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The Myths of ‘Democracy Assistance’: U.S. Political Intervention in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe

Gerald Sussman teaches urban studies and communications at Portland State University and has published widely on the international political economy of information technology, mass media, and development. His most recent book is Global Electioneering: Campaign Consulting, Communications, and Corporate Financing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
This essay is a revised, shortened version of my chapter, “The Globalization of Politics: Spinning U.S.‘Democracy Assistance Programs’” in William Dinan & David; Miller,eds., Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate Spin and the War on Democracy (London: Pluto Press, 2006),and is published here with Pluto ’s permission.

We are at present working discreetly with all our might to wrest this mysterious force called sovereignty out of the clutches of the local nation states of the world.

—Arnold Toynbee, 1931

One of the notable shifts in post-Soviet world politics is the almost unimpeded involvement of Western agents, consultants, and public and private institutions in the management of national election processes around the world—including those in the former Soviet allied states. As communist party apparatuses in those countries began to collapse by the late 1980s and in almost bloodless fashion gave way to emerging political forces, the West, especially the United States, was quick to intercede in their political and economic affairs. The methods of manipulating foreign elections have been modified since the heyday of CIA cloak and dagger operations, but the general objectives of imperial rule are unchanged. Today, the U.S. government relies less on the CIA in most cases and more on the relatively transparent initiatives undertaken by such public and private organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Freedom House, George Soros’s Open Society, and a network of other well-financed globetrotting public and private professional political organizations, primarily American, operating in the service of the state’s parallel neoliberal economic and political objectives. Allen Weinstein, who helped establish NED, noted: “A lot of what we [NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”1

Among the principal targets of NED are the so-called transitional states formerly part of the Soviet bloc. Both the Republicans and Democrats assume a post-“containment” strategy toward central and eastern Europe (CEE), and even “liberal” Democrat John Kerry chastised George Bush during the 2004 presidential political campaign for not putting more money into NED. Acting as the umbrella organization for U.S. “democracy assistance” programs, NED channels most of its congressionally-allocated funds to two main subgroups, the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI)—representing the two parties—as well as to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (Solidarity Center), which are chartered to support electoral and civil society initiatives in target countries. One of the congressional leaders behind the creation of NED, Dante Fascell, formerly chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that this institutional design was intended to give each group “a piece of the pie. They got paid off. Democrats and Republicans, the Chamber of Commerce, along with labor.”2

Piece by piece, the United States expects to set up leaders in the twenty-four CEE countries who will further open their state assets to transnational corporate investment, help to isolate or force Russia into the fold, permit U.S. military hegemony over the region, and protect the U.S.-controlled Euro-Asian oil pipeline. Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Belarus are among the countries in the region where American consultants, foreign service personnel, NED and its member organizations, and other public and private agencies have recently intervened in national elections. These are joined by a long list of other countries where U.S. money has found its way to politicians and parties promoted by the White House, the State Department, and the CIA. Compared to the surreptitious and nakedly aggressive manner in which the CIA typically carried out its destabilizing forays in the late 1940s through the mid-1970s, current forms of electoral manipulation are conducted largely as spectacles of spin and moral drama.

Promoted as “democracy building,” electoral interventions are critically important to U.S. global policy objectives, contributing to long-term state and corporate planning by solidifying American linkages to foreign governments and helping establish economic and military alliances. This article discusses the power context and ideological pretext behind “democracy assistance”—how this term is rhetorically employed to overpower nationalist and socialist resistance to foreign economic and cultural domination, with a particular focus on Russia and several states within its “near abroad.” Although foreign interference has occurred in almost all of the CEE countries, in consideration of space, the focus here is on five particularly important target countries of U.S. interest, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Last, the article considers how government and media management of public understanding of world politics, by spinning U.S. foreign policy meanings, confers legitimacy upon the notion of “democracy assistance” and the overall good intentions of the state.

