyak, 'Anti-extremism bill intended to preclude street protests', BelaPAN, 8 November 2005, _(22) Robinson & Gindin, 'The Battle for Global Civil Society'; In personal correspondence to this author (8 January 2006) Professor William I. Robinson agreed 'that media reform - and the expansion of popular media and a counter-media - is central to a counter-hegemonic project.'

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