Sunday, November 28, 2004

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So is Fleet Street on crack or what?

The British press has some very interesting takes on what's happening in Ukraine.

In the Guardian, Ian Traynor thinks the "Orange Revolution" is made in the USA:

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 [Yugoslavia, Georgia, Belarus, and now Ukraine] 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.

John Laughland goes even further in his Guardian essay:

Whether it is Albania in 1997, Serbia in 2000, Georgia last November or Ukraine now, our media regularly peddle the same fairy tale about how youthful demonstrators manage to bring down an authoritarian regime, simply by attending a rock concert in a central square. Two million anti-war demonstrators can stream though the streets of London and be politically ignored, but a few tens of thousands in central Kiev are proclaimed to be "the people", while the Ukrainian police, courts and governmental institutions are discounted as instruments of oppression.

The western imagination is now so gripped by its own mythology of popular revolution that we have become dangerously tolerant of blatant double standards in media reporting. Enormous rallies have been held in Kiev in support of the prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, but they are not shown on our TV screens: if their existence is admitted, Yanukovich supporters are denigrated as having been "bussed in". The demonstrations in favour of Viktor Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing; yet we happily dupe ourselves that they are spontaneous....

The blindness extends even to the posters which the "pro-democracy" group, Pora, has plastered all over Ukraine, depicting a jackboot crushing a beetle, an allegory of what Pora wants to do to its opponents.

Such dehumanisation of enemies has well-known antecedents - not least in Nazi-occupied Ukraine itself, when pre-emptive war was waged against the Red Plague emanating from Moscow - yet these posters have passed without comment. Pora continues to be presented as an innocent band of students having fun in spite of the fact that - like its sister organisations in Serbia and Georgia, Otpor and Kmara - Pora is an organisation created and financed by Washington.

It gets worse. Plunging into the crowd of Yushchenko supporters in Independence Square after the first round of the election, I met two members of Una-Unso, a neo-Nazi party whose emblem is a swastika. They were unembarrassed about their allegiance, perhaps because last year Yushchenko and his allies stood up for the Socialist party newspaper, Silski Visti, after it ran an anti-semitic article claiming that Jews had invaded Ukraine alongside the Wehrmacht in 1941. On September 19 2004, Yushchenko's ally, Alexander Moroz, told JTA-Global Jewish News: "I have defended Silski Visti and will continue to do so. I personally think the argument ... citing 400,000 Jews in the SS is incorrect, but I am not in a position to know all the facts." 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. In any other country, support for anti-semites would be shocking; in this case, our media do not even mention it.

Laughland is associated with the British Helsinki Human Rights Group (BHHRG), which should not be confused with British Chapter of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. BHHRG has posted two scathing reports about the Orange Revolution -- one on Yushchenko's "Shadow of Anti-Semitism" and this report on the election's second round, in which they conclude, "BHHRG finds no reason to believe that the final result of the 2004 presidential election in Ukraine was not generally representative of genuine popular will."

Beyond the Guardian, Peter Unwin writes in the Independent that Europe is needlessly riling the Russian Bear over Ukraine (link via Clive Davis):

[W]as not Putin trying to prop up an unconscionable dictator? Maybe, but it is naive to think that the election was a clear clash of baddies and goodies. No one disputes that the election was at the very least deeply flawed. But it is childishness to imagine that all the abuse was on one side. Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, whom we saw on TV preaching democracy beside Viktor Yushchenko, made herself a billionaire from nothing in 10 years. The fruit of honest enterprise alone? It seems unlikely. A truly convinced democrat? Perhaps.

All the same, the Ukrainians invited in observers who have condemned the outcome of the election in forthright terms. The next move is the Ukrainians'. But for the West to go eyeball to eyeball with Putin over the outcome merely complicates Ukraine's domestic problems and takes East-West relations back a dangerous step to the bad old days. By all means tell Putin privately to keep his nose out of Ukrainian affairs - and keep our own out too.