‘Democracy Assistance’ and NED

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave the United States a unique opportunity to expand its sphere of influence into formerly socialist central and eastern Europe, central Asia, and Russia. In the 1990s, American “freedom” NGOs and private political consultants followed the gold rush of free marketers to these regions to participate in “democracy-building” and to introduce U.S.-style electioneering. Facilitating this global flow of “non-partisan [political] expertise,” USAID adopted in 1991 a “democracy initiative” conditionality for extending grants and loans to various “developing” countries (an act similarly adopted by the European Union two years earlier). One organization involved in this initiative, the Washington, D.C.-based International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), notes how the “end of the Cold War in 1989 created opportunities…to respond to an overwhelming demand for technical non-partisan expertise in democracy and governance.” IFES claims to have field offices in thirty-five countries with a cadre of 1,500 consultants, including big consulting names such as Stanley Greenberg (who helped direct Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign). Some IFES consultants are able to turn democracy-assistance work into contracts with foreign political candidates. Joseph Napolitan, founder of the International Association of Political Consultants, is on the IFES board, along with other well-known American campaign specialists.3

The National Endowment for Democracy, which supports programs in over eighty countries, is a quasi-private congressionally-funded instrument, created by the Reagan administration in 1983, for channeling money, equipment, and political consultants and other expertise to certain countries in order “to strengthen democratic electoral processes…through timely measures in cooperation with indigenous democratic forces.” That is, NED’s putative raison d’etre is to encourage electoral activity in countries undergoing a transition to popular democracy and support others where elections have already been instituted. NED has been described as “a full-service infrastructure-building clearinghouse” that “provides money, technical support, supplies, training programs, media know-how, public relations assistance, and state-of-the-art equipment to select political groups, civic organizations, labor unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, and other media.” Ironically referring to itself as a “non-governmental organization,” its overriding purpose has been to “destabilize progressive movements, particularly those with a socialist or democratic-socialist bent.”4

A number of critics in and out of government from both the left and right see NED as an anti-communist Cold War relic falsely representing itself as non-partisan. The chairman of the board of NED, former representative Vin Weber, is a senior partner in a consulting firm that, according to his NED bio, “provides strategic advice to institutions interested in issues before, and governmental processes of, the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.” He is also a business partner with former Republican politicians and government officials Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William Bennett and is known inside the beltway as a “superlobbyist.” The president of NED is Carl Gershman, a one-time Social Democrat who went on to become senior counselor to the archconservative Jeane Kirkpatrick (currently on the board of IRI), when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan. Over the years, there have been several attempts in Congress to disband the organization, including a recent one by a representative from Texas, Ron Paul, who calls NED “nothing more than a costly program that takes the US taxpayer funds to promote favored politicians and political parties abroad.” Currently, NED is in good favor with most Democratic and Republican legislators.5

NED was supposed to provide an alternative (to the CIA) by means of encouraging democratic institutions in formerly repressive states. Unlike the CIA, NED’s extensive operations abroad create opportunities for political operatives who need not assume underground lives and identities. However, even without engaging in the dirty work of the CIA, “In a multitude of ways, NED meddles in the internal affairs of foreign countries by supplying funds, technical know-how, training, educational materials, computers, faxes, copiers, automobiles, and so on, to selected political groups, civic organizations, labor unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, other media, etc.” By one estimate, the camouflaging of its imperial purposes while maintaining a benevolent image makes the NED a far more effective instrument of state policy than the CIA ever was—a soft imperialism.6

While most people in these former single-party authoritarian states no doubt welcome the possibilities of open, multiparty politics, there remains a widespread suspicion and sensitivity to foreign sponsorship of domestic political institutions. Even when NED’s funding of Chile’s 1988 election helped bring down the Pinochet regime, the opposition parties that benefited nonetheless expressed resentment against U.S. interference. And such suspicion is not unwarranted. The center-right politics of CIPE and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center are clear. One look at the backgrounds and links of the members of the National Democratic Institute and especially the International Republican Institute—listing sixty-four corporate and foundation “benefactors”—reveals a formidable intersection of bureaucrat-capitalists with representatives from the American Enterprise Institute and Fortune 500 energy, automobile, media, and defense sectors. Although corporations such as Chevron-Texaco, Exxon Mobil, and Enron help fund both NDI and IRI, but their influence, particularly in major NED target countries such as Venezuela, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, extends much farther than their relatively small direct contributions would suggest. What makes NED a particularly useful instrument is that although federally funded, the activities of its institutes are not reported to Congress.7

