September 17, 2001
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Where I live city officials once decided to erect a speakers corner,
where the rabble could mount a platform and declaim to passers-by. The
purpose was to celebrate the city's commitment to civil liberties in a
conspicuous, showy, and it was hoped, innocuous way. One day a dishevelled
character, hair unkempt, the greying bristles of his three-day old beard
barely masking 10-days of accumulated grime, mounted the steps of the
platform, issued a boozy burp, took a deep breath, and launched into a
harangue that began "I'm not racist but..." That was the end of speakers
corner. Today, the platform cleared away, the small throng of curious
onlookers who used to shake their heads in amusement at those courageous,
deluded or drunk enough to mount the platform has been replaced by
lunchtime crowds queuing up to buy a bag of soggy French fries from
Frank's Super Fries, best in the city!
Large truths can be found in mundane things. Rhetorical commitments, to being charitable, to abjuring racism at home, to treating others kindly, are easy to make, as too are rhetorical commitments to civil liberties. Real, substantial, unshakeable commitments are quite another matter.
So too with democracy. Every once is a while democracy, or whatever limited form of it prevails, threatens to make life inconvenient for the people in charge. And so democracy, like free speech, is wrapped up in a tightly bound package, tidily tucked away in some dark corner to await the time voters will have learned to exercise their freedoms more responsibly, which means, of course, not voting in any away that's going to encroach upon the interests of the people who are really in charge. Only then is the package taken from its dark corner, unwrapped with much fanfare, and bestowed anew upon a grateful public, which is expected to bow low to the grandees who have bestowed this great gift upon them. But the memories of the last time hang menacingly in the air, like Damocles' sword, suspended by a thin thread ready to be severed in an instant by the guardians and faithful servants of the powerful should the people's memory fail. Augusto Pinochet played this role, teaching uppity Chileans that democracy is a dangerous thing. Use it wisely, or it shall be taken away. For this he is celebrated.
Of course, in some places it never comes to this. Democracy is kept under tight rein to ensure that a nasty little junta will never have to show the people their place. Where I live, in Canada, we have a bicameral legislature, comprising a House of Commons, which, in a theory that makes Lamarkian evolution look cogent, is where the people's will is expressed. There's also a Senate, comprised of appointed representatives. The Senate, in theory, operates to rein the people's chamber in, whenever it strays too far in the direction of eroding the right of the powerful to dominate the country, something that happens with an infrequency that makes the witnessing of comets a routine event. Senators are encharged with a veto, and the task of subjecting the House of Common's legislation to "sober second thought." Democracy, yes, so long as it's sober, and so long as it operates within the bounds the establishment's representatives are prepared to tolerate.
In reality, the Canadian Senate is an effete, pointless body, comprised of a gaggle of worn out hacks, allowed to greedily feed at the public trough as a reward for years of genuflecting deeply at the altars of established power. Its merits as a check on democracy are historical alone. We have more modern -- and equally effective -- ways to rein in democracy now.
For starters, there's the fact that very little of substance is decided in the House of Commons, matters of great moment now left to the hands of the Prime Minister and his cabinet. This is no less true elsewhere in the Western world, where appointees and cabinets handle the meatiest and far-reaching matters, insulated from any measure of public control. When Canada decided to participate in NATO's 1999 79-day bomb-fest in Yugoslavia, public opinion was immaterial, except as something to be managed, not accommodated or heeded. The House of Commons didn't decide that Canada needed to contribute to the murder of thousands of Yugoslav civilians -- this was the Prime Minister's decision alone. And while he deigned to allow the issue to be debated in the House of Commons in a token concession to democracy, it was nothing more than a lagniappe thrown at the feet of those who thought Canadians should have a say in the deployment of the country's armed forces overseas. He forbade a vote. Voting would have been carrying democracy a little too far.
There are other ways to hold democracy in check. All of Canada's major political parties endorsed the bombing, though a few independent minded Members of Parliament questioned the campaign in its early days, but were soon quickly reined in, and relegated to minor posts suitable for political simpletons. Opposing the bombing would have been political suicide, a certain invitation to be pilloried by the media, all of which almost monolithically lined up behind the power centres -- Washington, London, Bonn -- as is their custom. To oppose the flagrant trampling of international law, to impugn NATO's violations of humanitarian law, to question NATO's motives, was to run the risk of being accused of giving succour to an evil tyrant and condoning genocide. So political parties, with their eyes on the next election and fingers on the pulse of the media, didn't dissent, but for those already held in disrepute by the media, and nothing to lose. As an equestrian riding the hobbled beast called democracy, the press has few equals. Even so, it doesn't act alone.
