Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A cold war by any other name...

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Revolutions, Rigged Elections

and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union

By Mark MacKinnon

Random House Canada, 313 pages, $35

Reviewed by Graeme Voyer

THE Cold War dominated the history of the latter half of the 20th century.

It was a global political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for spheres of influence. Conventional wisdom holds that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

However, Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Mark MacKinnon argues that a new cold war has emerged. Since Vladimir Putin became Russian president in 2000, Russia and the U.S. have competed fiercely for hegemony in Eastern Europe and in particular the newly independent states that comprised the former U.S.S.R.

The United States exerts its influence in the region by funding non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote Western-style democracy.

The American efforts are complemented by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who has spent enormous amounts of money to expedite democratic reform in Eastern Europe.

Opposing the U.S. and Soros is Putin's Russia, which seeks to maintain its sway over what it calls the "near abroad" -- the former Soviet republics.

MacKinnon chronicles this conflict. He shows how Western-backed movements in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine effected non-violent regime change.

This, however, is not a simple narrative of Western-oriented democrats triumphing over Russian-backed autocrats.

Virtue lacking

Indeed, neither the U.S. nor Russia seems particularly virtuous in MacKinnon's account. Putin is an authoritarian bully, while the U.S. is selective in its devotion to democracy: It is prepared to countenance undemocratic regimes that have oil.

MacKinnon wonders whether the revolutions in Ukraine and elsewhere were salubrious. Certainly, they resulted in a liberalization of the political climate where they occurred.

But they also inspired rulers in other former Soviet republics and Russia itself to become even more repressive, thereby forestalling the spread of the democratic movement.

As MacKinnon says, "What was good for the Serbs, Georgians and Ukrainians arguably came at a cost to Russians, Belarusians and Central Asians, whose leaders predictably cracked down when they saw the threat posed to their regimes by increased political openness."

Another question that MacKinnon probes is the extent to which the democratic movement actually reflected the aspirations of the local populations.

Here, he is somewhat ambivalent. While he argues that the regime change in Ukraine and Serbia was driven by widespread popular grievances, he also refers to "stage-managed revolutions" and suggests that American diplomatic support was integral to the success of the revolts.

MacKinnon has written a nuanced study that demonstrates the continuity of conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 20, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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