In its mission statement, IRI claims that its programs are “non-partisan and clearly adhere to fundamental American principles such as individual freedom, equal opportunity, and the entrepreneurial spirit that fosters economic development.” However, following its “American principles,” the IRI organization, chaired by conservative leader John McCain, does not suffer a version of “non-partisanship” that tolerates leftist organizations. IRI is often partnered in its anti-leftist “non-partisanship” with another NED-funded organization, the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI). In the 1980s, one of the FTUI’s “democracy assistance” projects was a $1.5 million grant in support of a right-wing extremist group, the National Inter-University Union, for the purpose of blocking what the labor group saw as dangerous communist influences in François Mitterand’s socialist government.In the IRI worldview, freedom equates to “free enterprise” those who resist open-door economic policies are ipso facto undemocratic. Considerably more so than NDI, IRI uses an ideological litmus test in its funding programs. Both organizations rely primarily on people with experience not in development work, “but [rather] in the war rooms of presidential campaigns, in congressional and lobbying efforts, and through family relationships to top party officials.”

‘Americans to the Rescue’—A Russian Assignment

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the U.S. electioneering industry began to operate in a more globalized environment, sustained by state funding and encouragement to establish in the name of “freedom” new bridgeheads for neoliberal economic conquests. As a former bête noire, Russia was an electioneering plum for U.S. foreign policy planners. Initially, with production of political television spots in 1993 and then in the 1996 Russian presidential election, the first American consultants were invited to Moscow to spin the blessings of capitalism and Boris Yeltsin over communism and Communist Party (KPRF) challenger Gannady Zyuganov. Just prior to the election campaign, the United States helped bankroll Yeltsin with $14 billion in loans. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl committed an additional $2.7 billion, most of which was fully unconditional (thereby permitting its use for massive vote-buying), and French Prime Minister Alain Juppé added $392 million to the kitty, “paid entirely into Russian state coffers.” International Monetary Fund managing director Michel Camdessus committed his organization, as a “moral obligation,” to supporting Yeltsin’s privatization plans. Most of the IMF funds went to the state treasury for discretionary spending—with the caveat that financial assistance would be suspended in the event of a Communist Party election victory. “In the end, though, the KPRF’s door-to-door campaign was obliterated by the heavily researched, well-financed, media saturating, modern campaign waged by the Yeltsin team.”9

Operating under cloak in the Yeltsin campaign were American consultants, George Gorton, Joe Shumate, and Richard Dresner, who previously had worked together on Pete Wilson’s California gubernatorial campaign.10 At a moment when Yeltsin fared poorly in the polls, the three were asked to use their American razzmatazz to help “rescue” Boris. They were joined in this task by Steven Moore, an American public relations specialist, and a Russian TV advertising production company, Video International. Dresner was a former business partner of Dick Morris and former gubernatorial campaign consultant to Bill Clinton. Morris, in turn, was Clinton’s main political advisor (previously having worked for conservative southern senators, Trent Lott and Jesse Helms) and acted as a liaison between the U.S. president and Morris’s friends on the Yeltsin team. Despite these close associations, the consultants denied any connections between the Russian campaign and the White House.11

Video International (VI) staff were trained for the election by the American advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather (part of the worldwide WPP advertising group). The campaign strategy, including use of archival footage of Stalin’s brutality, was to attack the KPRF and Zyuganov with an assortment of anti-communist tactics. Within just a few years of the fall of the Soviet Union, this was an extraordinary turnaround in Russian (formerly Soviet) politics. As one scholar found in her interviews with VI, the company’s producers mocked Zyuganov for failing to grasp the importance of political marketing, which suggested yet another remarkable adaptation in Russian political thinking.12

