In order to best understand the underpinnings of the gestating “Snow Revolution” (sometimes called the “White Revolution”), we’re going to have to retrace our steps a little.
Like most societies that regularly draw on their past for inspiration, western societies are fond of parables. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” used to be a favourite, although its meaning has been largely lost in the brave new generation of empire and being “history’s actors” rather than simply studying what happened after the fact. It inspires simple nostalgia for the dual personalities in Charles Kingsley’s “The Water Babies”, a book I loved as a child; Mrs. Doasyouwouldbedoneby was kind and gentle, coaxing the stubborn to mend their ways while time to do so remained, but Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid was the grim avenger whose appearance heralded yet another fool stepping across the line that can never be recrossed. Atonement would not be far behind.
The English, too, are fond of such distilled life lessons – “a stitch in time saves nine”, and “procrastination is the thief of time” suggest that a timely effort now will save much more difficult work later.
Within this list, an emerging favourite should take its rightful place: “There’s always money for regime change”.
Leaning on the horn and pressing the pedal of the Disastermobile to the floormat, Ruin Consultant Masha Gessen waxes lyrical in the increasingly conservative Washington Post as she invites the reader to dream a little dream about what Russia would be like today had Vladimir Putin never been elected President, in “Imagining a World Without Vladimir Putin“. This comes on the heels of her “Fed Up With Putin” for the New York Times just a couple of days ago. Castigation-of-Putin material seems to be hot right now, and a little extra money for Christmas shopping always comes in handy. I hope all the “How much is the Kremlin/FSB paying you?” crowd who regularly try to change the subject in comment threads by implying those arguing for Russia are paid shills will take note that Masha Gessen – not to mention her democracy-can-fix-that brother, Keith Gessen – is well paid for simply writing her opinion on how the world order should shake out.
Putin’s grip on the regime is loosening, Masha tells us (harmonizing with the symphony of Putin-is-weak-strike-now rhapsodies coming out of Washington in the past week), and although he foolishly presumes he’s going to be elected in March, her tea leaves tell her his dictatorship will fall before then or soon after. Spoken like someone who knows a secret. She is joined in this belief, she tells us, by “many Russians”. Uh huh. I’ll bet. Anyway, never mind that, she says. Putin’s goose is cooked. Instead of pondering if he’s going to be president, let’s move on to how Russia will look after he’s gone, because his gone-ness is guaranteed. This sounds a lot like the west’s inflexibility on Gaddafi, who in fact was gone not long after, to the visible joy of somewhat-porky hawk Hillary Clinton. Never mind that an al Qaeda-sympathetic fundamentalist government took up the reins of power – what happens after the goal is achieved is less important. In that spirit, Russia may as well start preparing now for “rebuilding media, reconstructing the electoral process, re-creating political institutions and inventing a political culture virtually from scratch.”
Well, she certainly talks a good game. How’s her track record? Let’s take a look at her pre-game hype from what I believe was a blueprint for things to come in Russia – Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
Boy, Masha was all over that. I think it would be fair to say she was a little hyperbolic: Nationalism, she tells us, “…always the easiest and most obvious choice of ideology for
uniting people behind you, actually has a chance of being progressive
and even enlightened” in places like Ukraine. Presumably that does not include Russia, where nationalism is a dirty word. Ukrainians, she says, “felt invincible”. In a piece for Slate, she professes a liking for rap music (a bit quirky for someone born in 1967), and exults over the revolutionary example of schoolchildren who sang Ukraine’s new “fight song” as they forced a teacher to amend a schedule change that “wasn’t to their liking”. Yes, that is cute, Masha, but how long do you suppose it will be until they’re singing arm-in-arm as they decide not to bother with school at all? Little anarchists have a way of turning into big anarchists, and it’s surprising how quickly they get a taste for overturning rules, including yours. What a welcome addition to that euphoric, giddy gathering Georgia’s revolutionary president, Mikheil Saakashvili, must have been as everyone danced and frolicked – the crowd, Masha reports, “went wild” when Saakashvili congratulated them on their “great President”. Yes, everyone was high on revolution as they screamed a metaphoric “Fuck You!!” to Moscow. Oh, Masha – I love it when you talk dirty.
