Will the US Get Their Money's Worth in Yugo Elections?
by George Szamuely
"These elections are a sort of referendum at which it will be decided whether we continue to live as a free state and a free country" - thus Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic the other day. He is right. The United States has poured millions of dollars into the country to try to get Milosevic out. It has bankrolled politicians, political parties, magazines, radio and TV stations, publishing houses, printing presses, student organizations, street demonstrators, think-tanks, trade unions, polling organizations, lawyers' lobbies, human rights groups, and, no doubt, chess clubs and stamp-collectors' associations too. In the last three years alone, over $75 million of US taxpayers' money has ended up in "opposition" bank accounts. And still, Milosevic could well pull off an election victory. The US Government is taking no chances on Sunday's elections. It has already declared Milosevic the victor - the consequence of ballot rigging, needless to say. According to James O'Brien, described in the press rather sinisterly as "special Balkans democracy adviser to the President and the Secretary of State," Milosevic will steal the election by "printing pre-marked ballots, manipulating voting districts, intimidating opponents and planning to claim votes from UN-controlled Kosovo."
O'Brien offered no evidence for his claims. It would be a little hard to do so, since the events he is talking about have yet to take place. His firm prediction is but preliminary to his real message, directed at the Serbs: vote the wrong way and you risk US military action. Milosevic "does not have a free hand" to rig the vote, O'Brien warned. The United States is willing "to stand up for the stability of the region." Since the US Government has already stated that a Milosevic victory is only possible in the event of vote rigging, his threat is as unambiguous as it is crude.
It is extraordinary that Americans seem so untroubled by their Government adopting an imperial style of rule that would have been crude even by Soviet or Nazi standards. In the United States, it is illegal for political parties to receive money from foreign sources, let alone foreign governments. A US organization funded by a foreign government has to register as a foreign agent. Yet the Clinton Administration thinks it perfectly reasonable to corrupt the entire political system of another country by flooding it with vast sums of foreign money. The "civil society" we are allegedly fostering is total fraud, with no genuine roots among the people and entirely dependent on US Government largesse.
On July 29, 1999 during Hearings before the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Gelbard, US Special Envoy to the Balkans, outlined the extraordinary scope of US interference in the life of Yugoslavia. There were, first, the opposition parties. They are "best served," he explained somewhat condescendingly, "if we provide them with technical assistance and first-class political advice, the kinds that may seem commonplace to us but represent a whole different way of thinking to them." Then there are the "youth and student organizations, as well as independent labor unions...undoubtedly...important sources of mobilization in the future." Gelbard then spoke of something US policymakers refer to as "independent media" - paid agents of the US Government touting the US Government line: "What we're trying to do...is support an alternative indigenous voice for the Serbian people through mechanisms such as ANEM, the Network of Independent Radio and Television." The use of the word "indigenous" is priceless. One wonders if he managed to keep a straight face as he said it.
Fashioning a Yugoslav "opposition" made to order for Washington has been a major preoccupation for some years. Paul B. McCarthy of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) testifying to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that "the West should help the democratic political opposition develop a concrete program which offers positive alternatives to the destructive policies of the Milosevic regime. Democratic think tanks, independent research organizations and expert groups should be supported to develop these alternative policy recommendations. Furthermore, dissemination of this new democratic thinking to the broad public must be encouraged by fostering close cooperation among the think tanks, opposition parties and the independent media." Note the way the NED does not for one moment doubt its right to reorganize Yugoslav civil and political life for the sake of US interests.
One of the organizations receiving money from the NED is the International Republican Institute (IRI). Starting in 1997, the IRI has been bankrolling political parties and student organizations in Yugoslavia. The IRI claims that it has "supported pro-reform political parties and student organizations through technical support programs that training and consultations to strengthen and enlarge the parties' grassroots organizations and help them devise communication and coalition building strategies that would solidify their combined support. Opinion polls taken during this period suggested that a substantial majority of the electorate did not support the coalition of Serbian governing parties controlled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Only 20 percent of Serbs supported the coalition's lead party, the Socialists." Note that the language the US Government to describe the "opposition" is almost always identical. Everyone is continually being enjoined to unite to oust Milosevic. Disagreements, however important - essential one would have thought to the very "pluralism" the United States likes to lecture others about - must be set aside for the sake of the of the common good, as determined by Washington. Moreover, the 20 percent figure is illuminating. The recent opinion polls being trumpeted to show how badly Milosevic is trailing all repeat the 20 percent figure. Not 15 percent, not 30 percent - always 20 percent. Apparently, no departures from the official script are to be permitted.
The IRI boasts also of having "worked with opposition leaders to devise ways of increasing their voter identification and ability to influence the national political agenda." In other words, US funds were going towards providing free propaganda for US-approved politicians. As for the much-vaunted Otpor, a favorite of the Western media circles, here is what the IRI says: "In the fall of 1999, the student resistance movement OTPOR began to organize protests against crackdowns on media and academic freedoms. OTPOR is currently preparing plans, with IRI's technical support, for a Get-Out-The-Vote campaign for elections in 2000."