VI was run by former KGB member Mikhail Margolev, who had previously spent five years with American advertising agencies. Margolev next joined the Putin public relations team for the 2000 election campaign. Since then he has became a “senator” in the Federation Council, Russia’s legislative upper chamber. He and other close advisors to Putin have been receiving “first-hand insights into strategies and techniques of American campaign practice,” a tutelage they presumably assume will assist their leader’s grand political ambitions. Another VI company executive, Mikhail Lesin, became Putin’s press minister. Lesin is known in Russia for harassing media outlets that are critical of the Putin government, marking the growing authoritarian style of that leadership.13

The American campaign consultants worked closely with Yeltsin’s daughter and campaign operations manager, Tatyana Dyachenko, passing on to their Russian counterpart the American techniques of spin-doctoring. According to a published news report, “they advised the campaign on organization, strategic and tactical use of polls and focus groups” with a “central campaign message of anti-communism,” a role they shared with Burson-Marsteller and other American public relations firms. They also urged Yeltsin to assert authoritarian control and think in terms of how to make the state-run television stations “bend to your will.” Boasting that they had saved Yeltsin from certain defeat and Russia from a return to the Cold War, the consultants admitted to employing a host of manipulative tactics in their advertising strategy to sow fear among Russians, a style that has been well-rehearsed by many Republican political strategists. A Time magazine report on these events came with the brazen cover lead, “Yanks to the Rescue”—later inspiring a Showtime (cable TV and subsequent DVD) film undertaking, Spinning Boris, about how the heroics of American political consultants “saved Russia from communism.”14

The consultants’ political ads, mostly aired over state-run television and radio stations, which Yeltsin fully controlled, repeatedly pitched the theme that a Zyuganov victory would bring back a command economy and a climate of terror. For “personality” styling designed to capture the youth vote, the Americans asked Yeltsin to appear at rock concerts and had him “jitterbug” onstage at one of them. Some of Yeltsin’s Russian advisors did not approve of the stunt, possibly because it caused the candidate’s heart attack in the midst of the campaign. Ignored in the campaign slogans, and by the Clinton administration, were the out-of-control economy, Yeltsin’s poor health and alcohol addiction, and his broad use of repressive policies. Despite his autocratic tendencies, disregard for constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, frequent money-laundering scandals, and brutal war in Chechnya, Yeltsin received the unreserved endorsement of the leaders of the main market economies, as if open markets were the true measure of a democracy. A Time correspondent rationalized the American intervention in pure Machiavellian logic: “Democracy triumphed—and along with it came the tools of modern campaigns, including the trickery and slickery Americans know so well. If these tools are not always admirable, the result they helped achieve in Russia surely is.”15

Russians too have learned the dark arts of Machiavellian political chicanery. Moscow hosts a Center of Political Consulting, more popularly known as “Niccolo M”—referring to the famed theorist of political manipulation and spin. By 2002, Niccolo M, whose organizers were trained in NED-funded seminars by the NDI and IRI, was joined in Russia’s new electioneering business by several other new political consulting groups, such as the Center of Political Technologies, which helps design campaign strategies and arrange contacts between businesses and Kremlin officials. Niccolo M staff used all the methods learned from their mentors, including candidate marketing, polling, focus groups, direct mail, phone banks, heavy use of the mass media, attack ads, and spin doctoring. Following its 1996 election defeat, the KPRF began studying Western campaign manuals and adopting the same tactics. Russian business groups have learned to give their money directly to the consultants rather than to candidates for tighter control over policy making, a practice that corresponds to soft-money election financing in the United States.16

An NDI assessment congratulated itself on the role it played in transforming Russian society through the introduction of American electioneering techniques. Under U.S. influence, Russian political parties, the study confidently claimed, were now

targeting their communication to voters based on demographic and geographic information…conducting research on voter attitudes through focus groups and polling…small meetings, coalitions with civic groups, door knocking, phone banks, and public leafleting; organizing more sophisticated press operations that attempt to create news and respond to events….Much of this change can be attributed to NDI training. (emphasis added)17

If the U.S. influenced Russian politics as much as the NDI claimed, then the accession of Vladimir Putin suggests that American campaign practices have little to do with institutionalizing democracy.

