Montreal Gazette
Saturday, June 23, 2007

The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union

Mark MacKinnon

Random House Canada, 313 pages, $34.95

If you’ve never read a book about the politics in the former Soviet Union, make an exception for this one. And if you’re interested in post-Soviet politics, then Mark MacKinnon’s The New Cold War is a must.

It’s a real-life political drama, a non-fiction page-turner that will keep you up at night and provoke some very big questions about Western policy vis-a-vis Russia and its former satellites.

The New Cold War features a vast array of characters, from young and idealistic student leaders in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus, to Kremlin’s shadowy advisers – the so-called “political technologists,” spin doctors par excellence like Gleb Pavlovsky and Sergei Markov. Then there is democracy’s own “grey cardinal,” billionaire financier George Soros.

It’s a story of an epic struggle for Eurasia between the Kremlin – newly flush with oil and natural gas cash – and the White House, bent on getting control of vast energy resources in the former U.S.S.R.’s soft underbelly. And the weapons of choice in this New Cold War are Western-inspired democratic revolutions.

Despite some minor mistakes and omissions – for example, he mistakenly refers to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as babka, which means an old woman, but Lukashenko’s real nickname is Batka, which means father – MacKinnon manages to present a rather complete and understandable picture of mind-numbingly complex post-Soviet politics.

MacKinnon, who was the Globe and Mail’s Moscow bureau chief between 2002 and 2005, shows how time and again revolutions against Eastern European autocrats like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic were not just the result of spontaneous popular uprisings, but in fact were planned and financed either directly by American diplomats or through a collection of NGOs acting as fronts for the United States government.

MacKinnon explains how the technique of non-violent revolutions taught to Serbian student leaders by retired U.S. Army colonel Robert Helvey at a secret training session in Budapest was then passed on to revolutionaries in Georgia and Ukraine.

It’s a five-point template that has been successfully reproduced in every “coloured revolution”:

– Get the opposition to unite around one leader.

– Promote “independent” (pro-opposition) media.

– Pour money into NGOs.

– Pay for election observers who will then show elections were a fraud.

– Have a dedicated militant group ready to play a front-line role.

Although MacKinnon argues several times that these revolutions wouldn’t be possible if the population didn’t support a “regime change,” he also demonstrates that the “democratic” opposition got its marching orders and cash from American and European officials, whose intentions often had to do more with securing access to energy resources and pipeline routes than genuine interest in democracy.

In fact, MacKinnon laments White House double standards when it comes to dealing with energy-rich autocrats like Ilham Aliev of Azerbaijan or Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan.

MacKinnon’s portrayal of the Revolution of Roses in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the failed attempts to oust Belarusian autocrat Lukashenko are both beautifully written and compelling.

But it is MacKinnon’s expose of the inner workings of these revolutions – he had incredible access to political “kitchens” where all the political deals were cooked and backroom agreements struck – that makes The New Cold War a truly fascinating book. MacKinnon, who is a two-time National Newspaper Award winner, combines brilliant spot news reporting with in-depth political and investigative reportage.

MacKinnon was one of the few Western reporters who didn’t allow himself to be intoxicated by the inebriating atmosphere of these revolutions, which he nevertheless portrays so vividly, and followed the money trail.

The resulting picture is much more complex than the prevailing black and white portrayal of the revolution as a David and Goliath struggle between “good democrats” and “bad Kremlin.”

MacKinnon also doesn’t shy away from posing some hard questions about the wisdom of aggressively pushing for “democratic” revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia at the expense of alienating Russia and undercutting the positions of already embattled Russian liberals.

It’s no wonder that one of the first measures Vladimir Putin enacted after the Orange Revolution was a radical overhaul of Russian legislation governing the activities of foreign NGOs.

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.