Democracy has long been equated with multiparty elections, as if the two are synonymous. But the equation of one with the other is more a propagandist convenience that a tenable idea, and one whose origins can be traced to the Cold War. Multiparty elections were held to represent the summit of democracy because the existence of two or more parties distinguished the West from Communist countries in a seemingly important, though, in reality, superficial way. Communist countries allowed only one party; we had many. We had democracy; they didn't.
On the surface, the distinction is plausible enough, but those not too blinkered by civics lessons could see through the illusion. Much of the West, the US in particular, had one party, too. It just went by two, and in some places, three, four, and sometimes even five different names. On fundamental issues, the Democrats and Republicans are completely agreed -- always have been. Differences are only skin-deep. But the illusion of choice is handy.
Communist countries could have done the same, but marketing is a notorious Communist failing. The opportunity was missed. But think of what might have happened had the opportunity been seized. There could have been two communist parties: Communist Party I and Communist Party II, called, say, the Red Party and the Workers Party. A decades long rivalry could have been created, complete with conventions and a mythology and people proclaiming fealty to one or the other party "because that's who my father voted for, and my father's father, and his father's father." And party symbols, too: the red star for the Reds, and the hammer and sickle for the Workers Party. Party partisans could have had long, heated debates about whose leader had more character, who was more devoted to Marx, and who seemed more presidential.
The sham, were it carried out, would have been obvious to us. They're both communist parties, committed to a socialist, command economy, we would thunder. Any difference between the two is largely cosmetic. But the sham, looking from the inside in, is harder to see. The Democrats and Republicans are both business parties, committed to a business-oriented society, and any differences between the two are largely cosmetic, and have nothing whatever to do with the fundamental structure of the society, its economy, and who holds power -- questions on which both parties are completely agreed.
That's regrettable, because the hopes that Americans can explore other ways of solving their problems -- poverty, homelessness, inadequate health care, environmental degradation, war -- except for those that don't clash the guiding principle that the right of businesses to fatten the bottom line is inviolable, might never be allowed, only taken.
But it's regrettable too, for as the largest kid on the block, America's elevation of the pursuit of private profit to a religious principle means that other people have been deprived of the same right. That all economies shall be organized around principles of free markets and private investment -- close to a perfect guarantee that American business will continue to dominate the world -- is an even more effective check on democracy than appointed Senates, pusillanimous politicians, the arrogation of decision-making power onto appointed bodies, and the media.
"Societies will be organized in ways that best serve the interests of investors," demands Washington, "and anyone who stands in the way will be crushed." Arbenz, Mossadegh, Allende, Lumumba, ....Ortega, Milosevic, and, to offer a current example, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Tucked away in between Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, the Ukraine and Russia, lies Belarus, a former Soviet republic, and home, if The New York Times is to be believed, to a repressive, Soviet-era style police state, where the opposition is intimidated by the secret police, and whose president rules with an iron-fist and steals elections. A thoroughly unsavory place, likened to Milosevic's Yugoslavia. But scratch the surface and it's clear that media depictions of Belarus, like those of Serbia and Milosevic, are bumf, a handy cover for US meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country.
What prompts US meddling, now, as much as ever, is not contempt for civil liberties, or ethnic repression, or democratic lapses, but an unwillingness to fully embrace free trade and open markets. Writer Samuel Huntingdon, describes US foreign policy as designed to "promote American corporate interests under the slogans of free trade and open markets; shape World Bank and IMF policies to serve those same corporate interests;...bludgeon other countries to adopt economic and social policies that will benefit American economic interests; promote American arms sales abroad...and categorize certain countries as 'rogue states,' excluding them from global institutions because they refuse to kowtow to American wishes." (1)
Belarus, like Yugoslavia under Milosevic, is categorized by Washington and its allies as a rogue state. It refuses to become part of NATO, (ruminating instead on an alliance with Russia , thereby refusing to place itself under the yoke of an interoperability regiment that forces new NATO members to buy equipment from US arms manufacturers) and has been slow to adopt the social and economic policies that benefit American economic interests.