In fact, American “democracy assistance” to Russia has been part of a larger project to transform that country into an open market economy and place it under the control of stable and reliable pro-capitalist, pro-U.S. elected officials, regardless of their anti-democratic history or inclinations. In the early 1990s, Harvard University’s Institute for International Development (HIID), which “served as the gatekeeper for hundreds of millions of dollars in USAID and G-7 taxpayer aid, subsidized loans, and other Western funds,” sent a team of economic “shock therapists,” led by Jeffrey Sachs. HIID’s influence extended to the coordination of $300 million in USAID grants that went to the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and the “big six” international accounting firms operating in Russia to help sell the privatization program.18 Working closely with Anotoly Chubais, Yeltsin’s first deputy prime minister, minister of finance, and chief of staff, HIID support led to the conversion of major state enterprises to private ownership. The Harvard group actually “drafted many of the Kremlin decrees” to this effect.19 The policies the Sachs group advocated have been widely discredited as disastrous, as measured by subsequent Russian quality of life indicators.

Saving Other ‘Transitional Democracies’

Beyond Russia, NED, especially the IRI, has concentrated its funding efforts heavily in the former Soviet bloc states. By 1990, American political consultants were already training future campaign counterparts in a number of former communist party-run states, now considered “transitional democracies.” If the semi-public, semi-private nature of NED blurs the distinction between official and unofficial conduct of foreign policy, the political intervention of individual American citizens does so even more. When Georgia president Eduard Shevardnadze (formerly foreign minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev) was forced to resign as head of state in Georgia after a rigged election and a national uprising that followed in late 2003, the billionaire financier and international political activist George Soros was seen as having a substantial hand in orchestrating the transfer of power. Soros, whose organizations are involved in the destabilization of nationalist regimes, had been funding the opposition television station Rustavi 2, the newspaper 24 Hours, and the Georgian youth movement Kmara!, just as he had supported another student movement, Otpor, in Serbia three years earlier. Otpor was centrally involved in organizing the overthrow of Slobodan Miloševic.

Georgian student leaders acknowledged that they had imitated the Serbian revolt step-by-step. “Otpor activists ran three-day classes teaching more than 1,000 Georgian students how to stage a bloodless revolution. Both trips were funded by Soros’ Open Society Institute.” Soros may be the more visible foreign hand in Shevardnadze’s defeat, but USAID, NDI, IRI, Freedom House, and the State Department also were involved in various ways in steering the outcome of the country’s election. Richard Miles, U.S. ambassador in Belgrade who was a key player in the overthrow of Miloševic´, was transferred to Tbilisi, where he “repeated the trick” by coaching Mikheil Saakashvili on methods to bring down Shevardnadze. Ukraine president at the time Leonid Kuchma insisted that Shevardnadze’s defeat was a “western engineered coup.” The U.S. touted Saakashvili’s 96.24 percent margin of victory in January 2003 as a legitimate expression of electoral democracy.20

As the United States has central interests in the Georgia’s Baku Ceyhan pipeline, and the Bush administration worried about Shevardnadze’s ongoing oil deals with the Russians, the country’s opposition was likely lent a covert hand of the CIA. Clearly, the White House’s first choice to replace Shevardnadze was Saakashvili, a George Washington University and Columbia University law school graduate. The United States supplied his campaign with pollsters, strategists, and consultants. Following Shevardnadze’s forced departure, the United States raised $14 million to help pay Georgian government salaries, and Saakashvili was swept into office in January 2004. To help assure his victory, Saakashvili’s supporters in parliament were able to force a re-registation, which reduced registration lists by one-third and thereby guaranteed an official turnout of 50 percent (of registrants), the minimum required to make the election stand.21

