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Revolutions, Rigged Elections

and Pipeline Politics

in the Former Soviet Union

By Mark MacKinnon

Random House Canada,

313 pages, $34.95

The death of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin on April 23 firmly closed an all-too-brief chapter in contemporary Russian history, one in which Russia and the West saw themselves as partners rather than adversaries. Today, the two sides' diametrically opposing views on Yeltsin's rule in the 1990s reflect a far more hostile climate. Westerners laud Yeltsin for helping to end the Cold War peacefully and for introducing free markets and democracy to Russia. Most Russians, in contrast, regard Yeltsin as a bumbling drunk who allowed the West to take advantage of Russia by expanding NATO and forcing Russia to adopt damaging liberal economic policies.

Current Russian President Vladimir Putin's increasing assertiveness on the world stage and re-centralization of political and economic power reflect this popular backlash against all that Yeltsin and his era stood for. Mark MacKinnon's timely book, The New Cold War, chronicles the resulting clash between Russia and the West under the Putin regime, focusing on the "coloured revolutions" in the post-Communist region.

Although pundits have described everything from the war on terror to climate change to relations between India and Pakistan as "the new cold war," MacKinnon -- The Globe and Mail's former Moscow correspondent, now posted to Jerusalem -- joins the growing ranks of those who use the phrase with a clear eye toward its original meaning.

In MacKinnon's view, the post-communist world has become the latest battleground in a struggle for international influence between the West (led by the United States) and Russia, who vie for supremacy in East Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The two sides' desire for control over energy resources and pipeline transit routes has fuelled this conflict.

In particular, MacKinnon argues that regime changes in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 represented triumphs of Western efforts to promote friendly governments over Russian efforts to keep them in their own political and economic sphere of influence. In these countries, political opposition groups used methods such as exit polling, parallel vote counts and massive mobilizations and protests to challenge blatant attempts by unpopular incumbent leaderships to rig election outcomes in their own favour. In each case, the protesters first forced the regimes to recognize the fraud, and then the countries' leaders lost power.

Throughout the narrative, MacKinnon stresses the central role that the West played in these "coloured revolutions." He draws on a wide range of interviews and personal observations to trace the involvement of Western organizations in building and promoting the opposition movements that successfully challenged the regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. He also devotes a few enlightening chapters to Russian efforts to counter their influence and promote Putin's vision of "managed democracies," friendly to Russia, instead.

MacKinnon focuses his analysis most closely on two organizations heavily involved in supporting democracy-promotion activities in the region: the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and George Soros's Open Society Institute (OSI). The NED, a relatively small, U.S.-government-funded agency, provides grants to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. Through its grants, NED supports activities such as election monitoring, alternative media and training local political and NGO leaders.

Soros, the Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire, created his Open Society Institute to encourage similar activities aimed at developing democratic civil societies in the post-communist world. Although Soros is a private citizen and a bitter critic of the Bush administration, MacKinnon emphasizes that OSI and the U.S. government often had similar goals and worked toward similar political ends in the region.

MacKinnon not only usefully documents the extensive Western democracy-promotion projects, but takes the further analytical step of giving them credit for the coloured revolutions. In his view, Western governments, most especially the Bush administration, orchestrated these events. As he puts it, student opposition leaders in these countries "understand ... that they were part of a machine that topples governments that run afoul of Washington."

In this judgment, MacKinnon is at odds with most academic research on the coloured revolutions, which finds that foreign actors played at best a supporting role. When the conditions are right, outside assistance can help at the margins to demonstrate that election results were falsified, to encourage opposition forces to coalesce around a single candidate, or to support media and civil society efforts to get the word out more widely.

But scholars stress that without fraudulent elections, a genuinely unpopular leader, a semi-authoritarian (rather than fully repressive) government and a legitimate, home-grown political opposition, no amount of external involvement can spark such mass mobilizations.

A case in point is Belarus, where foreign support for democratic opposition movements has failed to threaten Aleksandr Lukashenko's hold on power. As MacKinnon points out, Lukashenko's real popularity and willingness to repress opposition figures brutally meant that even initiatives funded by the U.S. government's $23-million Belarus Democracy Act, of 2004, could not affect the regime's stability.

MacKinnon also stretches too far at times to demonstrate that the United States plays a central, implicitly sinister, role in every nook and cranny of the region. For instance, he argues that the U.S. government initiated the Georgian Rose Revolution and the Kyrgyz Tulip Revolution simply because these countries' leaders defied U.S. strategic interests, even though Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze had been a long-time U.S. ally and the Kyrgyz opposition was more pro-Russian than ousted president Askar Akaev.

Similarly, he simultaneously blames democracy-promotion efforts for spurring increased repression by fearful leaders in Russia, Belarus and Central Asia, and chastises the United States for not promoting democracy more actively in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

Perhaps most strangely, he ends the book with a quote from a Serbian activist in Otpor, the student movement that led the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic: "But maybe the CIA did use us. Maybe it did." This is a curious quote on which to conclude, since nowhere else in the book does MacKinnon claim CIA involvement in the coloured revolutions.

Overall, however, The New Cold War wonderfully documents the conflicting interests and policies of Russia and the West in an engaging, easy-to-read style, joining a growing legion of fine books on contemporary Russian-Western relations and the struggle for influence in the post-communist world.

Juliet Johnson teaches political science at McGill University. She is the author of A Fistful of Rubles: The Rise and Fall of the Russian Banking System, and is finishing Priests of Prosperity: The Transnational Central Banking Community and Post-Communist Transformation.

Related Reading:



By Andrew Wilson, Yale University Press (2006).


Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World, by Andrew Wilson, Yale University Press (2005).


The Consequences of the War

on Terror, by George Soros, Public Affairs (2006).


The Secret Plot to Bring Back

KGB Terror, by Alexander Litvinenko and Yuri Felshtinsky, Encounter Books (2007).



The Gouzenko Affair and the Hunt for Soviet Spies, by Amy Knight, McClelland & Stewart (2005).

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