Yugoslavia showed the same stubborn independent streak. As Sean Gervasi points out,
"By 1990, most of the countries of Eastern Europe had yielded to Western pressures to establish what were misleadingly called 'reforms.' Some had accepted all the Western conditions for aid and trade. Some, notably Bulgaria and Rumania, had only partially accepted them. In Yugoslavia, however, there was resistance. The 1990 elections in Serbia and Montenegro kept a socialist or social-democratic party in power. The Federal government thus remained in the hands of politicians who, although they yielded to pressures for 'reforms' from time to time, were nevertheless opposed to the recolonization of the Balkans. And many of them were opposed to the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. Since the third Yugoslavia, formed in the spring of 1992, had an industrial base and a large army, that country had to be destroyed." (2)
"Germany and the US originally determined to forge a new Balkan order, one based on the market organization of economies and parliamentary democracy," (3) Gervasi continues. Market organization and parliamentary democracy means those who profit most from market organization and therefore have an interest in preserving it can dominate parliament by virtue of their ownership and control of the economy. The can buy politicians, lobbyists and the media, and exact concessions through threats of capital strike or flight. Which invites the question, Is a parliamentary democracy with a market organization that concentrates wealth in the hands of a minority, a democracy at all, or a sham -- a plutocracy dressed up as a democracy? As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, "We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of few, but we can't have both." "With great wealth," says writer Doug Henwood, "comes extraordinary social power -- the power to buy politicians, pundits, and professors, and to dictate both public and corporate policy." (4) And with great wealth too, as Washington, nerve centre of the planet's wealthiest nation well knows, comes the power to intervene massively in the parliamentary elections of recalcitrant countries.
The United States undertook a massive campaign to subvert the September 9th Belarusian presidential election, but failed to topple Lukashenko. He won the election with a resounding majority. Washington's dump-Lukashenko campaign consisted of funnelling money to non-governmental agencies (NGO's) opposed to the Belarusian president, a youth group reminiscent of the US-backed Serb resistance group that was instrumental in toppling Slobodan Milosevic, and Radio Free Europe broadcasts urging Belarusians to vote for Lukashenko's US-backed opponent.
At the centre of the campaign was Michael Kozak, US Ambassador to Belarus, a man with some experience in destabilizing governments Washington doesn't like. Nicknamed "the weasel" by former CIA director William Casey, Kozak served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, working in Panama and El Salvador in the 80's, and in Nicaragua at a time Washington was employing various shady and illegal means to topple the Sandanistas, including illegally funnelling money to the Contras. In a startling letter to a British newspaper, Kozak revealed that Washington's "objective and to some degree methodology are the same" in Belarus as in Nicaragua. (5)
In mid-August, according to Belarusian TV, Kozak told ex-Grodno Region Governor Semyon Domash to withdraw his candidacy for presidency and throw his support behind Vladimir Goncharyk , a trade union leader and former Communist. Goncharyk agreed to make Domash his prime minister, in a move reminiscent of the arrangement between Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic that capped the coalescing of the fractured Yugoslav opposition. It was former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who demanded the opposition unite around a single candidate.
Lukashenko, demonized in the Western press, had come in for some particularly harsh treatment in the run up to the September 9th election. With the election over, and Lukashenko victorious, the anti-Lukanshenko slanders have reached near hysterical pitch. The Wall Street Journal calls Belarus a "semi-fascist" state. The Washington Times calls the country an "authoritarian police state" and an "unabashed dictatorship." Lukashenko is variously described as a strongman, hard-liner, tyrant, and Europe's last dictator, in a reprise of the campaign that painted Milosevic in similarly menacing hues. The BBC has taken to accompanying its Belarus stories with file pictures of Lukashenko and Milosevic shaking hands, to drive home the point. And, to top off the allegations, Ambassador Kozak calls Belarus more authoritarian than Cuba.
The British Helsinki Human Rights Group (BHHRG), which sent observers to Belarus, disputes the charge that the former Soviet republic is less open than the besieged Caribbean island. Belarus has multi-party elections, allows the opposition access to the media, and permits foreign human rights monitors into the country, all points the press has taken to obscuring in the wake of Lukashenko's victory. Cuba allows none of these things. And Cuba hasn't allowed an American General into the country since 1959, yet Belarus allowed NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Joseph Ralston to visit the country on July 23 to address a press conference critical of Lukashenko. And while Cuba regularly jams US-sponsored anti-Castro Radio Marti broadcasts, anti-Lukashenko Radio Free Europe broadcasts go unchallenged.