The November 2004 presidential election in Ukraine provided another opportunity for U.S. and western European governments to seek to influence a political reorientation of eastern Europe away from its Soviet legacy. The U.S. and EU favorite was Viktor Yushchenko, someone whom the United States and its European allies saw as bringing Ukraine into NATO and adopting the general program of the WTO. As head of the Ukrainian central bank in the early 1990s, Yushchenko, whose American wife had worked in the Reagan administration, enthusiastically followed the IMF program of structural reforms. Economic restructuring led to wildly inflated local commodity and service prices, severely reduced real wages, and a downturn in the overall health of the economy that put the Ukrainian people in serious jeopardy.22

Yushchenko’s rival for the presidency was prime minister Viktor Yanukovich, the candidate supported by outgoing president Kuchma and Russian president Vladimir Putin. But the State Department regarded him as corrupt and unacceptable and threatened sanctions if he “stole” the election. Several agencies of the U.S. government, together with private organizations, including the NDI and IRI and Soros’s International Renaissance Foundation, contributed millions to Yushchenko’s campaign, while an executive of U.S. PR firm, Rock Creek Creative, boasted of having created a Web site for the U.S./EU candidate that served as a “virtual freedom plaza for the democracy movement” in Ukraine.23 They were joined in support of Yushchenko by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany and the European Peoples Party (Christian Democrats). With considerable irony, the Bush administration sent to Kiev as emissaries for fair elections former president and CIA director George Bush senior and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, well known for his destabilization initiatives in Southeast Asia and Latin America. It also appears to be a case of “situational ethics” that on the basis of its funded exit polls, the IRI disputed the initial election victory declaration for Yanukovich, while the same method of determining electoral outcomes was treated as irrelevant in places like Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004).

Both the United States and the European Union funded pre-election and exit polling for Yushchenko, defining beforehand a Yanukovich victory as an unfair election. Unfazed by such obvious partisanship, the American Bar Association helped the cause by training Ukrainian judges, including five of the Supreme Court judges who overturned the results of the November poll and called for a new election.24 And as in Yugoslavia and Georgia, the momentum behind the western-backed opposition candidate Yushchenko was a foreign-funded student movement, Pora. Indeed, it was no secret that leaders from both Serbia’s Otpor and Georgia’s Kmara! were brought in to provide tactical training for the Pora activists.

Three prominent politicized NGOs in Ukraine, the International Center for Policy Studies, the Western Ukraine Regional Training Center, and The Center for Political and Legal Reforms have visible links to Yushchenko. According to a U.S. House Republican from Bush’s home state of Texas, Ron Paul, the first was funded by George Soros and the latter two by the U.S. government. Millions of dollars for the Ukrainian election also poured in from USAID through the “Poland-America-Ukraine Cooperation Initiative,” which is run by the private “democracy assistance” organization, Freedom House. The direct links of this and a number of other nominal political “reform” groups to Yushchenko are highly visible.25 Although the U.S. government and NGOs made a lot of noise about the alleged voting fraud on the Yanukovich side, vote-rigging in Yushchenko-leaning western Ukraine was no less conspicuous.

Moreover, as others have noted, the U.S. government did not show any similar outrage about the massive manipulations that took place during Yeltsin’s election in 1996, the Azerbaijan presidential vote in 2003, the unconstitutional ouster of Shevardnadze in Georgia, the 2002 attempted military coup in Venezuela against popular president Hugo Chávez, or the 2006 Mexican presidential election. It was also disclosed that the IRI helped instigate and choreograph large street demonstrations, as well as design branded symbols of resistance, such as clenched fists, in advance of the recent elections in Belgrade, Tbilisi, and Kiev. These uprisings and icons were uncritically reported by the mainstream American media as indicators of a sweeping popular, pro-Western tide. The same media, often as submissively behaved as the controlled press in dictatorships, ignored the massive protests in the United States, Britain, and many other countries on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If the subsequent March 2006 parliamentary elections provided any measure of actual Ukrainian voter sentiments, they did not support the U.S. claims, as Yushchenko’s WTO-oriented “Our Ukraine” party came in third place and Yanukovich’s party came in first. By the summer of 2006, amidst a governing crisis, Yushchenko was forced to ask Yanukovich to serve as prime minister.26