As it turned out, Masha and Misha got a little carried away in the excitement of the moment. Because although the alliance of banker Yushchenko and energy oligarch Yulia Tymoschenko sounded like a western wet dream, Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency was a revolving disaster for Ukraine, from the standpoint that it was a disaster from any angle you chose to look at it. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), the go-to barometer of national well-being for the west, fell sharply just about the time Yushchenko laid his hands on the wheel of Ukraine’s destiny. In 2009, as the smoldering wreck of Yushchenko’s presidency shuddered to a halt, Ukraine stood just above Zimbabwe on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, measurably more corrupt than such vibrant market democracies as Botswana, Tunisia and Burkina Faso (usually in the economic basement as the world’s poorest country), far, far below Greece – whose economy would implode twice in the years to come – and below Libya, Syria and Egypt, all western targets of regime change.
Come 2010, the heady impetuosity of the Orange Revolution had been stripped away by cynicism, and Ukrainians were sadder but wiser. As an unknown philosopher once pointed out, the trouble with using experience as a guide is that the final exam often comes first, and then the lesson. Viktor Yanukovych was elected with a margin of victory virtually identical to that he secured in the first election run-off in 2004, although on that occasion it tipped the country into revolution, while in 2010 the election – possibly in hopes that something, anything would arrest Ukraine’s slide into the abyss – was pronounced free and fair by international observers. So far as I know, Masha and Misha skipped the victory celebrations, and orange scarves were not much in evidence.
That’s all interesting. But more interesting to me is what and who was behind these “colour revolutions”. Because a common factor seems to be emerging as the trigger for having elections overturned and re-run, especially when the vote is relatively close – exit polls. When Saakashvili and his United Nationalists went up against Schevardnadze’s party in parliamentary elections, what precipitated cries that the election was rigged when Saakashvili didn’t win? Exit polls. Curiously, the Bush administration had only that summer sent former Secretary of State James Baker III to Georgia to secure Shevardnadze’s agreement to allow international observers (Global Strategy Group) to conduct exit polls and parallel vote counts. The exit polls allegedly revealed fraud in favour of Shevardnadze, which “lent legitimacy” to the popular rebellion. In an eerie parallel with what would later happen in Ukraine, Saakashvili talked a great game and drew all sorts of western approbation, but failed to keep almost all his promises, and Georgia is far today from the bustling, prosperous democracy that danced like visions of sugarplums in the heads of the revolutionaries.
As well as conducting research and monitoring of exit polls, Global Strategy Group specializes in “grassroots organizing, marketing and branding”. The Youth Movement Kmara, formed in Tbilisi state university in 2000, was stood up by the NGO Liberty Institute, most of whose founders were elected to the Georgian Parliament following the revolution. Liberty Institute and Kmara were active in all demonstrations, including those that toppled the government. Trained by OTPOR and CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies), Kmara is funded by Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, the European Union, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the OSCE, USAID and the Council of Europe. Many of these were recently cited as supporting organizations for Russian election-monitoring NGO Golos.
In Ukraine in 2004, what triggered the explosion of protest and demonstrations which resulted in anullment of the election results and – ultimately – Yushchenko’s victory? The exit polls. Although the official election results in the run-off recorded that Yanukovych had won by about 3%, exit polls suggested an 11% lead for Yushchenko.
Boris Berezovsky was accused of financing Yushchenko’s campaign, and documentation recording transfers of funds between companies controlled by Brezovsky and Yushchenko’s backers was produced; Berezovsky confirmed the transfers had occurred, but refused to specify what the funds were used for. Financing of election campaigns by foreigners is illegal under Ukrainian law. Berezovsky also claimed to have spent millions keeping the demonstrations going. The part played by Kmara in the Georgian revolution was taken up in Ukraine by Pora, a nearly identical youth activist group. In fact, a former member of the Liberty Institute and some of Kmara‘s senior leadership were in Ukraine for the Orange Revolution, advising and coaching Ukrainian opposition leaders. Backing Pora was the same alphabet soup of western democracy-advocacy agencies; among them, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are known fronts created by the Reagan administration for the diffusing of CIA money. Between 2002 and 2004, the Bush administration is alleged to have poured more than $65 million into the Ukrainian opposition, most of it in support of Yushchenko. Yushchenko’s American wife, Katya, is a longtime conservative activist who worked in the Reagan White House and for the State Department, and was the creator and president of the US-Ukraine Foundation, financed by – you guessed it – USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy. With all the money and powerful backers in Yushchenko’s corner, it’s almost a shame he was such a failure.