Moreover, says the human rights group, "even President Lukashenko's most vehement opponents refused to characterize him as a tyrant or dictator, and none of the President's critics alleged even a significant degree of repression in society in general." (6)
US-sponsored anti-Lukashenko Radio Free Europe broadcasts were stepped-up during the election period, backing up an already substantial collection of US-funded NGO's arrayed against the Belarusian president. A spokesperson at the US Embassy in Minsk told The (London) Times that the embassy helped to fund 300 NGOs, including media, many of which are opposed to Lukashenko. And a youth group, Zubr, bearing a uncanny resemblance to Otpor, the anti-Milosevic student group trained and funded by Washington, had put up stickers portraying Lukashenko as a criminal. Otpor sent its fraternal greetings to Zubr on the day of the election.
Anticipating a Lukashenko victory -- even CNN conceded on September 9th that Lukashenko is popular at home -- Washington hedged its bets. The State Department warned well in advance of the election that the vote would be flawed, a "heads-I-win-tails-you-lose" strategy, where Washington judges the fairness of the election on the basis of whether its candidate wins. Washington used the same approach in last year's presidential elections in Yugoslavia, warning that the election would be fraudulent when it was clear Milosevic would do well at the polls.
Ironically, Washington pre-condemns as unfair elections its favored candidates stand a good chance of losing, but is blissfully unconcerned with whether its massive funding of opposition groups and the antigovernment press severely limits the freedom and fairness of the elections it intervenes in. Tellingly, Americans are prepared to tolerate no foreign intervention in their own electoral affairs, or even to allow monitors to oversee their own elections, but expect to be able to buy politicians abroad and to pronounce on the fairness of other countries' elections..
Key to Washington's campaign against Lukashenko is portraying the Belarusian president as a repressive tyrant, an ominous sign that the White House is softening Western public opinion for more drastic measures now that its efforts to steal the election have failed. But the BHHRG says that "opposition criticism of Lukashenko's Belarus lays the emphasis on matters such as foreign investment and the need to move closer to the Western mainstream," (7) not human rights abuses or political repression. Political repression is a Washington invention, a convenient pretext Washington presses into service whenever its needs to bludgeon a recalcitrant country into accepting social and economic reforms that benefit US economic interests. Were Washington genuinely concerned about repression, it would be pressuring Tel Aviv and Ankara, for repression of Palestinians and Kurds, but Israel and Turkey, key to American domination of the Middle East and the oil-rich Caspian region, don't even merit slaps on the wrist.
Writing in the American Spectator, Daniel McAdams says that Washington's real beef with Lukashenko is that he hasn't moved fast enough on economic reforms, not his human rights abuses, which, even if they were real, are hardly different from those of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who Washington supported. (8) McAdams points out that the usual complaint about Lukashenko is that he abolished the parliament, cheats on elections, and is autocratic. But Boris Yeltsin ruled almost exclusively by decree, cheated on every election, and blew up a parliament he didn't like. Argues McAdams, the difference between Yeltsin, the admired reformer, and Lukashenko, smeared as an autocrat, is that Yeltsin was enthusiastic about embracing the free market, while Lukashenko's passions for free market reforms have proved less than overwhelming.
Belarus produces a number of consumer and industrial goods, including refrigerators, tractors, televisions, trucks, buses, petrochemicals, fertilizers, tires, not privately, but under state control. Washington, and the US-backed opposition, would rather state owned enterprises be privately owned, and Belarus throw open its doors to outside, and mainly US, investment.
But Lukashenko, and many Belarusians, fear that economic reforms will produce the disasters that have befallen former Communist countries that have embraced the free market, like Poland and Russia. Russia, once offering a comfortable and secure material existence to all its citizens, has seen the number of its citizens living on less than $4 a day grow from 4 million to 147 million since adopting free market reforms. Pro-reformers say Russia's economic woes are simply normal bumps on the road to a market economy, but Belarusians have good reasons not to want to go over the same terrain. Soviet Russia cranked out more engineers and scientists than any country in the world. Today, 10 million Russian children don't go to school. In 10 years the economy has shrunk by half. Real incomes have plunged 40 percent. A third of the country lives in extreme poverty, many on the verge of starvation. Eighty per cent of the people have no savings. Life expectancy for men has fallen to 19th century levels. The suicide rate has doubled; alcoholism has tripled. Old diseases, once thought eliminated cholera, typhus, diphtheria have come roaring back. The last ten years has seen, as Stephen Cohen of New York University puts it, the "endless collapse of everything essential to a decent existence." (9)
Lukashenko is said to believe that the economy should serve the people, not the other way around, an out-of-fashion idea, and not one Washington is prepared, or has ever been prepared, to tolerate. US governments have a long history of subverting elections when it looked like electorates might make irresponsible choices, as Henry Kissinger once said of Chile's fondness for electing Salvador Allende, a man whose commitment to the free-market was as lukewarm as Lukashenko's. In those days, you could point to Allende's alleged cozying up to Communism to justify the subversion of democracy. Today, with the Communist menace inconveniently departed, another, equally contrived menace, is pressed into service -- abuses of civil and political rights.