Global Electioneering: The Big Spin

U.S. interventionism, except perhaps in the Second World War, has shown little respect for democratic principles, yet its foreign policy rhetoric, a backhanded tribute to the sensibilities of ordinary people, is always cast in that light. Whereas the U.S. has relied extensively on providing aid to dictatorial regimes throughout the world (a policy it has yet to abandon), in a communication-intensive world environment, it is now considered more politically legitimate to accomplish its neoliberal ends through the discursive framing of “democracy assistance.” With respect to historic Anglo-American designs on Russia and eastern Europe, nothing much has changed since British foreign secretary Lord Balfour declared in 1918 (the year of the British-French-U.S. military intervention in Russia): “The only thing which interests me in the Caucasus is the railway line which delivers oil from Baku to Batumi. The natives can cut each other to pieces for all I care.”27

Beyond the broad geopolitical strategy of controlling the oil reserves that beckon foreign intervention in the states configuring the region of the Caspian Sea to central Asia and asserting permanent military dominion over the area, there is the allure of new frontiers for transnational capitalist penetration. The need for political legitimacy and domination embodied in the benign expression “democracy assistance” is shared by a range of transnational corporate and state interests and their local compradores, which rely on public relations propagandists and electioneering mercenaries in hopes of establishing footholds in the region. Rick Ridder, a political consultant and former president of the International Association of Political Consultants, said in reference to the consulting gold rush in Mexico in preparation for the 2000 elections in that country: “If there’s one thing Americans can teach Mexicans it is this: Democracy is a booming business.”28

Indeed, “democracy assistance” is a growth industry. The election of “free market” politicians and parties is the gateway through which all sorts of international carpetbaggers and con men, including electioneering experts, are certain to follow. However, there’s no certainty that western expertise and capital will always be welcome or successful. There is indeed much skepticism in the world about the motives behind NED and “democracy assistance.” Poles have referred derisively to the presence of foreign campaign consultants and public relations professionals as the “Marriot brigades”—referring to their favorite place of lodging.29

Belarus is one country in which the State Department, NED, the EU, and their neoliberal fellow travelers have yet to make serious inroads. It is perhaps because Belarus has created a stable economy without the incursions and plunder of neoliberal “shock therapy” or the destruction of the public sector that even the tight-fisted Lukashenko government retains legitimacy. In reaction to the sound defeat of the U.S./EU-backed candidate, Alexander Milinkevic, and the failure of an Otpor-type youth movement, including Zubr, and the right-wing Young Front, to get traction in during the 2006 election, Lukashenko has been banned from visiting any of the EU states or the United States. This is not the case, for example, for such democratic stalwarts as the heads of state of Egypt, Colombia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Equatorial Guinea, Israel, or Indonesia, who enjoy easy access to the State Department and White House chambers. In such brutally repressive pro-Western client states and (in some cases) former military dictatorships that have opened themselves to transnational corporate enterprise, rigged elections are often used by ruling elites and endorsed by their foreign patrons in order to “reap the fruits of electoral legitimacy without running the risks of democratic uncertainty.”30

Such global electioneering on behalf of neoliberal capitalism is likely to lead to resistance in targeted countries as they become more wise to these means of political manipulation, particularly by outside forces. In the long term, we may hope the failure of faux-democracy will give rise to a more authentic discourse of internationalism based on respect for peaceful diplomacy, human and civil rights, national sovereignty, and deliberative and popular participatory development—and without recourse to political spin and other expressions of neocolonial hegemony.