While we are about it, we might make an effort to see Ukraine and the world through Putin's eyes. His job is to make Russia rich and strong. To do so he needs neighbours who want to co-operate with him. But in the past five years he has seen most of eastern Europe absorbed into the European Union and Nato. Fifteen years ago the Russians had an army on the Elbe. Now Nato's reach extends to within 100 miles of St Petersburg. Must Putin now ask proud Russians to accept that Ukraine too should go down that path: new elections this year, then Nato bases, then European Union membership by 2020?...

Look at all this, lastly, in terms of western Europe's interests. Do we really want to see the EU take in 50 million Ukrainians as well as 70 million Turks? Do we want a union so disparate that it can never make itself effective as a political voice in tomorrow's world? Do we, for that matter, want an EU facing an implacably hostile Russia, hostile to us because we have so recklessly forced our way into Russia's back yard? American neo-cons may want that, but we should not. (emphasis added)

Well, now it's clear to me -- the Bush administration has carefully crafted a crisis in Ukraine to force western Europe back into our arms while finally installing an anti-Semitic government in Ukraine.

[Seriously?--ed.] Seriously, there are a couple of things going on here. Let's deal with BHHRG and Laughland first -- well, let's reference this Chris Bertram post first, since it encapsulates where this line of criticism is coming from. Basically, if a cartoon version of Edmund Burke were divined into existence and asked to monitor elections in regions outside Western Christendom, the result would be BHHRG. In the former Soviet bloc, this means they expect voters to prefer Slavophiles over Western reformers -- and if they prefer the latter, it must be because of perfidious Western interference. Their suspicion of outsiders, particularly poor outsiders, is also at the roots of Unwin's fears of Ukrainan entrance into the EU.

Their charge of anti-Semitism seems partially blunted by the fact that a) Principal elements of the Jewish community support Yushchenko; and b) As someone who's travelled all around that country, let's be clear that a mild form of anti-Semitism is probably one of the few traits that unites the different regions.

As for Traynor's allegations, they are both true and vastly exaggerated. It's probably true that the groups identified by Traynor have helped fund opposition groups in the countries listed. That said, to suggest that the U.S. government was the architect behind the massive demonstrations that ousted Slobodan Milosevic, Eduard Shevardnandze, and are threatening Leonid Kuchma overlooks a) The genuine resentment these leaders have generated among their populations; and b) The ability of the U.S. government to "coordinate" such a disparate bunch of organizations (Traynor's thesis requires the Bush administration to be in league with George Soros). There's an element of the paranoid style in these reports that sounds... vaguely familiar. [UPDATE: This charge of American orchestration of events seems particularly amusing after reading Bradford Plumer castigate the Bush administration over at the Mother Jones blog for not planning enough for these contingencies. From what I've read, this is a case where all the planning in the world wasn't going to change what happened.]

Finally, as to the charge of corruption among Yushchenko's supporters -- particularly Ms. Tymoshenko -- click here, here, and here for more background (and here's a link to Tymoshenko's web site). I have no doubt that Yushchenko and his supporters are not as clean as the driven snow. However, while Tymoshenko's stage of primitive accumulation seems well past, Yanukovich's supporters are still in their prime and show no signs of changing tack.

Which is pretty much the way to evaluate the current lay of the land in Ukraine. Yushchenko and his supporters are not innocent democrats -- but I'm not sure that anyone who has ever held political office (save maybe Vaclav Havel) fits that description.

For another corrective to these reports, see Nick Paton Walsh's article in the... er... Guardian.

As to Unwin's realpolitik concerns, those can not just be dismissed away, and I'll try to blog about them soon.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias makes some excellent contrarian points. To be clear -- I find the arguments made by Laughland, Traynor, and BHHRG to be badly slanted and grossly exaggerated -- but some of the points they are making not completely devoid of truth.

posted by Dan on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM


Dan, I can dismiss Unwin's concerns, which resemble realpolitik only if one thinks Europe faces a bigger threat from the United States than from turmoil on its eastern border.