Apart from the infamous intervention of Washington into the electoral affairs of Chile, the US has intervened in numerous elections to assure that its operating principle prevails: we'll accept the outcome of democracy, just as long as it's agreeable to America's vital interests, vital interests being a vague, but high-sounding phrase, that reduces to: our right to economically dominate any part of the world we choose, which these days, on top of the Balkans, includes Belarus.
And so, with Lukashenko having survived Washington's attempt at subverting the Belarusian election, what next? A chilling answer suggest itself: If Washington can't turn Belarus's electorate against Lukashenko, it's prepared to turn Western public opinion against him, and when it's prepared to do that, Washington is preparing to show its darker side.
Like Allende, who also went head to head with Washington's proxies in the electoral arena and survived, Lukashenko is a marked man. Strongman, tyrant, autocrat, dictator -- the same calumnies dragged out to justify the arrest and imprisonment of Milosevic are now being hurled at Lukashenko, a man who may have survived Washington's attempts to have him dumped at the polls, but can he survive what almost inevitably follows? The message of numerous US interventions around the world is clear: refuse to kow-tow to American wishes and face one or more, even all, of the following: interference in elections, US funding and training of terrorist groups, NGO's, opposition parties, and antigovernment media, sanctions, economic blackmail, sabotage, propaganda broadcasts, coups, assassination, demonization, war crimes indictments, kidnapping, tribunals, military occupation, and bombing.
Against this backdrop it's difficult to resist the conclusion that those willing to maintain a fairly open society, multiparty elections, and tolerance of dissent, while pursuing an independent economic course, are touchingly naive. It betrays a blindness to the fact that Washington is on a permanent war footing against any country or anyone that won't accept integration into a US-dominated global market, and that while Washington might not always pursue its war through guns and high-altitude bombing, buying politicians, the media, and terrorist groups -- well practised American subversion activities -- is war by other means. The openness Milosevic was, and Lukashenko is, willing to allow, in a world dominated by a ruthless superpower whose commitment to democracy is richly rhetorical alone, guaranteed Milosevic's eventual downfall, and has sounded the death knell of Lukashenko's presidency, if not of Lukashenko himself. What's happening in Yugoslavia today, and will likely follow in Belarus, is the turning over of both countries' resources, assets, and people, to the service of US economic interests, the outcome of a multifariously pursued war by a richly equipped and ruthless opponent.
We shake our heads at Castro's olive green military fatigues, but perhaps Castro, more than Lukashenko and Milosevic, recognize US hostility for what it is -- war. Who can doubt that were Cuba thrown open to multiparty elections, to Radio Marti broadcasts, to US-sponsored elections and human rights monitors, to a "free press" (which, like other free presses would soon be bought and paid for by US interests intent on quickly putting an end to the Cuban experiment) that within the decade Cuba would return to its Batista era role as a playground for the US elite and wretched miasma of poverty, misery and exploitation for ordinary Cubans? Gone would be Cuban commitments to universal health care, education, and material security, and a long-standing model of what can be achieved in providing material security to ordinary people. Cuban authoritarianism is no model for how a society ought to be organized, not in a perfect world where democracy is allowed to flourish, but in a world as our own, where democracy is quickly snuffed out if it threatens to stand in the way of the US economically dominating the planet, is a perfectly rational response.
1. Samuel Huntingdon, "The Lonely Superpower," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999 (back)
2. Sean Gervasi, "Why is NATO in Yugoslavia?" A Paper Delivered to the Conference on the Enlargement of NATO in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. (back)
3. Ibid (back)
4. Doug Henwood, Wall Street: How it Works and for Whom, Verso, New York, 1998 (back)
5. Alice Lagnado, "US adopts 'Contra policy' in communist Belarus," The Times, September 3, 2001 (back)
6. British Helsinki Human Rights Group, Belarus pre-election report 2001. (back)
7. Ibid (back)
8. Daniel McAdams, "Want to Test the 'Bush Doctrine'? Try Belarus," The American Spectator, June, 2001 (back)
9. Nancy Holmstrom and Richard Smith, "The Necessity of Gangster Capitalism: Primitive Accumulation in Russia and China," Monthly Review, February 2000, Vol 51, No. 9 (back)
Stephen Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stephen Gowans 2001. All rights reserved.
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