Civil Society Intervention as a Geopolitical Instrument
IN FOCUS, 29 October 2012
by Hannes Hofbauer – Strategic Culture Foundation
The first time I met a leading figure of a radical, so-called Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) was just after the «Orange Revolution» had changed Ukraine politics in spring 2005. The interview with Mikhail Svistovich took place in the head quarter of «Pora!» near the Metro station «Kontraktov square» in the Kiev district of Podol. The place itself reminded me of the atmosphere of squatted houses in Berlin during the late 1980s: walls were painted with political slogans, rooms filled with matrasses and bedsteads. Young Men and women sat in front of two, three computers surfing through virtual worlds. It took some time to find a place where we had enough space and silence for a talk. A former contact to a bureau of George Soros’ «Renaissance Foundation» was helpful to open doors. «Yes, the ‘Renaissance Foundation’ is an organisation, which provides us with some money», the activist openly addressed the relations between «Pora!» and the Soros Foundation. Svistovich introduced himself as an activist from the very beginning of «Pora’s» existence. Contrarily to the image of the house and the surrounding facilities, his outfit was not a revolutionary one. Aged 38 at the time, he left a carrier as a bank manager behind and became a civic street-fighter against Leonid Kuchma.
The idea of «Pora!», which means «It is time» – time to get rid of Kuchma and Yanukovych – was created in September 2001. Young people wanted to form what they called a «revolutionary avant-garde». The formation of «Pora!» took place after a seminar given by members of the Serbian group «Otpor» («Resistance»), who some months before had successfully contributed to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. For the next three years «Pora!» carefully prepared for a regime change in Ukraine. More than 20 seminars, all of them supervised by «Otpor», were held throughout the country. «We used these seminars to find out the best people for our organisation», Svistovich told. After this selection the operation could follow. It started during the night from the 28th to the 29th of March 2004. «In 17 regions our activists put thousands of posters on walls. They only comprised a single question: ‘What is Kuchmisme?’, and below this slogan we put our internet-address. Some of us were arrested, but soon released. Whoever had had contact with police, was put in the second row. The advantage of this regulation was that more and more activists learned to lead operations». Two weeks later «Pora!» started the second wave of sticking posters. This was the time of «de-coding» Kuchmism. «Therefore we put in posters like ‘Kuchmism is a crime’». Overnight «Pora!» was well-known all around Ukraine … and ready to become the revolutionary spear-head of the orange movement.
During the December events of 2004 «Pora!» did not take part actively in the tent city on Majdan square but served as a sort of a guard to hinder incoming people from the eastern part of the country to enter Kiev. «Besides blocking up the Ministry of Education and the General Public Prosecutor’s office, we were present at the railway stations to re-orient supporters of Viktor Yanukovych. Also streets leading from the East of the country to Kiev were blocked by the «Pora»-guards. «Where did you get the money to finance your activities», I wanted to know from Mikhail Svistovich. He answered openly: «The posters for coding and de-coding Kuchism were paid by ‘Westminster Foundation’» (a London based organisation subsidised from the British government (h.h.). In general, Svistovich stated, Great Britain and the United States did not play an important role during the Orange Revolution, «except that they helped us morally and financially».
When I returned to Vienna after this research in spring 2005 Ukraine had turned orange. At that time only a few observers in the West were aware, to what extent the local dissatisfaction in Ukraine was missused by Western foundations for their own interests. Today we do not only know how the orange experiment ended, but we also clearly can see the system behind the Western interventions in civil societies across the world.
Who are the coloured revolutionaries?
Roses in Georgia (2003), cedars in Lebanon (2005), tulips in Kyrgyzstan (2005), cornflowers in Belarus (2006)… most of the coloured revolutions are named after flowers or plants. Their radical activists organise themselves under names like «Kmara» («Enough»/ Georgia), «Mjaft» («Enough»/ Albania), «Zubr» («Bison»/ Belarus), «Kifaya» («Enough»/ Egypt). Most of them are young, long for the Western way of life, speak excellent English and – first of all – hate the ruling political class in their home country. All of them had obtained a good education within the respective system they detest. After their studies neither the state nor the market are able to provide them with a future adequate to their education. Their high demands in politics and way of life were disappointed, which lead them straight into the opposition. There they face a system of (state) power, which they experience as politically paralysed, economically corrupt und culturally back-warded.
