Wednesday, January 25, 2006

From the Informant Archive: NGOs Not Always So Benign

It had all the trappings of a John LeCarre pulp classic. A shady character looks left and right before approaching of all things a rock lying incongruously on the curb of a busy downtown street in the Russian capital, Moscow. He points what looks like a TV remote at it for a few moments before moving on. However this is no ordinary rock, but rather a hollowed out facsimile housing a relaying device. Our character, a British citizen, thinks he has successfully passed on his secret information to London without being detected. He's wrong. A Russian television network has caught it all on film and on Monday the incriminating footage will be aired across the country, sparking denials and embarrassment in London.

That the Brit caught on film also worked in the British embassy dispensing money to non-governmental agencies, or NGOs, also raises eyebrows. Skepticss point out the timing of the report comes just a while after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law new regulations on foreign NGOs operating in Russia. From now on, Moscow will exercise greater oversight over the groups, which the Kremlin says in some cases are fronts for foreign governments. Critics say the gotcha TV report is merely a propaganda ploy to discredit NGOs and scare the Russian public into thinking they present a danger. For those interested in the details, go here.
Oh, those Russians! So paranoid. And Putin? Do we need further proof this ex-KGB spook is no democrat, but a despot? I won't argue over Putin's democratic bona fides, (frankly, no politician believes in democracy in my book) but I will say he is no fool, either. In little over two years, he has witnessed the fall of three former comrades. First, the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia (November 2003 - January 2004) took out Eduard Shevardnadze. Up next was Ukraine (January 2005) where the "Orange Revolution" successfully blocked a pro-Kremlin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, from taking the presidential throne. Finally, Askar Akayiev was forced to flee Kyrgyzstan after the "Tulip Revolution" (April, 2005).
In all three cases, streets protests, led by Internet-connected, p.r. savvy "youth" were at the vanguard. And most of these yuggens worked for... you guessed it: NGOs. But these homespun NGOs lacked cash and know how. Enter: Washington with its alphabet soup of organizations with both.

Harvard guru, Samuel Huntington, long figured out NGOs had power that could be harnessed in the service of empire. He noted "external actors" had played integral roles in a "third wave" of democratization starting in 1974.

Joseph Nye came up with the idea of co-opting these actors which he felt would be more effective because of their subtlety and seductive quality. He called this "soft power." Since going to war was too costly and just plain insane, Nye wrote: "other instruments such as communications, organisational and institutional skills, and manipulation of interdependence have become important instruments of power."

With a theory and a blueprint in place all that was missing was a means to make it all go. That came in 1983 when the Reagan administration decided to create the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to roll back Soviet influence by "strengthening democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts." To do that, the NED would funnel money to other organizations like the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), and Freedom House. All these organizations would become foot soldiers in the fight against communism.
NED's first president, Allen Weinstein, admitted openly that "a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA. "

As William Blum writes: "An NGO helps to maintain a certain credibility abroad that an official US government agency might not have. "

Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are all textbook examples of how these agencies were put to work for Washington. In all three cases, the new leaders inserted into the top power slots were Washington-friendly. Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia and Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Kyrgyzstan.

So how was it done? This is no conspiracy. In all three countries in question there was a genuine groundswell of discontent. But it was up to the local NGOs, funded and coached by both the U.S. government and private funders, like George Soros, to act as a catalyst. Soros, whose large-scale currency market interventions have been blamed by some for the 1997 currency crisis in Southeast Asia, is a big player in Eastern Europe thru his Open Society which funnels funds to a myriad of NGOs in the region.

The template for student-led color revolutions came from Serbia, where Otpor, or resistance, had a large hand in ending the rule of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In Georgia, it was Kmara, which means "enough", that led the protests leading Shevardnadze to resign in 2003. In Ukraine, it was Pora, Ukrainian for "it is time." All movements relied on carefully orchestrated TV-friendly protests, humor, the internet and money and coaching from the U.S. alphabet army and private players like Soros' Open Society.

What was it that led to U.S. opposition to the former regimes in these three countries?

For years, the U.S. turned its nose up to the rank corruption in Georgia. But when Shevardnadze sold a controlling share in Georgia's gas network to a Russian outfit, Itera, he went too far. Bush's top energy advisor, Stephen Mann, warned Shevardnadze that :Georgia should do nothing that undercuts the powerful promise of an East-West energy corridor." Georgia factors in U.S. plans to bring Caspian Sea oil to Western markets. A key oil pipeline bringing Azerbaijani oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan will transverse Georgia. Were Georgia to return to Moscow's orbit, the pipeline could be threatened.

Shevardnadze himself, said he was the victim of a U.S.-backed coup, and pointed to U.S. ambassador Richard Miles as a top conspirator. This shady U.S. diplomat was also posted to Belgrade just before Milosevic's ouster in 2000 and alternative and European media debated his role at length. Such talk, of course, was missing in the American press.

In Ukraine, a pipeline also played its role. In July 2004, much to the consternation of the Bush administration and Brussels, Kuchma's government reversed an earlier decision to extend the Odessa-Brody pipeline to Gdansk in Poland. Instead, Kuchma decided to open an unused pipeline that would transport oil from the Russian Urals to Odessa. Such a reversal would foil plans to nudge closer to the West and away from Moscow.

One of the first things the Yushchenko government did was overturn Kuchma's decision on Odessa-Brody, announcing "positive talks with Chevron, the former company of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for the project."

Ukraine is also a key strategic state buffering Western Europe from Russia. I'll let a voice that matters, Zbigniew Brzezinski, explain Ukraine's importance.

"Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire ... if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources, as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state."

Kyrgyzstan is another key strategic country, located near U.S. operations in Afghanistan and the Caspian oil riches. And when Akayev gave the Americans use of a military base at Manas, he automatically gained U.S. silence on his corrupt ways. However, when Akayev allowed the Russians use of another base at Kant, the Yanks were angered. Suddenly, the State Department got tough, opening its own printing press for the Kyrgyz opposition, and the IMF was less generous as well.

So poor and lacking of any civic traditions is Kyrgyzstan, nearly all NGO activity there is funded by U.S. foundations, or by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Obedience to Washington means the NGO dogs won't be sicced on you. Heydar Aliyev could boldly fix parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan in November 2005, and not hear a peep of opprobrium from the U.S. or the Europeans. Aliyev is a faithful backer of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline mentioned above.

Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, brutally crackdowned on a mass demonstration in Andijan in May 2005, killing 500 and wounding 2,000. Washington first echoed Karimov's claim that the anti-corruption rally was the handiwork of "Islamic terrorists." But as the international outcry rose, Washington did level some tempered criticism against Karimov, who answered by kicking the U.S. troops out of his country.

Karimov, who once saw Washington as a counterweight to Moscow, is now smitten with Russia. Russia and China are moving thru the Shanghai Cooperation to rustle back as much influence in the region as possible. Politics is not static and Putin is crafty enough to know how to play the game.

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