In Ukraine, a Franchised Revolution

Supporters of the Ukraine's pro-western oriented presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko

Supporters of the Ukraine's pro-western oriented presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko during a rally in Kiev on December 2, 2004. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP-Getty Images)

"A huge geopolitical battle is being fought in Ukraine."
— Nouvel Observateur, Paris

In scenes reminiscent of the overthrow of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in November last year and Slobodan Milosevich of Serbia in 2000, crowds opposing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, the official winner of Ukraine's presidential polls on November 21, massed at the main door to parliament in support of his rival Viktor Yushchenko, a former premier too, who claimed that the polls were rigged.

Parliament on Sunday annulled the results, which had given pro-Russian Yanukovich 49.46% of the votes against 46.61% for pro-West Yushchenko. But Roman Zvarych, a deputy and one of Yushchenko's close aides, said: "We are in legal limbo. Much of this we are making up as we go along." The Supreme Court, as of late seen as a neutral body, was due to sit for a third day Wednesday to examine allegations of systematic electoral fraud.

These events are part of a major geopolitical battle being fought in Ukraine, with the United States and Europe trying to encroach on Russia's traditional strategic turf. With the latter resisting it, the situation is reminiscent of the Cold War era. Ukraine, despite so far evolving peacefully, is now teetering on the edge of an abyss, with the possibility of serious turmoil looming, which could have ramifications that affect post-Cold War equations.

"If we really want to preserve peace and accord, and if we really want to build up the democratic society that we talk about so much ... let's organize new elections," Interfax reported outgoing President Leonid Kuchma as saying, after a call by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who expressed concern about reports of a possible split between east and west Ukraine. After meeting regional leaders and Yanukovich, Kuchma said there should be legislative reform, including "a constitutional agreement to be approved by [parliament], because the country needs a legitimate president."

International mediators will step up efforts on Wednesday to resolve the crisis. The European Union sent foreign policy chief Javier Solana to Kiev this week to meet with Kuchma. A German government statement said Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder "were in agreement that the results of a new election, based on Ukraine law and the will of the Ukraine people, would be strictly respected."

But in spite of the presence of foreign mediators, earlier negotiations between the warring political leaders did not go well and a financial crisis now threatens Ukraine; the National Bank of Ukraine issued on Tuesday a regulation that restricts withdrawals on deposits in Ukrainian banks.

Yanukovich comes from the eastern part of the country, which traditionally has deep economic, historical, cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties with Russia. Putin personally traveled to Ukraine before each of the election's two rounds to assure Ukrainian voters that Moscow's sympathies were unambiguously with Yanukovich. And Putin has already twice congratulated Yanukovich on winning the election.

Russia's support for Yanukovich in the presidential campaign thus unavoidably transformed the Ukrainian vote — which was in essence a choice between the political continuity represented by the prime minister and the political change embodied by Yushchenko — into a geopolitical choice between West and East.

While protests in Kiev have hogged international TV coverage, supporters of Yanukovich in Donetsk's regional council in eastern Ukraine, his stronghold, voted 164-1 to hold a referendum on December 5 on giving the region the status of a republic within Ukraine. "We won't tolerate what's going on in Ukraine," Donetsk regional governor Anatoly Bliznyuk told lawmakers. We have shown that we are a force to consider." There have been reports of intimidation of supporters of Yushchenko in the eastern regions. Most of Ukraine's gross domestic product comes from the eastern and southern regions of the country.

Meanwhile, Yushchenko, buoyed with full Western support and the international splashing of Kiev's massive protests in his support across headlines, raised the stakes on Sunday, saying that he might not accept the court's decision and called for legal criminal action against Yanukovich and his supporters. An aide to Yushchenko demanded that outgoing President Kuchma sack the prime minister and called for the formation of a coalition government.

In Warsaw, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a pivotal regional figure and one of the visiting international mediators, said that a breakup of the state was indeed a real threat. Speaking for the EU, which had condemned procedural violations of the November 21 vote, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot said new elections would be "the ideal outcome." The likelihood for a fresh poll brightened first when a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry — despite obvious support for Yanukovich — said that Moscow also now favored a re-run. Reportedly Yanukovich has said he would back the new poll only if he and Yushchenko ruled themselves out of the running. Influential US Senator Richard Lugar, a US monitor, also weighed in on the international debate. He told Fox News that he favored a re-run of the election.

Under the Dutch presidency, earlier statements and the reaction of EU appeared to be harsh. The EU, taken over by political discards at home, has neither a coherent foreign policy nor the military muscle to fight a war except under US coercion and tutelage, as in Kosovo. But Ukraine and the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, gave a welcome pretext to the Western media to turn its focus away from the destruction and carnage in Iraq.

