November 27, 2008

What Democracy Assistance Is and Is Not

For most people living in the free world, the events unfolding in Ukraine over the last month have both surprised and inspired. Ukrainian democrats have stood together in the freezing cold to demand from their government what we citizens of democracies take for granted – a free and fair election. The strength of their conviction, the power of their peaceful methods, and the extent of their mobilization can only invoke glee for anyone who values democracy.

For most people living in the free world, the events unfolding in Ukraine over the last month have both surprised and inspired. Ukrainian democrats have stood together in the freezing cold to demand from their government what we citizens of democracies take for granted – a free and fair election. The strength of their conviction, the power of their peaceful methods, and the extent of their mobilization can only invoke glee for anyone who values democracy.

What Democracy Assistance Is and Is Not

Michael McFaul
For most people living in the free world, the events unfolding in Ukraine over the last month have both surprised and inspired. Ukrainian democrats have stood together in the freezing cold to demand from their government what we citizens of democracies take for granted – a free and fair election. The strength of their conviction, the power of their peaceful methods, and the extent of their mobilization can only invoke glee for anyone who values democracy. Surprise, however, is also an emotion expressed by many witnessing the giant crowds in downtown Kiev and elsewhere, since Ukraine’s struggle for democracy has rarely been a headline in Western newspapers over the last decade. Most casual observers of that part of the world have accepted the Moscow narrative about Ukraine as an integral part of mother Russia and the Russian stereotype about Ukrainians as a passive, obedient people. The Orange Revolution, therefore, also shocked, but in a positive way.
One set of Ukrainian watchers, however, was neither inspired nor surprised. For the self-anointed, anti-imperial brigade, what has transpired in Ukraine is simply the latest chapter of American intervention and expansion. Instead of democracy’s advance spearheaded by courageous Ukrainians, these skeptics in Moscow, London, New York, or Washington see a CIA-funded, White-House-orchestrated conspiracy to undermine Russia’s spheres of influence and expand Washington’s imperial reach.
These critics are a little bit right, and a whole lot wrong.
Did Americans meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine? Yes. These American agents of influence would prefer different language to describe their activities – democratic assistance, democracy promotion, civil society support, etc. – but the work, however described, involves American funds and American citizens going to Ukraine with the goal of trying to effect political change. Years before the Ukrainian presidential vote this fall, the United States Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and a handful of other foundations sponsored other American organizations, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Center of International Private Investment, the Solidarity Center, the Eurasia Foundation, Internews, Freedom House, and several other grantees to provide small grants and technical assistance to Ukrainian civil society organizations. Through its TACIS program, the European Union did the same, as did several other European countries on a bilateral basis and private organizations, such as the Soros-funded International Renaissance Foundation and the German Marshall Fund.
None of these groups focus exclusively on elections, since democracy is much more than just voting. But in the run-up to the pivotal 2004 presidential vote, these American and European organizations did concentrate their resources on creating the permissive conditions for free and fair elections in Ukraine. Western organizations provided training and some direct assistance for groups like the Committee of Ukrainian Voters (CVU), Ukraine’s first-rate election monitoring organization, which in turn worked closely in coordination with international observers during the three rounds of voting. Western funders also pooled resources to sponsor an exit poll organized by the Ukrainian non-government organization, Democratic Initiatives Foundation, and then, in the spirit of competition, also funded another separate exit poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. NED also gave direct support to the Internet publication, Ukrainskaya Pravda, arguably one of the most independent and critical sources of news, formerly headed by the murdered journalist, Georgy Gongandze. Freedom House also supported Znayu and Freedom of Choice Coalition, whose members included the Pora student movement. Through their conferences and publications, these American democratic assistance organizations also supported the flow of knowledge and contacts between Ukrainian democrats and their counterparts in Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia. More generally, all of these groups have supported think tanks and civil society groups that promote good governance, transparency, and democratic values.
Did the U.S. government fund the Yushchenko campaign directly? Not to my knowledge. Both IRI and NDI have conducted training programs for parties which later joined Yushchenko’s coalition. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center has worked closely with trade union leader Mikhail Volynets, who is also an MP in the Yulia Timoshenko Bloc, Yushchenko’s coalition partner. But no American organization funded by A.I.D. or other government sources provided direct assistance to the opposition. In the years of preparation leading up to the fall presidential vote, American ambassadors in Ukraine made it clear that such work was not allowed. Other private sources of external funding and expertise may have reached the Yushchenko campaign, including from Russia. Likewise, American and Russian public relations consultants may have been hired by the Yushchenko campaign, just as they were brought in to help Yanukovich’s electoral campaign in Ukraine and his public relations campaign in Washington. American political consultant Dick Morris, for instance, has claimed to have advised the Yushchenko campaign, while Jefferson Waterman International, an influential Washington public relations firm, was hired to help Yanukovich. For future elections, Ukrainian officials may wish to enforce stricter controls on these flows of outside funding and assistance. But this kind of private, for-profit campaign advice occurs everywhere now, and Americans no longer exercise monopoly control over the market. In the post-Soviet space, Russian companies like Nikkola M and Image-Kontakt are the big players.
