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East: Regime Change On The Cheap

  • Julie Corwin --> Otpor protesters in 2000 (file photo) A persistent impression in the non-Western media is that the U.S. government along with a group of Western foundations financed the recent revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, and Georgia by funneling money to the revolutions' most activist element, young people.

In many cases, the press has exaggerated the level of direct foreign funding available to youth movements such as Serbia's Otpor, Georgia's Kmara, and Ukraine's Pora. Western organizations such as the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and International Republican Institute did provide direct funding to youth organizations -- though the amounts were not tens of millions, but tens of thousands of dollars.

The Advantage Of Nonviolence

Of all the youth groups, Serbia's Otpor was perhaps the biggest beneficiary. Writing in the book "A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict" (Palgrave: 2001), Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall conclude that Otpor managed to do what previous Serbian opposition groups could not, tap into financial or material support from the international community by professing a philosophy of nonviolence. The U.S. Agency for International Development, according to the authors, provided the bulk of financing for Otpor's ubiquitous stickers and T-shirts bearing the message "He's finished," among others. The Soros Foundation also provided monies to Otpor.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded by the U.S. Congress through the State Department authorizations bill, granted Otpor more than $282,000 directly in the year 2000 alone, according to NED records. This money was earmarked to establish new Otpor branches and offices in towns and cities throughout Serbia and for a bus tour to encourage voter participation in the September 2000 presidential elections. Also in 2000, the International Republican Institute received $74,735 from NED to assist Otpor in establishing a central office in Belgrade and offices in three other Serbian cities, according to the NED.

Two earlier grants worth almost $125,000 to the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe on behalf of the Student Union of Serbia also likely benefited Otpor indirectly. They were designed to "encourage greater student involvement in the nationwide anti-Milosevic movement by organizing a university protest campaign," according to an NED project description. By the end of October 2000, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was out of power, and even if no direct link could be established between stickers, T-shirts, new offices, and regime change.

Georgian Elections

By the time the Georgian parliamentary elections rolled around in March 2003, Western foundations and the U.S. government decided to put their money into upgrading the country's election system rather than channeling it directly to youth groups, such as Kmara. After the toppling of Milosevic, the Russian and Georgian press had heightened suspicions about the role the United States and international financier/philanthropist George Soros might play in Georgian politics. The Georgian newspaper "Tribuna" in two articles on 5 and 12 May 2003 claimed that Soros was financing Kmara. A month later, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze lashed out during a weekly radio interview at an "international organization" for providing support for "antigovernment forces." According to Rustavi-2, Shevardnadze aides later confirmed that the president was referring to the Open Society Georgia Foundation. Soros telephoned Shevardnadze soon after that to reassure him that he was not interfering in Georgia's democratic process.

Nevertheless, the belief that Soros bankrolled Kmara has persisted. "Novye izvestiya" reported on 28 November 2003 that its sources confirmed that "Soros invested $5 million in Kmara." However, the Soros Foundation's entire budget for all of its programs in Georgia that year amounted to only $4.6 million, and none of that money went directly to Kmara, according to Laura Silber, senior policy adviser for the foundation. The foundation's programs in Georgia that year included projects on education, public health, legal reform, and media support. Voter education, voter participation, and exit-polling projects were a key focus, and some of these efforts included things like holding get-out-the-vote soccer games, which drew young participants.

Western Influence In Ukraine

In 2004, during Ukraine's presidential election campaign the supporters of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko accused each other of receiving money from other countries, Yanukovych from Russia and Yushchenko from the United States. The youth movement Pora, which opposed Yanukovych but did not formally support Yushchenko, was accused not only of accepting U.S. financing but of being created by Western intelligence services.

In an interview with the "2000" newspaper on 21 January 2005, Vladyslav Kaskiv, a Pora coordinator, denied that international organizations had anything to do with the process of providing training or education to Pora members. Kaskiv also categorically denied that the Soros Foundation gave them any money. "If there had been Western support, I personally would not have seen anything bad about it," he said "And Pora would have accepted it with great delight." But he said the Soros Foundation in Ukraine categorically refused. For its part, the NED provided more than $240,000 for projects "to mobilize Ukrainian youth to greater political participation" from 2001-04, according to NED records, but it also did not contribute money directly to Pora. Another program to encourage young people to vote netted more than $100,000 in 2004 alone.

Shortly after Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the Russian weekly "Itogi," No. 51, in 2004 asked NED Director for Central Europe and Eurasia Nadia Diuk what role her organization played in the recent events in Kyiv. She answered: "We have been working in Ukraine since 1989. As in Russia, our programs there have a limited character. In the current situation in Ukraine we are occupied with monitoring the election, conducting parallel vote counts and exit polls. But you know, neither our modest organization nor all of the Western foundations together could bring a million people out on the streets. Ukrainian freedom like any other has a local origin. You can't import freedom and the struggle for it. Would hundreds of thousands of Muscovites really come out for a meeting with Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Sakharov for money?"

Spending Increasing?

Despite the perception of the losers of regime change in CIS countries that Western governments and foundations have been distressingly successful in their countries, the trend for spending in the area of democracy promotion is downward. For example, the NED's funding, except in the Middle East, has remained flat for the past two years, while separate democracy-building programs have been slashed by 38 percent in Eastern Europe and 46 percent in the former Soviet Union under the current U.S. administration, according to "The Washington Post" on 18 March. Similarly, U.S. Agency for International Development spending on democracy and governance programs was virtually unchanged from two years earlier, if you take away spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. While the pace of regime change in Eurasia may have picked up speed in the past two years, it's not clear that U.S. funds were the accelerating force.

For more on the rise of political youth groups, see RFE/RL's special website "The Power of Youth."