These are the structural social conditions, in which a disappointed youth finds itself mainly in societies of transformation. These conditions are hardly discussed by the institutions of power and also mostly ignored by the young people themselves. Coloured revolutions are rooted in social discontent and disappointment. These phenomena can be observed at first and best in peripheral societies east and south of the European Union. There the economic crisis, which followed the transformation period of the 1990s, did not only destroy the industrial and sometimes the agricultural basis of the respective countries and people, but also their social relations and cultural identities. These so-called «reform-societies» are not able to offer perspectives for a large part of the young generation, first of all the well-educated youth. Many of them see only two alternatives: emigration or revolt.
It started in Serbia
The mother of all coloured revolutions was black and white. Its name: «Otpor», «Resistance». Its symbol: a white feast in front of a black ground, red colour was hated. «Otpor» was founded in the beginning of the 1990s in Belgrade. The group understood itself in sharp opposition to the rise of Slobodan Milosevic and his «Socialist Party of Serbia» (SPS). «Otpor’s» battle-cry: «gotov je!», «he is finished». «He» was the big enemy: Milosevic. The first manifestations against his government began in 1988. Their social character was evident. People protested against rising prices for living. These «bread-riots» pointed at the government, but meant the IMF that dictated what they called «reform», the abolishment of state subsidies for housing and goods of daily use. Out of parts of these protesters «Otpor» formed a political group with one single goal: to get rid of whom they called «the autocrat», Slobodan Milosevic.
After the end of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia the legitimacy of rule and governance was debated widely in a political and philosophical sense. Where rulers of the old type or their supposed revenants did not give way voluntarily, oppositional groups felt legitimated to overthrow the system. This also happened in Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic and his SPS undermined the shock therapy of the IMF in Winter 1990/91 by setting in motion the money-printing machine. The fresh banknotes allowed paying state employers like teachers, doctors and military. Hence he obstructed the restrictive monetary policy, prescribed by the IMF. What was appreciated by vast parts of the people, provoked Western organisations, and he became an enemy of them. «Otpor» repeated its standpoint: «Milosevic has to leave». It took some time until the potential of this oppositional group was discovered by Western financiers.
Civil society intervention
Since the middle of the 1990s masses of so-called Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been operating in the countries of ex-Comecon and Yugoslavia. Their «mission» followed slogans of «democracy», «nation-building» or «new governance». They aimed at interfering in politics by supporting local oppositional groups of civil society.
One of the most prominent and strongest «Mission»-organisation to bring Western democracy to Eastern and Southern countries is the American foundation named «National Endowment for Democracy» (NED). Founded by the US-Congress in 1983 and financed by state-money since then, NED has the function to distribute an annual amount of a three-figure million Dollar number to four so-called NGOs: The «National Democratic Institute for International Affairs» (NDI), which stands under the influence of the Democratic Party, its Republican vis-à-vis, the «International Republican Institute» (IRI), the «Center for International Private Enterprise» (CIPE) and the «American Center for International Labor Solidarity» (ACILS), one representing the Chamber of commerce, the other the AFL/CIO-union. These four NGOs, all of them fully backed by state-money and therefore cheating with the «N» in their self-representation as «NGO», work in their respected fields on the ground in Eastern Europe, the Islamic world and elsewhere.
The ideological background of foundations like NED, the United States Agency for International Development USAID, «Freedom-House» or its British variant «Westminster Foundation for Democracy» is rooted in a specific understanding of what they call «universal democracy», which they claim to be spread all over the world. The concept is based on the declared necessity of economic competition and its political administration through democratic institutions. Democratic institutions have to follow the principles of market economy and not vice versa. The ideal, universalistic form of this model of democracy can be described as «constitutive liberalism» in a parliamentary two-party-system under a strong presidency. The electoral freedom excludes the social and economic system and reduces socio-economic debates, if admitted at all, to measures of tax policy.
This understanding of democracy is not compatible with revolutionary processes having taken place in Eastern Europe and North Africa. There the vision of democracy reaches beyond the system of «constitutive liberalism» and its defence of property. On the contrary: revolutions overwhelm such things like property laws and open new radical perspectives. Political and media observers are well aware of this fact and its potential danger. Therefore all missions of civil society-interventions by Western foundations are united by one goal: to direct revolutionary processes in East and South towards the Western understanding of liberal democracy; to pave the way for «constitutional liberalism».