Western media, such as CNN and BBC, with anchors and often-biased experts, pounced on the story with an enthusiasm unseen since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad. London's anti-Iraq war newspaper the Independent and the pro-war Telegraph excitedly declared a "revolution" in Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, the rightwing Washington Times welcomed "the people versus the power".

It is interesting that 2 million anti-war demonstrators who streamed though the streets of London against the war on Iraq in March 2003 were politically ignored, but some tens of thousands in central Kiev are proclaimed to be "the people," while the Ukrainian police, courts and governmental institutions are dubbed as instruments of oppression. Little notice was taken when opposition parties in Pakistan, in power in two provinces, protested against President General Pervez Musharraf, who reneged on his promise to the opposition to give up the all powerful post of army chief at the end of 2004. And the many thousands in the streets were also largely ignored.

This writer, who was posted in Bucharest in the early 1980s and has been based here for many years and was accredited to Azerbaijan in Caucasus in the mid-1990s, feels that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and former communist regimes in Europe, mostly money grabbing mafia-style leadership, supported by the West, have been thrown up as an alternative. They have built up massive nests in the West on which they then become dependent, like Russia's billion-dollar oligarchs, who also control "free media." Under the charade of globalization and economic laissez faire, hundreds of billions of US dollars have been transferred to Western banks and institutions, which have become debts for the hapless poor masses in these countries.

In Romania in 1989 there was a spontaneous uprising by students and people against the Nicolae Ceausescu regime, but it was taken over by old Communist Party nomenclature. In 1990, security officials of the old regime emerged as Romanian nationalists to provoke inter-ethnic riots with Hungarians in Tirgu Mures. Vladimir Tudor, an admirer of Ceausescu, makes no bones about his anti-foreigner policy. Under a pro-West president in the late 1990s, Romania was robbed left and right. EU leaders and the US have repeatedly criticized rampant and pervasive corruption in Romania, which itself went to polls on Sunday to elect a new president.

There is a similar pattern developing elsewhere in Eastern Europe with the nationalist card being used by corrupt politicians to cover up their own corruption. The events in Serbia, Georgia and now Ukraine are an expression of people's frustration and helplessness; however, pro-West leadership is unlikely to deliver the goods either. Romania's GDP now equals what it was in 1989, when the communist regime was overthrown. Most of the GDP is now cornered by 10-15% of the top political and bureaucratic elite. The masses — especially the older generation — suffer from daily privations and are withering away. The populations in most of the former communist states are declining fast. But the Western media rarely write about the terrible impact of this so-called democracy, capitalism and globalization.

The man "selected" by the West to lead Ukraine, Yushchenko, finds his support among groups who have privatized public assets to their cronies. He is supported by huge funds from newly rich Ukrainians, who want to preserve their gains. Huge amounts of money were also pumped from the West to groups who support Yushchenko. Openly and blatantly, the US and other Western embassies paid for exit polls, prompting Russia to do likewise, though not to the same extent. Western media cited the muzzling of the media in Ukraine - which included closing the newspaper Silski Visti — after it ran an anti-Semitic article claiming that Jews had invaded Ukraine alongside the Wehrmacht in 1941. On September 19, Yushchenko's ally, Alexander Moroz, told JTA-Global Jewish News: "I have defended Silski Visti and will continue to do so." Yushchenko, Moroz and their oligarch ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, meanwhile, cited a court order closing the paper as evidence of the government's desire to muzzle the media.

A nation divided

At Kiev's School for Policy Analysis, political science expert Olexiy Haran says historic fault lines are being exploited by government leaders to divert attention from their tolerance of corruption. "Some of the governors are trying to push for the split in the country," he said. "I believe it's being done deliberately. The main issue is corrupted power, criminals, and democracy, not language or religion." To howls of protests from the Russian-speaking east, Yuschenko ruled out calls to make Russian an official language of the country, arguing that this could see multinational companies and even newspapers print only in Russian. "Until now, when the West thought about Ukraine, it was negative," said Haran. "The great thing about these election falsifications is that the people stood up and the West saw that there is democracy in this grey zone. This is the Orange Revolution [orange is the color of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party]. Everyone here is conscious of the legacy."

The Western media have only highlighted how youthful demonstrators can bring down an authoritarian regime, simply by attending rock concerts in a central square. The demonstrations supporting pro-Western Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing. These are all spontaneous protests. Enormous rallies were held in Kiev and eastern Ukraine in support of Yanukovich, but Western TV channels hardly noticed them. Yanukovich supporters were denigrated as having been brought in by buses, while ignoring obvious questions such as where the "Orange Revolution" money has come from and how quickly the opposition organized. It appears to be another case of spreading democracy through the use of a civilian coup d'etat.

