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Uncle Santa and Ukraine's Orange-Colored Elves

Uncle Santa and Ukraine's Orange-Colored Elves

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Thursday 16 December 2004

Sparring over Ukraine's disputed election, Vladimir Putin and his one-time buddy George W. Bush still agreed on one thing. Both opposed ''foreign meddling.''

"Only the people of any country ... can decide their fate," the Russian leader told reporters. "One can play the role of a mediator, but one must not meddle and apply pressure."

"We're watching very carefully what is taking place," Bush replied. "But any election in any country must reflect the will of the people and not that of any foreign government."

Neither man meant what he said.

A former colonel in the Soviet KGB, Putin seeks to preserve Kiev's independence only from NATO and the West, not from the Russian Bear, who has ruled Ukraine for centuries.

With no less chutzpah or hypocrisy, Bush condemns only Moscow's meddling - and not Washington's long-term effort to build up Ukraine's pro-Western opposition. According to the Associated Press, in the last two years alone the Bush Administration spent more than $65 million to seed the Orange Revolution and build support for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

To Ukrainian protestors, Putin's interference seems the more odious, and for good reason. He overtly backed the thuggish and highly corrupt President Leonid Kuchma and Kuchma's handpicked successor, the current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. In the earlier campaign, Putin even appeared on Ukrainian TV endorsing Yanukovych, which probably hurt more than it helped. Several of Putin's former campaign staff - the Russian Karl Rove-niks, as it were - worked directly for Yanukovych, while others prepared compulsory "talking points" for journalists on the state-controlled television channels.

Masha Gessen, a liberal Moscow journalist, described their ham-fisted meddling in an insightful online report for The New Republic. "They tried to create a clone of the Moscow regime - and failed," she wrote, "in large part because Ukrainians rejected their heavy-handed style and tools of intimidation."

The heaviest intimidation was poisoning Yushchenko with dioxin, the chief ingredient in Agent Orange, which the Americans used as a defoliant in Vietnam. No one has yet proved who tried to kill or incapacitate the opposition leader, but the whole business smells like something Col. Putin's former KGB colleagues might have dreamed up. As one Ukrainian wag put it, "Agent Orange for the Orange Agent."

American meddling was far more subtle, sustained, and effective. The $65 million plus went to pro-Yushchenko think tanks, civic organizations, political training, and work with strategically placed professionals, such as journalists and judges.

It paid for some questionable exit polls and election monitors, many of them Ukrainian expatriates who were far from impartial.

And, the money paid to train and support PORA ("It's Time"), the mostly student movement whose jolly, non-violent elves provided wonderfully creative, highly disciplined shock troops for the Orange Revolution. With all the Western journalists in Kiev, outsiders still have no idea how much the activists passed the hat to pay for their elaborate tent cities with hot food, warm clothes, and big screen TV, and how much they got from Uncle Santa.

Much of the training came from the Belgrade-based Centre for Non-Violent Resistance, an offshoot of the Serbian student movement Optor, which Washington supported in its earlier campaign to oust Slobodan Milosevic. According to the Guardian and other newspapers, the Americans continued to fund the Centre to train non-violent opposition movements in Georgia, Belarus, and now Ukraine.

The House of Whose Freedom?

As far as the public now knows, the Americans funded all this through a series of "cutouts" - primarily Freedom House and NED, the National Endowment for Democracy.

NED is mostly a fiction. After Ramparts magazine, the New York Times, and Senator Frank Church's investigation exposed an earlier generation of front groups and foundations that passed money for the CIA, the Reagan Administration created NED to do the same thing, only with a show of openness about Congressional funding. Not to be too transparent, NED generally channels the money through a whole network of other groups, such as the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

Freedom House has a more colorful past. Styling itself as a pro-democracy watchdog and human rights group, it is best remembered as one of the earliest defenders of the Vietnam War, which it portrayed as an effort to bring freedom and democracy to that troubled country. Where have we heard that again?

Dominated at the time by pro-Cold War liberals and the State Department's favorite social democrats, the Freedom House crew regularly redbaited those of us who opposed American intervention in Southeast Asia, and later worked closely with the Contras in Nicaragua.

A "senior scholar" at Freedom House and the grandson of Ukrainian immigrants to the U.S., Adrian Karatnycky proudly told the New York Sun how he helped organize a training camp for Ukrainians this past August.

"Croatians, Romanians, Slovakians, and Serbians - leaders of the group that led civic opposition to Milosevic - taught Ukrainian kids how to 'control the temperature' of protesting crowds," he explained.

Paid for by the American government, the training camp taught the Ukrainians how to confront government pressure and how to show that they were not "part of an evil Western conspiracy." The training also taught the Ukrainians how to establish connections with the government militia and how to conduct street theater, poking fun at Kuchma and other leaders to reduce people's fear of them.

The results of this education, Mr. Karatnycky boasted, can be seen today on the streets of Kiev.

"American Son-in-Law, Go Home!"

Even more obvious, Washington's tightest link to the Orange Revolution is exactly where Yushchenko's most vocal critics said it was - through his bright, charming, and well-connected American wife Katherine Chumachenko.

Born in Chicago to a family of Ukrainian émigrés, Kathy - as she was then known - got her M.B.A. from the fierce free marketers at the University of Chicago, became a well-known conservative activist, and worked in the Reagan White House, where she handled contacts with American groups of Eastern European origin. She also served in the State Department, at the Treasury, and on the staff of Congress's Joint Economic Committee.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, Kathy created the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, whose announced mission was to promote Ukrainian democracy and free market reform. Kathy was the foundation's president, and then moved to Kiev as its in-country representative. As you might expect by now, U.S. funding came from NED and the Agency for International Development.

Living in Ukraine, Kathy - now Katya - met and married Yushchenko, who was then head of the Central Bank and later Kuchma's Prime Minister. What a coup for Katya's American backers! Only Yushchenko and Kuchma fell out, and Washington had to play catch up with a classic destabilization campaign, which is how the CIA would view the Orange Revolution.

Significantly, the first ten years of funding for Katya's U.S.-Ukraine Foundation was separate from the $65 million in U.S. spending quoted by the Associated Press. AP's figure does include money to bring Yushchenko to meet as-yet unnamed U.S. government officials.

No doubt, both Washington and Moscow will continue to meddle in Ukraine through and beyond the new run-off election, now scheduled for December 26. What the rest of us might ask - wherever we live - is how to respond.

Hold in mind that Senator John Kerry and other leading Democrats have staunchly supported the National Endowment for Democracy and its covert interventions. Note, as well, that former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, whom many Dems wanted as the next Secretary of State, has just written a widely circulated celebration of Ukraine's Orange Revolution without once mentioning the American role in it.

So, should we support the meddling we like? Or do we need to oppose and expose it all?

Where do you stand? I should love to know your opinion.

Steve Weissman


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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