Global Policy Forum

Dollars for Democracy?: US Aid to Ukraine Challenged


By Joel Brinkley

New York Times
December 21, 2004

Russian leaders, many Ukrainians and even some members of Congress are asking whether the $58 million the United States spent to promote democracy in Ukraine over the past two years was actually intended to oust the government there. The Bush administration insists that its effort to influence the conduct of the Ukrainian election is nonpartisan. Government officials say the political training programs Washington has sponsored in Ukraine are no different from those in a dozen other countries in recent years.

But teaching the principles of democracy to citizens in a semi-authoritarian system may, on its face, work to empower the government's opponents. Government officials and contractors working in Ukraine say the projects Washington subsidizes - energizing disenfranchised voters, training student activists, setting up communication networks among nongovernmental organizations - tend to educate and empower the opposition and work to the disadvantage of pro-government parties. "It has become particularly tricky to walk a very thin line," acknowledged Leslie J. McCuaig, Ukraine project director for the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a Vermont-based organization with branches in Russia and Ukraine.

The institute has an $11 million federal contract to help bring about a "fundamental cultural shift" in Ukraine, as the organization puts it, "from a passive citizenry under an authoritarian regime to a thriving democracy with active citizen participation." Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia charged that United States government contractors were meddling in Ukraine and had been involved in "gross violations" of Ukrainian law by working for the opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko - even though Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, campaigned openly for the government-backed candidate, Prime Minister Viktor F. Yanukovich. At the same time, two members of Congress, a Democrat and a Republican, are calling for a federal investigation of government spending in Ukraine, saying the money was spent for partisan purposes.

Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, complained in a statement to the House International Relations Committee this month that the administration had "sent U.S. taxpayer dollars into Ukraine to influence the outcome." "Much of that money was targeted to assist one particular candidate," Mr. Paul said, "and through a series of cutout, nongovernment organizations - both American and Ukrainian - millions of dollars ended up in support of" Mr. Yushchenko. Mr. Paul called for an investigation, as did Rep. Edolphus Towns, Democrat of New York, who said he believed that government contractors had helped instigate the popular uprising that began on election day.

And Kent R. Hill, an assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, the office that administers the political aid to Ukraine, said he believed that the emotionally charged period after the runoff election for president last month had a peculiar dynamic that made it appear that the United States had taken sides. "Our guidelines make it perfectly clear that we are not allowed to favor particular candidates," Mr. Hill said in an interview.

"But during the election crisis our support for free and fair elections was twisted" by others, he said, who implied that "we must be partisan, for Mr. Yushchenko," because he, too, was calling for free and fair elections. Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukranian-American program officer for Freedom House, a government contractor that has been the specific object of Russian ire, says the problem runs deeper. He said most of the people drawn to the organization's programs in Ukraine "have liberal values, because they are fed up with corruption, fed up with intimidation and want to defeat them."

The federal government spent $97 million on aid to Ukraine in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 31 for a broad range of social and political projects. About $28 million of that was spent on what the agency calls democracy projects. Some of that money was devoted to political-party development and was offered by the International Republican Institute and its Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, to any political party that showed an interest. Both government-financed institutes promote democracy worldwide.

Kenneth Wollack, president of the Democratic Institute, said Ukrainian pro-government parties had availed themselves of the training, but "not so much." They are "more insular," he said. Opposition parties, he said, "are more likely to seek assistance from international organizations." Mr. Hill, the federal agency official, acknowledged that pro-government party officials who do show up at American-financed political seminars often come "as much for intelligence-gathering purposes, to see what the West is doing." A significant portion of the democracy money is being spent to train nongovernmental organizations "to use election cycles to advocate their agendas," as a federal government document says.

Contractors say few if any government officials or pro-government party officials show up for such training sessions. In fact, the contractors acknowledged, nearly all of the seminars and programs are intended to train people outside the government to be more effective at dealing with a balky, sometimes autocratic government. "Are we overtly partisan?" Mr. Karatnycky asked. "I would say no." Aleksander Maric, who was a leader of a Serbian youth group that was involved in the popular uprising that helped drive Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader, from power in 2000, worked with Ukrainians as part of a Freedom House program.

Mr. Maric was quoted as saying in a Radio Free Europe report on Monday: "We trained them to set up an organization, how to open local chapters, how to create a 'brand,' how to create a logo, symbols and key messages. We trained them how to identify the key weaknesses in society and what people's most pressing problems were." Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, responding to Mr. Lavrov's accusations against Freedom House and other contractors earlier this month, said the administration was "pleased" to pay for their work, "for the purpose of making sure that all sides have an opportunity to express their view."

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