Not surprisingly perhaps, Otpor sounds very much like an organization run from Washington. Yugoslavia must undertake "full cooperation with The Hague Tribunal For War Crimes." There is to be "full protection of private ownership rights, proceeded by compulsory and fair privatization, the establishment of a free market economy, and the opening of the economy to international financial organizations and international investment." This stuff is straight out of the IMF playbook. Needless to say, Otpor also urges the formation of "a unified block of all relevant democratic forces in Serbia with the principal objective of replacing Milosevic and his government" - all entirely in accordance with the official US Government line.
The NED funds the G-17 group of "independent economists" which, we are happily informed, is "conducting a research program to identify barriers to private sector development at the local and federal levels." The G-17 ideas about the future of Yugoslavia are apparent in the "Proposal to the Stability Pact for South East Europe to Organize a Regional Funding Conference for the Reconstruction of Post-Milosevic Serbia," put forward by Serbia's Democratic Opposition with, we are told, "assistance from G17 PLUS." The program pledges that "privatization is ...our great concern and a commitment to swift and efficient privatization is crucial for economic reconstruction." However, it goes on, the "first political priority for the new reformist government will be to address the issue of the fiscal deficit. That will require the change of both the current tax and public expenditure policies. Fiscal reform is a prerequisite for monetary stability and the renewal of Serbian international credibility. Radical fiscal reform will demand hard political decisions for the reduction of expenditures, changing the priority in public spending and measures to increase the effectiveness of tax collection.... We, the democratic opposition of Serbia, are willing to explain the significance of these reforms to our political public. We are also ready to undertake this political risk as we deeply believe that fiscal changes within a general reform of the state and its apparatus are critical to the country's future and its speedy development." Note that a statement such as this does not even pretend to address the people of Yugoslavia. It offers nothing to ordinary voters. Why on earth would anyone vote for a political group that promises to cut public expenditure, close down so-called "inefficient" industries, and open up the country to predatory foreign investors hunting for bargains? The pledge of the so-called "Democratic Opposition" is directed entirely towards the Governments of the United States, the European Union, foreign investors and bankers, the IMF and the World Bank - evidently the only constituency worth considering. Hilariously, the NED also boasts of funding trade unions in Yugoslavia such as UGS Nezavisnost described as "a multiethnic trade union confederation which opposes the Milosevic regime." One wonders if this "trade union" is also obligated to support the goals of "market democracy," "privatization" and "debt reduction." The mind boggles at how much grassroots support it must enjoy.
The NED is an ardent promoter of "independent media" in Yugoslavia, which are to "break the stranglehold of government-dominated media in Serbia by strengthening influential sources of objective information." "Independent" and "objective," of course, are used to describe voices that parrot US Government policy. NED has given money to newspapers Nasa Borba, Vreme, and Danas, the news agency BETA, as well as Radio B-92 and TV Negotin.
"Independent media" are a favorite of USAID as well. One recipient of USAID funds is Internews. This is a film production company whose self-proclaimed goal in Yugoslavia "is to overcome the political propaganda and hate speech that have been promulgated for years on government television." To that end it "supports the efforts of independent stations in Serbia to create a viable alternative television network to balance the power of the government-influenced media." Just to show that it has the US Government script down pat, it talks of supporting "the emerging new democratic broadcasting and producing companies in the reformed Republic of Montenegro." It talks of "stirring debate on sensitive issues such as ethnic tolerance, economic reform, and government corruption." It produces a weekly program called "Kosovo: A View from Inside," with the aim of allowing Albanians to "show their real-life dilemmas in an intimate and direct way and to get those messages to viewers in Serbia/Montenegro via local television stations." The goal is "confidence-building, reconciliation and conflict prevention." Note the tendentious spelling of Kosovo. The show may not appeal much to Serbs, but it pleases the producers' US patrons, which is all that really matters.
Another major recipient of US taxpayer dollars is Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. Larry Gelbard told the Senators that he used to meet Djukanovic regularly, even before he was elected President of Montenegro. Evidently, US bribery long predated his electoral victory - itself almost certainly the product of US chicanery. In January USAID announced the award of a $7 million grant to Montenegro. This money was to serve as budget support by paying off the pension obligations of the Government of Montenegro. "This action," USAID announced, is the last "grant for Montenegro from Fiscal Year 1999 funds, completing a program that totaled $44 million." The United States, of course, is great champion of free markets, free trade and balanced budgets. While the US Government insists that any indebted country must undertake painful austerity measures to balance its books, it happily whips out its checkbook several times a year to and wipes clean Montenegro's financial obligations. It certainly pays to be a "strategic partner" - albeit of an extremely minuscule kind - of the United States.
Sunday's election is between a genuine leader of Yugoslavia and an "opposition" movement, which is entirely a dependency of the United States. The choice is not exactly a difficult one.