Mark Mackinnon’s New Cold War


Mark Mackinnon’s new book opens with a tale of two large buildings blown up by terrorists. The president, until then an unremarkable leader with deep ties to the country’s secretive intelligence agency, seizes on the tragedy by launching a war against the terrorists. Suddenly popular for his decisive strikes, the president sends troops to a small Muslim country that had been occupied, then abandoned by previous administrations. He uses the urgency of war as a pretext for consolidating power, naming his lackeys to key positions. The “oligarchs” of the country, Mackinnon writes, proceeded to set up a system of “managed democracy,” where the illusion of choice and a popular longing for stability cover up the fact that fundamental decisions are made in an undemocratic fashion and power remains concentrated in the hands of the few.

Mackinnon, who is currently the Middle East bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, is of course talking about Russia, and its president, ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin–though if Mackinnon notices parallels with another country, he doesn’t say so. The Muslim country is Chechnya and the terrorist attacks were against two apartment buildings in the town of Ryazan, 200km southeast of Moscow. Questions were raised about KGB involvement.

Mackinnon’s book is The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union.

Almost without exception, Canadian reporters find it a lot easier to cut through PR spin and official lies when they’re covering foreign governments–especially when those governments are seen as rivals of Canada or its close partner, the US. But when the subject is closer to home, their critical acumen suddenly wilts.

Mackinnon suffers from this common affliction less than most reporters. One gets the sense that it’s a conscious choice, but still a tentative one.

Over the last seven years, the US State Department, the Soros Foundation and several partner organizations have orchestrated a series of “democratic revolutions” in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And, during those years, each “revolution,” whether attempted or successful, has been portrayed by journalists as a spontaneous uprising of freedom-loving citizens receiving inspiration and moral support from their brothers and sisters in the West.

Evidence that this support also involved hundreds of millions of dollars, meddling with choices of candidates and changes to foreign and domestic policies has been widely available. And yet, for the last seven years, this information has been almost entirely suppressed.

Perhaps the most glaring evidence of suppression came when the Associated Press (AP) ran a story on December 11, 2004–at the height of the “Orange Revolution”–noting that the Bush Administration had given $65 million to political groups in Ukraine, though none of it went “directly” to political parties. It was “funneled,” the report said, through other groups. Many media outlets in Canada–notably the Globe and Mail and the CBC–rely on the AP, but none ran the story. On the same day, CBC.ca published four other stories from the AP about Ukraine’s political upheaval, but did not see fit to include the one that tepidly investigated US funding.

Similarly, books by William Robinson, Eva Golinger and others have exposed US funding of political parties abroad, but have not been discussed by the corporate press.

Canada’s role went unreported until two and a half years later, when–coinciding with the release of The New Cold War–the Globe and Mail finally saw fit to publish an account, written by Mackinnon. The Canadian embassy, Mackinnon reported, “spent a half-million dollars promoting ‘fair elections’ in a country that shares no border with Canada and is a negligible trading partner.” Canadian funding of election observers had been reported before, but the fact that the money had been only a part of an orchestrated attempt to influence elections had not.

For reasons that remain obscure, the editors of the Globe decided, after seven years of silence, to allow Mackinnon to tell the public about what Western money has been up to in the former Soviet Union. Perhaps they were influenced by Mackinnon’s choice to write a book about the topic; perhaps it was decided that it was time to let the cat out of the bag.

It’s a fascinating account. Mackinnon starts in Serbia in 2000, where the West, after funding opposition groups and “independent media” that provided a constant stream of coverage critical of the government–as well as dropping 20,000 tonnes of bombs on the country–finally succeeded in toppling the last stubborn holdout against neoliberalism in Europe.

Mackinnon describes in detail how Western funding–an effort spearheaded by billionaire George Soros–flowed to four principle areas: Otpor (Serbian for ‘resistance’), a student-heavy youth movement that used grafitti, street theatre and non-violent demonstrations to channel negative political sentiments against the Milosevic government; CeSID, a group of election monitors that existed to “catch Milosevic in the act if he ever again tried to manipulate the results of an election”; B92, a radio station that provided a steady supply of anti-regime news and the edgy rock stylings of Nirvana and the Clash; and assorted NGOs were given funding to raise “issues”–which Mackinnon calls “the problems with the power-that-is, as defined by the groups’ Western sponsors.” The Canadian embassy in Belgrade, he notes, was a venue for many donor meetings.

Finally, disparate opposition parties had to be united. This was facilitated by then-US Secretary of State Madeline Albright and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who told opposition leaders not to run, but to join a “democratic coalition” with the relatively unknown lawyer Vojislav Kostunica as the sole opposition candidate for the presidency. The Western-funded opposition leaders, who didn’t have a lot of say in the matter, agreed.

It worked. Kostunica won the vote, the election monitors quickly announced their version of the results, which were broadcast via B92 and other Western-sponsored media outlets, and tens of thousands poured into the streets to protest Milosevic’s attempted vote-rigging in a demonstration led by the pseudo-anarchist group Otpor. Milosevic, having lost his “pillars of support” in the courts, police and bureaucracy, resigned soon after. “Seven months later,” Mackinnon writes, “Slobodan Milosevic would be in The Hague.”