Ukraine's recent history

The Kiev movement touches on a historical and religious raw nerve in Ukrainian polity and society. Throughout most of its history, Ukraine was split between competing empires, and the fault lines run deep with the great Dnipr River as the divide. The western part of the country was governed for more than 300 years by either the Polish or Austro-Hungarian empire while the east was dominated by, or part of Russia. The east is Russian-speaking and Christian Orthodox, while the west is mostly Ukrainian speaking and Greek Catholic, orthodox in character but owing allegiance to the pope.

With its tortuous and divisive history and lacking in ambivalent nationalism, Ukraine's current borders were last drawn after World War II, when some Polish territory was added to it as well some from Romania. Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev added Russian territory, including the Black Sea coastline, to Ukraine. Russians in the Soviet republic of Ukraine had happily voted for independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1990-91.

Because of its mixed legacy of history, the international mediators in Kiev attempting to unravel the election mess include the Polish prime minister, the EU's Solana, as well as Russian representatives including Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Apart from Russia's geopolitical interests, a hostile Ukraine would constrain its access in the West and make Russia's access to the Black Sea as limited as Iraq's is in the Persian Gulf. If not handled carefully and sensitively, rapprochement between Moscow and Brussels to face up to a neo-conservative-driven United States would come to a standstill. Ukraine itself might break up with unforeseen consequences for all.

Eventually Western media took some note of what supporters of Yanukovich were saying: that the specter of Ukraine coming apart could transform the rich industrial region — along with the Crimean Peninsula — into an autonomous powerhouse or even lead it to join with Russia. Alexander Lukyanchenko, mayor of Donyetsk, Yanukovich's home town, told the local assembly: "We should, in an orderly, constitutional way, stage a referendum of trust to determine this country's make-up." He warned that the split could begin unless demonstrators cleared the streets of Kiev, adding that the rest of Ukraine could not survive without its industrial east.

Another franchised revolution

The high percentage of votes in Donetsk (96%), the home town of Yanukovich, provided proof that electoral fraud had taken place, according to Western media. But turnouts of over 80% in areas, which supported Yushchenko, were not. Yanukovich's final official score was over 49%, but when Western-supported Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili officially polled 96.24% in January, no one questioned it. The observers who now denounce the Ukrainian elections applauded Georgia's results, saying that it "brought the country closer to meeting international standards."

One of the most active "pro-democracy" groups in Ukraine's democratic opposition is Pora, which means, "It's time." The student activists of Pora received personal tutorials in non-violent resistance from Serbian students of the Otpor ("resistance") group, which was in the forefront of toppling Milosevich in Belgrade. Then the Serbs helped the Georgian vanguard movement Kmara ("enough is enough"). So a Georgian flag was also being waved in Kiev's Independence Square. In Tbilisi, the rose-revolutionary Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili interrupted his first anniversary address to offer a few words of encouragement in Ukrainian to his "sisters and brothers" in Kiev. The reawakened cold warriors link the "chain of Europe's velvet revolutions" in this peaceful march of democracy to what the crowds first chanted on Wenceslas Square in Prague in November 1989. So a jaded pro-democracy Lech Walesa was there too in Kiev, just as he had been in Prague.

Pora's posters plastered all over Ukraine depict a jackboot crushing a beetle; an allegory of what Pora wants to do to its opponents. It was like this during Nazi-occupied Ukraine, when pre-emptive war was waged against the Red Plague spreading out from Moscow. Nobody in the West has said anything against these posters. Pora continues to be presented as an innocent band of students having fun. But it is an organization created and financed by Washington, as were sister organizations in Serbia and Georgia, Otpor and Kmara.

Says a Western Cold War warrior: "If we, comfortably ensconced in the institutionalized Europe to which these peaceful demonstrators look with hope and yearning, do not immediately support them with every appropriate means at our disposal, we will betray the very ideals we claim to represent." He adds, "At the same time, until now, democracy has been creeping backwards. Control of the biggest industries, of the media, of state revenue and of the security services has fallen into the hands of a corrupt and sometimes murderous elite of cynical, self-loving opportunists who feed off the enterprise and hard work of others as they float between the worlds of business, politics and bureaucracy."

This might more appropriately apply to new Western-supported rulers in former communist countries and even some countries in the West. The United Kingdom and the US often forget the enormous dysfunction in their own so-called democratic system, where their governments lied brazenly about Iraq for over a year in the run-up to war and with impunity, while they criticize others and support continued brazen Western intervention in the democratic politics of other countries.

