Thursday, December 09, 2004

Code Orange

Have you seen orange ribbons in the streets of America?
Orange Ribbons
I've seen a number of voting rights activists in Ohio wearing them. It is said that "the color Orange was chosen to Remember Florida, where the wishes of the voters were completely ignored in order to put the Governor's brother in the White House" ("Orange Ribbons"), but Orange-ribboned Ohio activists told me that they picked up the color from the TV coverage of Ukraine.

Supporters of Ukraine's presidential candidate and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko enjoy fireworks during a rally in central Kiev, December 8, 2004. Yushchenko said on Wednesday a parliamentary vote to root out cheating in elections opened the way for him to win a re-run of a rigged presidential poll. Photo by Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters
Comparison goes like this: "In the face of obvious fraud, Ukraine's Supreme Court has thrown out an apparent coup for the incumbent and ordered a new election. That's what needs to happen here. . . . [I]f Ukraine can get a new election, why can't we?" (Harvey Wasserman, "As Ukraine Celebrates Democracy, It's Being Denied in Ohio," The Free Press, December 3, 2004).

The problem with the comparison is, first of all, that the 2004 US presidential election wasn't an "obvious fraud" perpetrated by the incumbent -- what's wrong about it is subtler and deeper. More importantly, what's happening in Ukraine is hardly a celebration of democracy. According to Ian Traynor's report in The Guardian, it's just another installment in a long series of successful "regime changes" orchestrated by Washington:
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, Alexander Lukashenko.

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 people's elections.

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 marketing.

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 regimes.

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. (Ian Traynor, "US Campaign behind the Turmoil in Kiev," The Guardian, November 26, 2004)
Jonathan Steele, more critical than Traynor, calls it a "postmodern coup d'etat":
Countless elections in the post-Soviet space have been manipulated to a degree which 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.

Yet after none of those polls did the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the main international observer body, or the US and other western governments, make the furious noise they are producing today. The decision to protest appears to depend mainly on realpolitik and whether the challengers or the incumbent are considered more "pro-western" or "pro-market".

In Ukraine, Yushchenko got the western nod, and floods of money poured in to groups which support him, ranging from the youth organisation, Pora, to various opposition websites. More provocatively, the US and other western embassies paid for exit polls, prompting Russia to do likewise, though apparently to a lesser extent.

The US's own election this month showed how wrong exit polls can be. But they provide a powerful mobilising effect, making it easier to persuade people to mount civil disobedience or seize public buildings on the grounds the election must have been stolen if the official results diverge.

Intervening in foreign elections, under the guise of an impartial interest in helping civil society, has become the run-up to the postmodern coup d'etat, the CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days adapted to post-Soviet conditions. Instruments of democracy are used selectively to topple unpopular dictators, once a successor candidate or regime has been groomed. (emphasis added, Jonathan Steele, "Ukraine's Postmodern Coup d'Etat: Yushchenko Got the US Nod, and Money Flooded in to His Supporters," The Guardian, November 26, 2004)
A case can be made, of course, that we can take a refresher course in mass actions for "regime changes" from Washington and its "civil society" fronts, since their "regime change" manual is based upon their study of activists and organizers on the left anyway, but we need to make clear that's what we are doing, rather than spread an illusion that Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" is a spontaneous uprising of ordinary citizens. Besides, we need to remember that the revolution will not only not be televised. The revolution here won't be funded by a foreign government giving Americans 29 cents per capita (which is what we get if we divide $14 million that Washington spent on Yushchenko supporters by the Ukrainian population of 48 million) -- or $86 million in total -- to organize it.


Unknown said...

Interesting points you make. I'm not sure orange is a good color to represent the movement for a number of reasons, mainly aesthetic, but you make a good case on an intellectual level.

I'd add, though, that it's possibly plagiarism or a copyright violation to quote so much of an article (your story from the Guardian). You might want to stick with shorter excerpts and a link.

Anonymous said...

I originally advised against the Orange emblem in Ohio in oart because of the Orangfemen in Ireland ( kind of the Irish equivalent of the KKK?) but it seemed like the majority of fols supported the idea so I suggested orange baloons. No one took any action at all and then someone on her own initiative made up a bunch of very small orange ribbon pins. I hadn't had time to research what was happening in the Ukraine so I was hesitant. Lech Walesa's "Solidarinosc" may have similarly enjoyed U.S. support and folks rushed to support that phenomenon prematurely in my opinion.
I was also disappointed in all the derisive references to "repressive communist societies". I'm not arguing that we've had horrendous examples of repression in some communist societies but who among the knowlefgeable would argue that the elections in Cuba are more corrupt than in the U.S.?
Evan Davis

Yoshie said...

Perhaps, I should include a "fair use notice" of the sort that the Common Dreams News Center and the like include:

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