  1. Cited in William Blum, Rogue State (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 2000), 180.
  2. David Samuels, “At play in the fields of oppression,” Harper’s (May 1995).
  3. Ankie Hoogvelt, Globalization and the postcolonial world (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 173; International Foundation for Election Systems, 2003,; John Maggs, “Not-so-innocents abroad,” National Journal 32, no. 25 (June 17, 2000).
  4. Lori F. Damrosch, “Politics across borders,” American Journal of International Law 83, no. 1, (October November 1989); Bill Berkowitz, “NED targets Venezuela,” Z Magazine Online (May 2004),
  5. National Endowment for Democracy,; Ron Paul, “National Endowment for Democracy,” October 11, 2003,
  6. Blum, Rogue State, 180; William I. Robinson, Promoting polyarchy (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 110 11.
  7. Barbara Conry, Loose cannon: The National Endowment for Democracy (Cato Institute, 1993),; IRI, 2003,
  8. 8. Becky Shelley, “Political globalization and the politics of international non-governmental organizations,” Australian Journal of Political Science 35, no. 2, (2000); Thomas Carothers, “The resurgence of United States political development assistance to Latin America in the 1980s” in Laurence Whitehead, ed., The international dimensions of democratization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 125 45; Samuels, “At Play.”
  9. Fred Weir, “Betting on Boris,” Covert Action Quarterly (Summer 1996): 38 41; Sarah E. Mendelson, “Democracy assistance and political transition in Russia,” International Security 25, no. 4 (2001).
  10. After saving the world for capitalism, Gorton, Shumate, and Dresner went on to work on the gubernatorial campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger to save California from the Democrats.
  11. “U.S. Republicans reportedly helped Yeltsin engineer election win,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, July 7, 1996.
  12. Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance,” 76.
  13. Fritz & Gunda Plasser, Global political campaigning (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002); Time (July 15, 1996); Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance,” 73.
  14. “U.S. political consultants take bow for Yeltsin victory,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, July 9, 1996; Time (July 15, 1996); Janine R. Wedel, Collision and collusion (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 143; Moscow Times, June 3, 2002.
  15. Daniel Hellinger, “Democracy builders or information terrorists?” St. Louis Journalism Review (September 1996): 10 11; Mark Stevenson, “America’s newest export industry: Political advisers,” Associated Press, January 29, 2000; Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance” Time (July 15, 1996).
  16. NED’s annual funding allocation, at the time $30 billion, also was used to assist the campaigns of forty-one Duma members in the Russian Parliament (Norman Solomon, The habits of highly deceptive media [Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1999], 75). With offices in Moscow, the NDI and IRI have been heavily involved in party and political activist training in many regions of Russia, backed by more than $15 million during the 1990s (Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance,” 75 76). Julie Corwin, “The business of elections,” Radio Free Europe/RadioLiberty, September 11, 2002; Mendelson, “Democracy Assistance” Plasser & Plasser, Global political campaigning.
  17. Carothers, “The resurgence,” 152.
  18. The “big six” are Deloitte and Touche, Coopers and Lybrand, KPMG Peat Marwick, Arthur Andersen, Ernst and Young, and Price Waterhouse.
  19. Wedel, Collision and collusion, 125, 142, 241.
  20. World Press Review, December 7, 2003; Guardian, November 26, 2004; Financial Times, January 4, 2004, 4.
  21. Toronto Sun, November 30, 2003; Guardian, November 24, 2003; Financial Times, January 5, 2004, 3.
  22. Catholic New Times (Canada), December 19, 2004.
  23. Washington Post, March 7, 2005.
  24. New York Sun, December 31, 2004.
  25. Paul, “National Endowment for Democracy.”
  26. Mark Almond, Belarus,; Guardian, November 26, 2004;
  27. The Guardian, April 1, 2004.
  28. Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1999.
  29. Wedel, Collision and collusion.
  30. Andreas Schedler, “The menu of manipulation,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (2002): 36 50.
2006, Volume 58, Issue 07 (December)
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