A US franchise

A lot of planning, work and money has gone into efforts to design a US model for promoting democracy around the world. The model's first success was notched in Serbia. Funded and organized by the US government, which deployed US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-government organizations (NGOs), the campaign defeated Slobodan Milosevich at the ballot box in Belgrade in 2000.

Richard Miles, the US ambassador in Belgrade, played a key role in the campaign to oust Milosevich. In November last year, as US ambassador in Tbilisi, Miles reapplied the same method successfully. Thanks to his coaching, US-educated Saakashvili brought down Eduard Shevardnadze. When the US ambassador in Belarus, Michael Kozak, a veteran of similar operations in Central America, notably in Nicaragua, organized a near identical campaign to try to defeat the Belarus strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, he failed. "There will be no Kostunica in Belarus," the Belarus president declared, referring to the United States' Belgrade success 10 months earlier.

But experience gained in Serbia, Georgia and Belarus has been invaluable to the US in planning the operation in Kiev. It is thus easy to understand such slickly organized spontaneity. The operation — engineering democracy through the ballot box and civil disobedience, which would be the envy of even a Gandhian — is now so smooth that methods have matured into a template for winning other people's elections. Located in the center of Belgrade, the Center for Non-violent Resistance, staffed by computer-literate youngsters, is ready for hire and will carry out operations to beat even a regime that controls the mass media, the judges, the courts, the security apparatus and the voting stations.

The Belgrade group had on-the-job training in the anti-Milosevich student movement, Otpor. 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. 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 Milosevich. A logo of a black-and-white clenched fist completed the masterful marketing. In Ukraine, the equivalent is a ticking clock, also signaling 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. If only the Tiananmen Square activists could have had this kind of support in 1989.

Saakashvili had traveled from Tbilisi to Belgrade to be tutored in the art of mass defiance. In Belarus, the US Embassy organized the dispatch of young opposition leaders to the Baltic, where they had sessions with the Serb teachers flown from Belgrade. The Americans had organized the overthrow of Milosevich from neighboring Hungary, as Belgrade was a hostile territory.

Promotion of democracy around the world is a bipartisan US effort; the Democratic Party's National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Republican Party's International Republican Institute, the US State Department and USAID (US Agency for International Development) are the main agencies. They are all involved in these campaigns and are further helped by the Freedom House NGO and billionaire George Soros' Open Society Institute. US pollsters and professional consultants are hired to organize focus groups and use psephological data to plot strategies.

In Serbia, when US pollsters Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates found that the assassinated pro-Western opposition leader, Zoran Djindjic, was hated at home and had little chance of beating Milosevich in an election, an anti-Western Vojislav Kostunica was promoted. Djindjic came up later and handed over Milosevich to the Hague Tribunal. Of course, the US is determinedly opposed to the International Criminal Court and would deny aid to those countries who do not sign a bilateral accord providing immunity to the US.

It is claimed that officially the US government spent US$41 million to fund the year-long operation to get rid of Milosevich from October 1999. In Ukraine, the figure is said to be about $14 million so far.

While there are reputed outside election monitors from groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Ukrainian elections and elsewhere involved thousands of local election monitors trained and paid by Western groups. Reportedly, Freedom House and the NDI helped fund and organize the "largest civil regional election monitoring effort" in Ukraine, involving more than 1,000 trained observers. They also organized exit polls. On Sunday night those polls gave Yushchenko an 11-point lead and set the agenda for much of what has followed.

The exit polls are important because they help seize the initiative in the propaganda war with the regime, invariably appearing first, receiving wide media coverage and putting the onus on the attacked regime to respond. And how to react when the incumbent regime tries to steal a lost election. The advice was to stay calm and cool but organize mass displays of civil disobedience, which must remain peaceful but could invite violent suppression.

The US has now adapted and perfected the latest communication techniques to apply to post-Soviet states to bring about desirable changes. "Instruments of democracy" are used to topple unpopular dictators or unfriendly regimes, once a successor candidate friendly to the West has been groomed. The Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored Third World uprisings of the Cold War days to remove prime minister Mohammed Mossadaq of Iran, who had nationalized its oil resources, and of Salvador Allende of Chile, which brought US favorite General Augusto Pinochet to power, a man whose crimes are still being catalogued and looked into, are now passe.

That is the promotion of democracy, US style. Who is next in line?

K. Gajendra Singh served as Indian ambassador to Turkey and Azerbaijan from 1992-96. Prior to that, he served as ambassador to Jordan (during the 1990-91 Gulf War), Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies and editorial adviser with global geopolitics website Eurasia Research Center, USA.