The Serbian “revolution” became the model: fund “independent media,” NGOs and election observers; force the opposition to unite around one selected candidate; and fund and train a spray-paint-wielding, freedom-loving group of angry students united by no program other than opposition to the regime. The model was used successfully in Georgia (“the Rose Revolution”), Ukraine (“the Orange Revolution”) and unsuccessfully in Belarus, where denim was the preferred symbol. The New Cold War has chapters for each of these, and Mackinnon delves deep into the details of the funding arrangements and political coalitions built with Western support.

Mackinnon seems to harbour few illusions about the US exercise of power. His overall thesis is that, in the former Soviet Union, the US has used “democratic revolutions” to further its geopolitical interests; control of oil supply and pipelines, and the isolation of Russia, its main competitor in the region. He notes that in many cases–Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, for example–repressive regimes receive the hearty support of the US, while only Russian-allied governments are singled out for the democracy promotion treatment.

And while Mackinnon may be too polite to mention it, his account significantly contradicts the reporting regularly vetted by his editors and written by his colleagues. Milosevic, for example, is not the “Butcher of the Balkans” of Western media lore. Serbia was “not the outright dictatorship it was often portrayed in the Western media to be,” Mackinnon writes. “In fact, it was more like an early version of the ‘managed democracy’ [of Putin’s Russia].” He is frank about the effects of the bombing and sanctions on Serbia, which were devastating.

But in other ways, Mackinnon swallows the propaganda whole. He repeats the official NATO line on Kosovo, for example, neglecting to note that the US and others were funding drug-dealing autocratic militias like the Kosovo Liberation Army, the subject of many misleading, laudatory reports by Mackinnon’s colleagues circa 2000.

More fundamentally, Mackinnon ignores the West’s central role in the destabilization of Yugoslavia after its government balked at further implementation of IMF reforms that were already causing misery. Mackinnon experiences and discusses the phenomenon of destabilization-by-privatization in most of the countries he covers, but seems unable to trace it back to its common source, or see it as principle of US and European foreign policy.

Former Russian Politburo operative Alexander Yakovlev tells Mackinnon that Russia’s politicians had “pushed the economic reforms too far, too fast” creating “a criminalized economy and state where residents came to equate terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ with corruption, poverty and helplessness.”

In one of the more dramatic moments in the book, the 82-year-old Yakovlev takes responsibility, saying: “We must confess that what is now going on is not the fault of those who are doing it… It’s us who are guilty. We made some very serious errors.”

In Mackinnon’s world, the rapid dismantling and privatization of the state-run economy–which left millions in poverty and despair–is an explanation for the Russian and Belarussian peoples’ love affair with strongman presidents who curb liberties, marginalize opposition, control the media and maintain stabilnost, stability. But somehow, the ideology behind the IMF-driven devastation doesn’t make it into Mackinnon’s analysis of the motivations behind “New Cold War.”

Mackinnon notices the most literal US interests: oil and the Americans’ fight for regional influence with Russia. But what escapes his account is the broader intolerance for governments that assert their independence and maintain the ability to direct their own economic development.

Energy and pipeline politics are a plausible explanation for the US’s interest in the southern former Soviet republics. He might have added that the US used Georgia as a staging ground during the Iraq war. When it comes to Serbia, Mackinnon is forced to rely on an implausible account of NATO carrying out a moral mission to prevent genocide. The claim no longer makes any sense, given available evidence, but remains prevalent in the Western press.

Mackinnon mentions Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela in passing. In all of these places, attempts have been made to overthrow the governments. In Venezuela, a US-backed military coup was quickly overturned. In Haiti, a Canadian- and US-led coup resulted in a human rights catastrophe that is ongoing and recent elections confirmed that the party that was deposed remained more popular than the alternative presented by the economic elite. In Cuba, attempts to overthrow the government have been thwarted for half a century.

To explain these additional, more violent attempts at “regime change,” it is not enough to cite the literal interests. Venezuela has considerable oil, but Cuba’s natural resources do not make it a major strategic asset, and, by this standard, Haiti even less so. To explain why the US government provided millions of dollars to political parties, NGOs and opposition groups in these countries requires an understanding of neoliberal ideology and its origins in the Cold War and beyond.

This much would be evident if Mackinnon added some much-needed historical context to his account of modern-day methods of regime change. In his book Killing Hope, William Blum documents over 50 US interventions in foreign governments since 1945. History has shown these to be overwhelmingly anti-democratic, if not outright catastrophic. Even mild social-democratic reforms of government in tiny countries were overwhelmed by military attacks.

If true democracy involves self-determination–and at least the theoretical ability to refuse the dictates of the “Washington Consensus” or the IMF–then any evaluation of democracy promotion as the tool of US foreign policy has to reckon with this history. Mackinnon’s account does not and remains almost resolutely ahistorical.

The last chapter of The New Cold War, entitled “Afterglow,” is dedicated to evaluating the ultimate effects of democracy promotion in the former Soviet republics. It is Mackinnon’s weakest chapter. Mackinnon limits himself to asking whether things are better now than before. The frame of the question lowers expectations and severely stunts the democratic imagination.