Bishop Peter Jesep, Chancellor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of North America Sobornopravna (Holy Trinity), appealed to the Ukrainian diaspora to put their shoulders to the wheel of regime change as well; “Ukraine“, he told them, “is the second largest and potentially one of the richest nations in Europe. It is not in America’s national security [interests] to see Russia exploit such a resource. Once that case is made, fellow citizens who would not normally care about a situation far removed from their families begin to listen. The Ukrainian cause must be made into their cause.” Drawing on his previous professional experience as – wouldn’t you know it – a strategic media planner, he went on to offer a list of suggestions for how the Ukrainian diaspora could support Yushchenko, including quickly countering “Russified” pieces by “experts” in the New York Times and on PBS by way of a press release to national media, establishing teams of professionals to guide editorial boards of major newspapers away from “the filter of 300 years of Russian exploitation ” and passing along tips to American journalists from family and friends in the ancestral motherland. He closes with a personal recipe for success – “Diaspora organizations need to be less romantic and a lot more Machiavellian.” Many diaspora Ukrainians were involved in election monitoring and the conduct of exit polls during the Orange Revolution. That Machiavellian enough for you, Brother Jesep?
Peter Savodnik, in one of the few attempts to continue American support beyond the wild party of the Orange Revolution, counseled the Bush government to lift the restrictive Jackson-Vanik Amendment for Ukraine, but not for Russia. “…There’s little doubt that graduating Ukraine from Jackson-Vanik while leaving Russia behind will roil U.S.-Russian relations” he suggested, ” but the facts on the ground have changed, and U.S. policy should reflect that. Russia is deeply ambivalent about democracy, while Ukraine has embraced it.” The Bush administration thought that was a good idea, and Jackson-Vanik was dropped for Ukraine but not Russia.
As I think I’ve mentioned before, journalism has something in common with meteorology, in that you can be wrong over and over again, and people still listen to you like you know what you’re talking about and you still have a job. Willingness to acknowledge the Orange Revolution as detrimental to Ukraine, for the cluster-bomb of incompetence and petty infighting it was, is noticeably absent among the giddy western celebrators of 2004. Your friend and mine, Eugene Ivanov, did a fine takedown of Keith Gessen’s revisionist view of the revolution, published in the New Yorker last year; Eugene summarizes the abbreviated version with a pungent phrase that I will probably borrow just as soon as you’ve forgotten where it came from – “why waterboard your readers with details?”
For her part, sister Masha just brushes off comparisons. The Orange Revolution, she assesses, “fails as a model” for the street protests the west is trying to turn into the White Revolution; “The stand-off between street protesters and the government was resolved by the Supreme Court, which ordered a revote. Russia has no independent justice system, and election laws have been rigged in favor of Kremlin-sanction parties.” Backing away a little from her assurance that the Putin regime will fall before the end of March, she analyzes, “The more hot air the regime pumped into the bubble in which it lived, the more vulnerable it became to pressure from the outside. That is what is happening now. It may take months or it may take a few years, but the Putin bubble will burst.”
Masha should hope she’s right. If Vladimir Putin is elected president again for at least a first term in 2012, I’d be surprised not to see his attitude harden against the west and westerners who worked so single-mindedly and manipulated facts so shamelessly toward the goal of protest achieving critical mass, and bringing down the government. And there’s still the matter of the familiar trigger for demonstrations to consider – the exit polls.
Can you rig exit polls? Sure. An easy way, and one which would even show suspicious official results, would be for a significant number of people – presumably democracy activists – to vote for United Russia but report in the exit poll that they had voted for the KPRF, or Yabloko. This would have the effect of skewing the poll in favour of the party you wish to discredit. But as detractors of such conspiracies have suggested, you’d never be able to keep something like that quiet. Somebody would talk, and the whole scheme would be exposed.
However, there’s no need for a real manipulation of the vote to be present at all. As I discussed, the exit polls in Georgia for the Rose Revolution were conducted by a western market-research and grassroots organization agency. In Ukraine in 2004, exit polling was done by a combination of international observers which included many members of the western Ukrainian diaspora, who were exhorted by their religious leader to be as Machiavellian as necessary to ensure Yushchenko was victorious. In Russia in 2011, exit polling was again carried out by international observers, including the now famous Golos.
Pay attention, Russia. Remember what we learned about the drawbacks of using experience as a guide. The final exam comes first, and the lesson comes later.