Events in Ukraine have inspired most people living in the free world. Ukrainian democrats stood together in the freezing cold to demand from their government what we citizens of democracies take for granted: the right to elect their leaders in free and fair elections. But not all observers of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” are so elated. Instead of democracy’s advance, some see a U.S.-funded, White House–orchestrated conspiracy to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, weaken Russia’s sphere of influence, and expand Washington’s imperial reach. These skeptics range from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to Republican Representative Ron Paul of Texas, columnist Patrick Buchanan, and left-wingers at the Nation and the Guardian.
This odd collection of critics is a little bit right and a whole lot wrong.
Did Americans meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine? Yes. The American agents of influence would prefer different language to describe their activities—democratic assistance, democracy promotion, civil society support, and so on—but their work, however labeled, seeks to influence political change in Ukraine. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and a few other foundations sponsored certain U.S. organizations, including Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Solidarity Center, the Eurasia Foundation, Internews, and several others, to provide small grants and technical assistance to Ukrainian civil society. The European Union, individual European countries, and the George Soros–funded International Renaissance Foundation did the same.
In the run-up to vote, these American and European organizations concentrated on creating conditions for free and fair elections. Western organizations provided training and some direct assistance to the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, Ukraine’s first-rate election-monitoring organization. Western funders pooled resources to sponsor two exit polls.
Western foundations also provided assistance to independent media. Freedom House and others supported Znayu and the Freedom of Choice Coalition, whose members included the high-profile Pora student movement. And through their conferences and publications, these American organizations supported the flow of knowledge and contacts between Ukrainian democrats and their counterparts in Slovakia, Croatia, Romania, and Serbia. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe coordinated with several other European, U.S., and Canadian organizations to mobilize a major international monitoring effort of the election process. Formally, this help was nonpartisan because the aim was to aid the electoral process. Yet most of these groups believed that a free and fair election would mean victory for Viktor Yushchenko. And they were right.
Did the U.S. government fund the Yushchenko campaign directly? Not to my knowledge. Both the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute conducted training programs for Ukrainian political parties, some of which later joined the Yushchenko coalition. But in the years leading up to the 2004 votes, American ambassadors in Ukraine insisted that no U.S. government money could be provided to any candidate. Private sources of external funding and expertise aided the Yushchenko campaign. Likewise, U.S. and Russian public relations consultants worked with the Yushchenko campaign, just as U.S. and Russian public relations people were brought in to help his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych. In future elections Ukrainian officials might enforce more controls on foreign resources. But this kind of private, for-profit campaign advice occurs everywhere now, and Americans no longer control the market.
Did American money bring about the Orange Revolution? Absolutely not. The combination of a weak, divided, and corrupt ancien régime and a united, mobilized, and highly motivated opposition produced Ukraine’s democratic breakthrough. Westerners did not create or control the Ukrainian democratic movement but rather supported its cause on the margins. Moreover, democracy promotion groups do not have a recipe for revolution. If the domestic conditions aren’t ripe, there will be no democratic breakthrough, no matter how crafted the technical assistance or how strategically invested the small grants. In fact, Western democracy promoters work in most developing democracies in the world, yet democratic transitions are rare.
Do these American democracy assistance groups carry out the will of the Bush administration? Not really. One of the greatest myths about U.S. democracy efforts is that a senior White House official carefully choreographs the efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy or Freedom House. Although they are perhaps supportive philosophically, policymakers at the White House and the State Department have had almost nothing to do with the design or implementation of American democracy assistance programs. In some countries, they clash with one another. I witnessed this as the National Democratic Institute’s representative in Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union: “They—the U.S. policymakers—supported Mikhail Gorbachev; “we” worked with Democratic Russia, Gorbachev’s opponents. The same divide is present in many countries today.
Does this kind of intervention violate international norms? Not anymore. There was a time when championing state sovereignty was a progressive idea because the advance of statehood helped destroy empires. But today those who revere the sovereignty of the state above all else often do so to preserve autocracy, and those who champion the sovereignty of the people are the new progressives. In Ukraine, external actors who helped the people be heard were not violating the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people; they were defending it.