A friend of mine worked for several years in Slovakia for the National Democratic Institute, spreading the good news about democracy. Last year, when things got nasty in Belarus—protests crushed, opposition politicians jailed, reporters beaten for covering this—my friend became nostalgic, worried. He was right to worry. Alexander Lukashenko won another election “victory” through intimidation and fraud, perhaps his last such theft, but still. At the height of it all, I asked my friend whether Russia was the democracy movement’s next stop. I succeeded only in depressing him. “Russia’s pretty big,” he said. But the about that
thing democracy champions do not always count the odds. Which is why bands of protesters have been standing up to police in Moscow and St. Petersburg, knowing their confrontations must end, as they did last weekend, under the cudgel and the jackboot. The detainees included Maria Gaidar, the daughter of a former prime minister, and, briefly, chess master Garry Kasparov, who has become a ringleader of the opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Putin is preparing to designate a successor who will inherit the police, security and captive-media machine that will ensure his victory in next year’s “elections.” The Russian state bears less and less resemblance to democracy. The democratic opposition has powerful friends in Washington and elsewhere, but it cannot win. Surely it cannot win. It will try anyway.
The rest of us could use a guidebook to the events ahead. Along comes Mark MacKinnon, the former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe and Mad, with his first book, The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. It’s an ambitious if flawed work, connecting the dots between a string of democratic revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan to demonstrate the Western money and organizational muscle that helped each of them happen. These organizations include the National Endowment for Democracy, founded in 1982 by Ronald Reagan and funded by the U.S. Congress; the Democratic party’s international wing, the National Democratic Institute, and its Republican counterpart, the International Republican Institute; and the various NGOs funded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The influence of these groups, active for decades, became obvious during the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. For MacKinnon, they represent the Western front in... well, a new cold war.
I don’t see the democracy people doing a lot of bombing or beating à la Russian thugs
“Just a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he writes, “Washington and Moscow were back at odds, again fighting tooth and nail in an undeclared battle that would bring down at least four governments and influence the development of two major oil pipelines over the course of Putin’s presidency.” The first Cold War was “fought on such far-flung battlefields as Angola and Vietnam,” he adds. This one is happening in Moscow’s backyard. But MacKinnon senses—and in my opinion, seriously exaggerates—a similarity of manner and morality between the two factions. On one side, the U.S., “once again donning the cloak of defending ‘freedom’ and individual liberties”; on the other, Putin’s Russia, “with Kremlin officials occasionally pining openly for an outright return to the Communist system of days past.” This new war, MacKinnon writes, is “as much about competing commercial interests” as it is “about political systems or ideologies.”
With that, MacKinnon goes racing all over the region, from Belgrade to Kiev to Tbilisi to Lukashenko’s grim and terrified Minsk, where the author is awakened in the night by an ominous pounding at the door of his borrowed apartment. He does well not to answer; the same night, another reporter is lured into a fight outside his own apartment by another goon squad, beaten severely, then arrested for hooliganism.
Which points up the book’s central problem. MacKinnon is so eager to paint the struggle for democracy as a power game that he discounts the evidence of his own eyes and his own formidable reporting in weighing the two sides’ morality. The book opens with agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service planting a massive apartment bomb designed to look like the work of Chechen terrorists in the town of Ryazan in 1999Belarusian thugs come for MacKinnon in the night. I don’t see the NDI doing a lot of covert bombing or beating. So it’s not moral sophistication, but a moral failure on MacKinnon’s part to throw up his hands and say it’s all much of a muchness and ordinary people are “caught in the middle.”
ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells
Fortunately MacKinnon’s subjects understand what is happening. “Do I think the CIA used us?” Sinisa Sikman, a Serbian democracy activist who later trained activists in Belarus and Ukraine, asks. “Well, maybe we used the CIA for our own interests. If the CIA wanted to bring down Milosevic, and I, who grew up here, wanted to bring down Milosevic, who do you think enjoyed it more?” M
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