And before Putin gets too self-righteous about denouncing Western meddling in Ukraine’s affairs, he should reflect on his own role in trying to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian vote. Imagine the outcry around the world if President Bush made two visits to Mexico to campaign for his preferred candidate in a presidential election there. Moreover, American consultants have been invited to work for Russian candidates, most famously in the 1996 presidential election, but also in 1999, when Putin’s supporters in the oil company Sibneft hired a Western firm, Shandwick International, to work on his presidential campaign. Today, both the Russian government and its opponents have on hire American public relations firms to help their respective causes in Washington and London.
Did American funding cause the Orange Revolution? Absolutely not. The combination of a weak, divided, and corrupt ancien regime and a united, mobilized, and highly-motivated opposition produced Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough. Perhaps more than any single event, Gongadze’s murder exposed the illegitimacy of Kuchma and his allies and motivated Ukraine’s democratic opposition to devote their fullest energies to securing victory this fall. A united opposition with the potential for victory also gave economic elites a viable alternative to support. These elites, however, joined 40,000 middle class citizens who made small, direct contributions to Yushchenko’s campaign. In turn, the mobilized masses, which turned out to reject the fraudulent second round results, put pressure on the parliament and the Supreme Court to do the right thing and annul the election. Ukrainian voters then turned out a third time to (re)elect Yuschecnko as Ukraine’s president. The Americans did not orchestrate this Ukrainian movement, but supported it in the margins and at the request of the Ukraine’s democrats. The Pora letter asking for solidarity is addressed “To all citizens of the free world,” and not the White House or 10 Downing Street.
Do American democracy promotion groups have a recipe for revolution? No. Local democrats make democratic revolutions; external actors do not. If the domestic conditions are not ripe, there will be no democratic breakthrough no matter how carefully crafted the technical assistance or how strategically invested the small grants. In fact, these organizations work in most developing (and eroding) democracies around the world, yet democratic transitions are rare events. For every Serbia, there is a Belarus; for every Georgia, an Azerbaijan; for every Ukraine, a Russia.
Do these American democracy assistance groups carry out the will of the Bush Administration? Not really. One of the greatest myths about U.S. democracy promoting efforts is that a senior White House official carefully choreographs the efforts of NED, Freedom House, or Eurasia. In fact, while perhaps supportive philosophically, senior policymakers at the White House and the State Department had nearly nothing to do with the design or implementation of the programs executed by these American NGOs in Ukraine. In other countries, U.S. government policy and NGOs promoting democracy directly clash. I witnessed this as the NDI’s representative in Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union. “They” supported Gorbachev; “we” worked with Democratic Russia, Gorbachev’s opponents. (And one of my partners in this work, at the time, was Sergei Markov.) The same divide is present in many countries today.
Does this kind of intervention violate international norms? Not any more. There was a time when the norm of state sovereignty trumped all others. Only a few decades ago, the promotion of state sovereignty as a universal value was a progressive project, since the advance of statehood propelled the dissolution of empires. Today, however, those who continue to revere sovereignty of the state above all else usually do so to preserve autocracy, while those who champion the sovereignty of the people are the new progressives. In Ukraine, external actors who helped the will of the people be heard were not violating the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people; they were defending it.
Moreover, the “foreigners” involved in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution – either physically or through the Internet – were there mostly as individuals motivated by ideals, and not as representatives of states and state interests. The ideas of such diverse people as Eminem and Osama bin Laden travel effortlessly across borders through the web, radios, books, television, and individuals who travel. Why shouldn’t ideas about democracy travel the same way? The students behind Pora in Ukraine did not need an American NGO to educate them about Otpor in Serbia or Kmara in Georgia. Information about these groups, their ideas, and their tactics float on the ether twenty fours hours a day. Likewise, some Canadians, Brits, Balts, Moldovans, Belorussians, Uzbeks, and Russians were inspired by the courage and conviction of Ukrainian democrats, irrespective of the color of their passports. Even the people who work for American NGOs in Ukraine are often not American citizens, but committed democrats (with a small “d”) from all over the world. It is best described as an idealistic transnational movement for democracy. And though Americans participate, it is no longer an American project. In fact, at a time when America’s popularity around the world has never been lower, the appeal of democratic ideals throughout the world has never been greater. Something much bigger than just geopolitical jockeying between East and West occurred in Ukraine last month, and hopefully it won’t end there.
Michael McFaul is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Hoover Fellow at Stanford University. He is also a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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