Many democratic elections, for example in Eastern Europe, but also in the Arab world after 1989/91, did not reflect the Western idea of liberal democracy. The outcome were «false results» in the cases of Yugoslavia, Romania, and Slovakia, when leaders like Milosevic, Iliescu, Meciar or Fico received majorities at the ballot-box. The American political scientist and redactor in chief of the influential magazine «Foreign Affairs», Fareed Zakaria, named these democratic elections, when Milosevic or Meciar took legal power, «illiberal democracies». (1) In his view it is not the democracy as such that are in ill health condition, but the constitutional liberalism. He even makes his view more concrete: «Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous». Meciar, Iliescu, Milosevic, Yanukovych… they all won elections and got majorities, some of them more than one time. Nevertheless Western media and politicians call them despots, autocrats, nationalists, communists or national communists. Western foundations like NED, USAID, Westminster or Freedom House see their task in spreading their universalistic claim of a bourgeois, liberally constituted democracy throughout the world. In the societies of transformation they intervene into civil society by moulding local protests into coloured revolution.
How do these interventions function? At the beginning local or national discontent, which almost always is rooted in social problems, has to be «politicised». That means that social revolutionary elements have to be excluded. They could be dangerous for the establishment of a liberal democracy. In a second step cadres are formed. They run through different seminars in «regime change», «liberal democracy», «institution building», «nation building» etc. Allen Weinstein, one of the founders of NED, once stated openly, what the function of organisations like NED was like at the beginning of the 1990s: «A lot of what we [NED] do was done 25 years ago covertly by the CIA». (2) In some cases like in the case of James Woosley this statement can be proved even biographically. Woosley was head of the CIA between 1993 and 1995, before he led the board of «Freedom House».
If the civil society interventions do not fulfil the aim of «regime change», a military intervention can take place, like it did in Yugoslavia in March 1999. Since the rule of Bill Clinton civil mission and military threat go hand in hand. Barack Obama brings this system to perfection.
With the help of Western foundations, the Serbian «Otpor» positioned itself as a more or less successful export model. From Georgia to Ukraine, Belarus and Egypt former activists of «Otpor» hold trainings and seminars in civil resistance to form NGO-units of oppositional groups to overthrow the respective political leaders and governments like Shevardandze, Kuchma/Yanukovych or Lukashenko. Not everywhere the plan is functioning, like the case of Belarus shows. There the local coloured revolutionaries were persecuted and moved to Lithuania or Poland, where they now maintain their infrastructure like radio stations, offices and «universities».
Moscow is warned
In July 2012 the Russian Duma passed a law which obliges civil society organisations to financing transparency. This includes the declaration and control of foreign money. The Western resentment at this law is dishonest in some regards. On the one hand, the civil society interventions of Western foundations for Eastern and Southern coloured revolutions get more and more visible. Their function is evident. Even more: For example NED is publishing openly which NGO is getting how much grants. In its annual statement of accounting (2011) NED notes that it concentrated on subsidising NGOs in Belarus, where organisations like «Freedom of information» (1,23 Mio Dollars) or «Civil Society» (300.000 Dollars) all together received 3,5 Mio. Dollars in 2011.
On the other hand, Russia is not the first country to hinder civil society interventions from outside. So Venezuela closed down the NED-bureau in Caracas in December 2010. And Egypt checked the bureaus of five foreign foundations and brought more than 40 responsible employees (Americans, Germans, Serbians and Egyptians) to the court. They are accused of «illegal activities with illegal money transfers».
After all the experiences with intervening in civil societies in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus, nobody can be astonished that Moscow is trying to protect its civil society from foreign attempts to implement coloured opposition. Let’s be frank: what would happen if Russian foundations would intervene in Western European civil societies? How would the European Union, for example, react, if Russian of Chinese financial support would be given to – let’s say – groups for national self-determination. They could even use the same political argument Berlin did in the 1990s by supporting Croatian and Bosnian nationalists and their fight against Belgrade. National discontent is widespread in Europe. And easily young people from Greece to the Netherlands could be found to fight EU-establishment with social or national arguments. Russian money could help them to organise. It is for sure that in the case of logistical and financial intervention into EU-inner politics, Brussels would immediately stop the flow of money from outside, for example from Moscow. This restriction would be labelled as a necessary «capital control» to protect EU-European interests, as it is done in other fields of the economy. Moscow is doing exactly the same, but Western media and politicians are defaming the restriction for being «undemocratic» representing «Soviet-type politics». With the new Russian law controlling foreign money flow into civil society organisations, the Western «NGOs are forced to react. USAID is the first to close down its office end of September 2012…
Hannes Hofbauer is an Austrian historian, journalist and publisher. Since 1988 he researches the social and economic situation in Eastern Europe. He lives in Vienna.
(1) Fareed Zakaria, The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. In: Foreign Affairs 76/6 (1997), 42
(2) Washington Post, 21th of September 1991
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