There are evidently some Europeans or at least a few Guardian columnists who think precisely that. But Putin's problem is fundamentally the same one Russia has faced for years. He sees his mission as restoring Russian power over lands formerly incorporated in the Soviet Union, a task now well beyond Russia's strength. As long as Russia remains dedicated to expanding its influence in the "near abroad" it will not deal in timely or effective ways with the things that keep it weak -- which are, in turn, mostly the dead legacy of Communism.

If Russia's government does not show more skill and prudence than it has so far, Yanukovych's supporters in the eastern Ukraine could well take extreme actions that would present Putin with a choice of appearing to betray them or involving his country in a Ukrainian civil war. There are limits to what either the United States or European governments can do to bail Putin out of the position he has gotten himself into. Treating both Putin and his country as if they were fragile psychiatric patients whose psyches required sympathy and understanding does not get us anywhere.

posted by: Zathras on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

Dan, ...while Tymoshenko's stage of primitive accumulation seems well past, Yanukovich's supporters are still in their prime and show no signs of changing tack.... Yushchenko and his supporters are not innocent democrats -- but I'm not sure that anyone who has ever held political office (save maybe Vaclav Havel) fits that description.

My, my-- such cynicism. Nice that you admit that Yushchenko is indeed neither innocent nor a democrat. But let's be clear about Tymoshenko. She's a combination of Berezovsky and a Salinas/Collor-style pseudo-reformer, a thuggish thief on a grand scale who's not to be trusted anywhere near the reins of power. Your breezily ironic use of marxist terminology to describe her theft ("primitive accumulation") obscures the truth: the scam that Tymoshenko and Pavel Lazarenko, former Ukrainian PM recently convicted in California for money-laundering and other crimes, pulled off is one of the great crimes of the last century.

It's beyond naivete to argue that the thieves who strong-armed the entire Ukrainian energy industry into funnelling all cash flow and profits through a bogus company controlled by themselves alone-- income totaling about 20% of the entire Ukrainian GDP-- have, as you suggest, left this behavior "well past." Of course Tymoshenko still has her hand in the pie, and will plunder every state asset she can dig her talons into once she's back in power.

And of course this unbelievable-- to us, anyway-- record of grand larceny, fraud, and initimidation bespeaks a deep contempt for liberal democratic values. Bizarre that this needs to be pointed out. Shameful, really, that it's left to the nutjobs at the Guardian to point out what's obvious to anyone who's ever done business in Ukraine of Russia.

The fact is that the Guardian's take is closer to the truth here than yours. This is not a velvet revolution in the making or a demonstration of "people power" but a battle of two kleptocratic clans, one of them slightly more western-oriented and better at mouthing liberal pieties, both of them profoundly hostile to principles of transparency and good governance.

Sorry to piss on everyone's parade, but we've been duped before. Remember Yeltsin and his reformist "dynamic duo" of Chubais and Nemtsov? Yeltsin's re-election and Zyuganov's defeat were made possible by the theft of ca. 40% of Russia's GDP by seven pro-Yeltsin clans. Yeltsin trashed the Duma, did little to build an independent judiciary, did absolutely nothing to build anything like a banking system (how can you have capitalism without real banks?), and handed power over to an FSB stooge in exchange for complete protection from prosecution. This is what Ukraine can look forward to when the Yushchenko/Tymoshenko clan get their hands on power.

posted by: won't get fooled again on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

The stakes here are enormous. If another Yeltsin-style grand theft occurs under the banner of "reform" and liberal democracy, the miserable Ukrainian people will lose a generation, just as their northern neighbors have done. The best thing the US can do here is to signal its refusal to tolerate fraud of both the electoral and the grand larceny varieties and withhold any support or favors for Yushchenko and the comely Comrade Criminal until and unless they demonstrate real evidence of transparency and respect for law. Unwinding the cluster-f of an energy "holding company" that Yulia and her cronies set up would be a necessary first step.

posted by: won't get fooled again on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

To be fair to the Guardian their Moscow correspondent gives different perspective (,3604,1361616,00.html) and this is also relfected in their editorials. You didn't mention Timoty Garton-Ash's piece last week explicitly calling for support for Yushchenko.