If one sets aside these considerations, then it is still possible for curiosity to get the better of the reader. Is it possible that good things can come even from cynical motivations? Liberal writers like Michael Ignatieff and Christopher Hitchens made similar arguments in support of the Iraq war and Mackinnon flirts with the idea when he wonders whether young activists in Serbia and Ukraine were using the US, or whether the US was using them.

So, did things get better? The information Mackinnon presents in his answer is extremely vague.

In Serbia, he says, life is much better. The revolution hasn’t brought too many benefits to the daily lives of Serbs, a cab driver tells Mackinnon. However, he writes, “The era of gasoline shortages and of young men being sent off to fight for a ‘Greater Serbia’ was long past and the late-night laughter and music that spilled out of Belgrade’s packed restaurants spoke to an optimism unheard of under the old regime.”

In this and many other cases, Mackinnon buys a well-diffused propaganda line without looking at the facts. Straying from the meticulous detail he brings to his reporting of the ins and outs of democracy promotion, Mackinnon seems to believe that it was a diabolical scheme by Milosevic–and not economic sanctions or bombing and subsequent destruction of the bulk of Serbia’s state-owned industrial infrastructure–that led to gasoline shortages. Mackinnon admonishes Serbs to face up to their role in the war, while letting NATO’s bombing campaign, which left tonnes of depleted uranium, flooded the Danube with hundreds of tonnes of toxic chemicals, and incinerated 80,000 tonnes of crude oil (thus the gasoline shortages), off the hook.

In Georgia, Mackinnon again relies on nightlife in the capital city as an indicator of the country’s democratic well-being. “The city bubbled with a sense that things were starting to move in the right direction…swish Japanese restaurants, Irish pubs and French wine bars were popping up on seemingly every corner.” The leisure activities of the economic elite are just that; there are many ways to judge the well-being of a country, but to rely on the sights and sounds of well-heeled city dwellers enjoying themselves to the exclusion of other criteria is peculiar.

Mackinnon remarks in passing that the Western-backed regime of Saakashvili has resulted in “declining freedom of the press,” but has “boosted the economy.”

In Ukraine, “newspapers and television stations could and did criticize or caricature whomever they wanted,” but the Western-backed free market ideologue Yuschenko made a series of blunders and unpopular moves, resulting in major electoral setbacks for his party a few years after the “revolution” that brought them to power.

Strangely, Mackinnon’s sources–other than the odd cab driver–seem to consist entirely of the people receiving funding from the West. Independent critics, apart from aging and deposed former politicians, are virtually nonexistent in his reporting.

Still, the question: did the West do good? In the final pages, Mackinnon is equivocal and even indecisive.

Some countries are “freer and thus better,” but the Western funding has made it more likely for repressive regimes to crack down on would-be democratizing forces. In Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, he is critical of the lack of funds for democratic promotion, leaving local NGOs and opposition groups hanging. He attributes this inconsistency to arrangements where American needs are better served by repressive regimes. In other parts of the chapter, he finds democracy promotion as a whole to be problematic.

At one point, he comments that “the help that [US agencies] gave to political parties in countries like Ukraine would have been illegal had a Ukrainian NGO been giving such aid to the Democrats or Republicans.” One also imagines that Canadians would not be impressed if Venezuela, for example, gave millions of dollars to the NDP. Indeed, the prospect seems as ridiculous as it is unlikely…and illegal.

Mackinnon’s information suggests, though he does not say it outright, that associating the idea of “democracy” and its attendant freedoms with Western funding and US-led meddling in the governance of countries is likely to undermine legitimate grassroots efforts at democratization. For example, dissidents in Russia tell Mackinnon that when they gather to demonstrate, people often look at them spitefully and ask who is paying them to stand in the street. In one case, Mackinnon points out that a report from an authoritarian government claiming that dissidents are pawns of the West is dead-on.

Mackinnon’s assessment does not follow this evidence to its conclusion; he doesn’t stray from the view that alignment with either the US or Russia are the only options for countries in the region.

While alignment with one empire or another may seem to be inevitable, Mackinnon’s implicit Russia-or-US manicheanism obviates other ways of promoting democracy. Mackinnon ignores, for example, a decades-long tradition of grassroots solidarity with democratic forces in countries–predominantly in Latin America–where dictators were often financially backed and armed by the US government. Such movements were usually limited to curbing excessive repression rather than sponsoring democratic revolutions, but this lack of power can be attributed, at least in part, to the lack of media coverage from mainstream journalists like Mackinnon.

If one is concerned with democratic decision-making, then surely one is also concerned with the ability of countries to make decisions independently of the meddling of foreign powers. Mackinnon also does not address how such independence might be brought about. One can speculate that it would involve preventing the aforementioned meddling.

The New Cold War is notable for its thorough account of the internal workings of democracy promotion and the point of view of those receiving the funding. Those looking for an analysis that bring such a thorough accounting to its actual aims and effects, however, will have to look elsewhere.

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