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Barker, Michael  (2006) Promoting polyarchy in Serbia: Taking the risk out of civil society - part 2 of 4. Zmag : -.

For the most part scholars and activists alike have tended to uncritically accept overt foreign interventions that profess to be promoting democracy at face value: as noble and humanitarian activities. However, contrary to this rosy view of the promotion of democracy, numerous authors have argued that what is really being promoted is “procedural” or “low-intensity democracy”, which serves to actually “suppress aspirations for substantive democratisation” by “focus[ing] on aspects of democracy which are congruent with capitalism (i.e. individual and contract rights) to the detriment of its participatory and social aspects.” (1) Thus although it is correct to say that the US is “promoting democracy” of sorts, it would be more accurate to refer to these efforts as “promoting polyarchy.” The central role of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in promoting these activities was discussed in Part 1 of this article. (For further details see

“The promotion of “low-intensity democracy” is aimed not only at mitigating the social and political tensions produced by elite-based and undemocratic status quos, but also at suppressing popular and mass aspirations for more thoroughgoing democratisation of social life in the twenty-first century international order. Polyarchy is a structural feature of the emergent global society.” (William I. Robinson, 1996, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 6)

Robinson illustrated how US “democracy promoters” acting as “skilful political surgeons” have been able to successfully establish polyarchic systems all over the world (his landmark study Promoting Polyarchy furnishes in-depth analysis of examples in Chile, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Haiti). More recently “democracy promoters” have been implicated in a series of “color revolutions”, which have swept across Eastern Europe, these being the “Rose revolution” in Georgia (2003), the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine (January 2005) and the “Tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan (April 2005). Chaulia points out that these “revolutions” might be more accurately described as “cases of ‘regime change’, not ‘regime type change’” and that even then, the change was so minimal “that it is a travesty to call them ‘revolutions.’” (2) All of these “revolutions” also followed similar trajectories to the Serbian revolution in 2000, which has been referred to as the template for the post modern coup d'état. (3) However, the template for these “democratic” interventions is rooted in history and has been evolving for years. This article will now examine the “Serbian Revolution” to illustrate the substantial role the US has played in promoting polyarchy their. (Part 3 will later critique the role of “democracy promoters” in each of the other regulated revolutions in Eastern European).

The Serbian revolution
In 2000, the people of Serbia were able to successfully unite against their repressive government, presided over by Slobodan Milosevic and enforce the election of an alternative government led by Vojislav Kostunica. This “people’s revolution”, led by the student activist group Otpor, is often held up by the Western media and activists alike as an example of the power of non-violent protest over dictators. However, the real story is far more complicated and although there seems little reason to doubt that Otpor was an endogenous social movement (originally formed in 1998), their success may not have been entirely of their own doing. This is because they had a little help from their friend – the US government, who was intent on removing Milosevic from power – and this initially came in the form of NED aid.

In fact between 1997 and 2000 the NED and US government may have accomplished what NATO’s 37,000 bombing sorties had been unable to d oust Milosevic, replace him with their favoured candidate Vojislav Kostunica and promote a neoliberal vision for Serbia; in sum to promote polyarchy. (4) In 2000, the US government provided approximately US$40 million to “promote democracy” in Serbia and “US-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive.” (5) US$40 million is a significant amount of money, especially if you consider that the Serbian population is less than fifty million, which means it is equivalent to giving more than US$200 million in foreign aid to US social movements to “promote democracy” domestically. Such an amount of aid would no doubt have also enabled opposition groups in the United States to successfully challenge the results of an election (for example, the “stolen 2000 election”). This assumes equivalent buying power in both countries (clearly not the case) and if accounted for, equates to an injection of the equivalent of billions of dollars into the US. Of course much of the Serbian funds were spent on expensive foreign consultants, but judging from past examples of similar interventions, considerable amounts would have been spent in the country as well. For example, Dobbs notes that the US funds paid election monitors at every polling station “about [US]$5 [each] in Western-provided money, a significant sum in a country where the average monthly wage is less than [US]$30.” (6) Some argue, that the work of the NED has taught the US an important lesson, that it is cheaper to create regime change through the ballot box than through military intervention. However, this view decontextualises the cumulative effects of the events preceding the election, and belittles the devastating effects of the long economic and military war of attrition waged against Serbia, which paved the way for a successful electoral intervention. (7)

Ivan Marovic, a founding member of Otpor, acknowledges the receipt of US funds: “So we did get money, but we never got orders from anyone. That’s why we succeeded.” (8) However, for any social movement to be a successful accomplice in any efforts to promote polyarchy, it is vital that they act autonomously. In much the same way as corporate front groups and astroturf groups recruit genuinely committed supporters, strategically useful social movements can potentially dominate civil society when provided with the right resources (massive financial and professional backing), even if prior to receiving aid they were not the most popular group. In this way, powerful external actors can “fake civil society” by providing support in multiple ways to groups and individuals, whose interests are already aligned with theirs. That said, professional organisers are also sometimes airlifted into countries to create new (politically expedient) social movements to satisfy “democracy promoters” particular political requirements. For example, in the Philippines “Washington… funded and promoted the creation of a new women’s organisation, the KABATID [when many were already in existence]. Funds went to pay for a headquarters in Manila, regional offices and equipment, the publication of a monthly magazine (KABATID Express), and salaries for paid staff, among other items.” US organisers also established “youth clubs” to mobilise Filipino youths in opposition to the Marcos dictatorship and allow them to guide their political development. (9)