Laughland is given space on their opinion pages all the time to mutter darkly about conspiracy theories, I think in part to make Guardian readers reconsider their "right on" responses to situations like Dafur, Kosovo etc.. The fact that what he writes is generally complete tosh is secondary (the editors probably feel that their readership is intelligent enough to figure that one out themselves).

posted by: Tadhgin on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

The National Endowment for Democracy fomented revolutions in Haiti and Venezuela and was actively involved in subverting corrupt but nominally democratic governments. Is it so crazy to think they would be doing the same thing in Ukraine? You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist, just go to Here's a passage from the program to create a core of democracy activists:

Clearly, through its Students for Parliament program, Youth Alternative has created a strong core of highly-skilled young activists who are well-positioned to go on to further leadership positions and who are genuinely committed to strengthening democracy in Ukraine.

posted by: on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

Glad to see the link to Hofstadter (the "paranoid style"). Everyone should also read his book "The American Political Tradition." Wonderful, thoughtful, writing.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

See David Aronovitch in, again, The Guardian on John Laughland,3604,1362333,00.html

posted by: Tadhgin on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group looks, sounds, and acts like it's being supported by Russian money. Russian nationalist money.

N.B., I'm not saying it /is/. Just that it acts exactly like it is.

Pick any issue in the former USSR or Eastern Europe. Now model the Russian point of view. Voila: you know exactly where the BHHRG will stand.

Latvia? Crypto-fascists and porn-addicted degenerates who grotesquely oppress their Russian minority.

NATO? Malevolent, imperialist, expansionist, inherently warlike.

Transnistria? Sweet and innocent backwater inhabited by kindly-faced peasants, "many of whom still grow their own food".

Chechnya? Land full of evil, evil people who inexplicably hate Russians.

Kaliningrad? Neglected tourist paradise.

Putin? Misunderstood and maligned, almost Christ-like in his humility and patience. (I am not exaggerating. Sort through some of the BHHRG "reports", if you have the stomach for it.)

Abkhazia? Sturdy free people who have escaped from Georgian oppression.

Bulgaria? They could have been great, but instead they chose to join NATO and the EU. Now they're all heroin addicts and gangsters who read hardcore porn when they're not shooting at each other.

Pause for a moment and imagine a Russian nationalist's take on Albanians, OSCE, China, Turkey, Serbia, or the Rose Revolution in Georgia. Well, there's a BHHRG report saying...

It's really striking.

(Even more striking is what they ignore. If there's no Russian interest, they're probably not interested either.)

They're also fond of quoting anonymous but ubiquitous "observers", who seem a lot like Thomas Friedman's taxi drivers.

Laughland is yoked in harness there with a guy named Mark Almond, who was once an OK pop historian (he wrote a decent biography of Ceausescu) but who seems to have been taken by the Brain Eater sometime in the early '90s.

Anyhow, it's no surprise that BHHRG is going completely nuts over Ukraine. Short of a western-supported street revolution in Moscow itself, I can't imagine anything that would rile them more.

Doug M.

posted by: Doug Muir on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

Excellent, Doug. You nailed it. Amazing the lengths such idiots go to in order to resurrect the Cold War. The real losers in all of this are the hundreds of millions of east Europeans who are "growing their own food", ie cultivating potatoes in tiny backyard plots in order to avoid starvation. And the millions in Kaliningrad and Russia and Latvia, even Estonia now, who have contracted AIDS in recent years (in these regions AIDS is spreading faster than anywhere else in the world, including Africa). And the tens of millions of talented, well-educated young Russians Ukrainians Latvians etc who want nothing more than to live in what they call "a normal country", ie one in which the government actually governs instead of stealing, in which companies actually strive to produce quality goods and services instead of stealing, in which professors actually teach instead of extorting bribes....

None of which has anything to do with the Cold War nostalgics' machinations. What a pathetic job of misinformation our MSM idiots have done regarding this unfortunate region. Dezinformatsiya, you might say.

posted by: lex on 11.28.04 at 10:21 PM [permalink]

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