Mass protests, mobilising hundreds of thousands of people, were nothing new in Serbia and neither was professional polling, but the crucial difference was the massive US support for select groups, which amplified their voices of protestation both domestically and internationally. Indeed, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, a polling agency who worked for the opposition in 1999, had also worked in a similar campaign to oust Milosevic in 1992. However, the earlier campaign had no support from the US foreign policymaking community, so their identification of a fraudulent election was ignored by US media and political elites. The success of the NED’s “electoral intervention project” in Serbia was no fluke, but built upon all their experience developed over the previous two decades:

“To undertake this new form of electoral intervention, the United States has created an elaborate machinery for ‘electoral assistance’: ‘get out the vote’ drives, ballot box watching, poll taking, parallel vote counts, civic training, and so on. In this new elections industry, the United States dispatches specialised teams to carry out everything from “party-building seminars” to ‘civic training’ and ‘international monitoring,’ and employs the tools of mass psychological manipulation and the new means of communications developed over the past fifty years. In these undertakings, the US teams attempt to shape and manage (and, under certain circumstances, to hijack) indigenous political processes and to latch them on to transnational political processes.” (William I. Robinson, 1996, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 111)

Furthermore, as Robinson also illustrated in his analysis of the US “electoral intervention project” in Nicaragua, success can “be understood only when seen in its entirety – as a skilful combin[ation] of military aggression, economic blackmail, CIA propaganda, NED political interference, coercive diplomacy, and international pressures into a coherent and unitary strategy.” (10) As in prior NED electoral interventions, opposition parties were led to see the importance of being united and professional polling techniques enabled the candidates to stay one step ahead of their competition. It is possible that the time would have been ripe for a revolution anyway and the people of Serbia would have been able to successfully overthrown Milosevic’s rule without external assistance. But by just focusing on the election issue, the long term polyarchic ambitions of the democracy architects can be easily overlooked. Equally, if not more important is that the “US intervention was decisive in shaping the contours of the [opposition] …movement and in establishing the terms and conditions under which… social and political struggles would unfold” after the intervention. (11)

Since the revolution, Otpor has broken down into one political group and two NGOs. The two NGOs have been widely credited with spreading Otpor’s tactics globally, especially in countries where Western governments are busy promoting polyarchy. One is the Centre for Non-violent Resistance, which offers training courses all over the world on how to create and run resistance movements. The second is the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), which among other things provided assistance to the Kmara movement in Georgia, and is involved with comparable movements in Belarus and Zimbabwe. (12)

(1)  Barry K. Gills, ‘American Power, Neo-Liberal Economic Globalization, and Low-Intensity Democracy: An Unstable Trinity’, in Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry & Takashi Inoguchi (eds), American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 326-44; Thomas Oleson, ‘World Politics and Social Movements: The Janus Face of the Global Democratic Structure’, Global Society, Vol. 19, No. 2 (2005), p. 116; William I. Robinson, A Faustian Bargain: U.S. Intervention in the Nicaraguan Elections and American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era’ (Westview Press, 1992); William I. Robinson, ‘Globalization, the World System, and “Democracy Promotion” in US Foreign Policy’ Theory and Society, Vol. 25 (1996), pp. 615-65; William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Steven Smith, ‘US Democracy Promotion: Critical Questions’, in Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry & Takashi Inoguchi (eds), American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 63-82.

(2)  Sreeram Chaulia, ‘Democratisation, Colour Revolutions and the Role of the NGOs: Catalysts or Saboteurs?’, Center for Research on Globalization, 25 December2005,

(3)  Jonathan Mowat, ‘Coup d'État in Disguise: Washington's New World Order "Democratization" Template’, Center for Research on Globalization, 9 February 2005,

(4)  Serbia’s president recently suggested that under Prime Minister Kostunica leadership, Serbia is returning to the ‘political violence’ and ‘persecution of opponents’ reminiscent of Milosevic's autocratic rule. See Annon, ‘Tadic alleges revival of political violence’, The Guardian UK (Guardian International Pages), 6 October 2005, p. 16.

(5)  Michael Dobbs, ‘US advice guided Milosevic opposition: political consultants helped Yugoslav opposition topple authoritarian leader’, The Washington Post, 11 December 2000,¬Found=true

(6)  Dobbs, ‘US advice guided Milosevic opposition’.

(7)  Diane Johnstone, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions (Pluto Press, 2002).

(8)  Andrew Mueller, ‘Guerrillas without guns’, The Hamilton Spectator, 13 August 2005.

(9)  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 131 & 126.

(10)  Robinson, A Faustian Bargain, p. 146; some of these economic pressures were outlined by Nicholas Thompson, ‘This ain't your momma's CIA’, Washington Monthly, 1 March 2001,

(11)  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p. 129.

(12)  KS, ‘Serbian

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at

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