Washington’s Foreign ‘Democratic’ Clients Become an Embarrassment Again

One of the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s favorite propaganda themes is that the United States promotes liberalism and democracy around the world. However, several of the supposedly democratic foreign factions that Washington has backed proceeded to establish corrupt, quasi-authoritarian regimes when they gained power. Two cases highlight that depressing reality. One was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the government that insurgency spawned after the United States and its NATO allies launched an air war against Serbia to wrench its restless province from Belgrade’s control. The other is the "reformist" Ukrainian government that Washington helped bring to power in the so-called Maidan revolution in 2014.

Prominent American political and media figures portrayed the KLA as brave freedom fighters trying to end Serbia’s repressive rule. In April 1999, Senator Joseph Lieberman, who would become the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee the next year, even stated: “The United States of America and the Kosovo Liberation Army stand for the same human values and principles …. Fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values.”

Matters did not turn out that way once the NATO-assisted KLA government took power. In the following months, evidence emerged of systematic ethnic cleansing by the new authorities and KLA forces waged campaigns of terror and intimidation against non-Albanian inhabitants.

Some 240,000 people fled or were driven from Kosovo. And the victims were not just Serbs, but members of other minority ethnic groups as well. The Roma had an especially tough time, as Kosovar military units and auxiliary mobs launched a series of attacks. Although most Roma had tried to remain neutral in the war between Belgrade and the KLA, most Kosovars viewed them as Serb allies. As documented in a 2017 Al Jazeera article, such attacks "varied from harassment and theft to arson, rape and murder."

US officials exhibited pervasive indifference about such human rights abuses. They displayed a similar attitude regarding to the systematic desecration of Christian monasteries and other religious sites—some of which were hundreds of years old and had historical as well as religious significance. More than 100 Serbian orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed in just the first five years after the KLA’s rule began.

Advocates of Washington’s war on behalf of the KLA had reason to become ever more embarrassed as the years passed. An especially damaging blow to the U.S.-cultivated myth that KLA fighters were noble democrats came in December 2010 with the release of an investigative report for the Council of Europe confirming long-standing rumors that the KLA was involved in the trafficking of human organs, including killing Serb prisoners of war to harvest their kidneys and other organs. Washington did its best to help the KLA avoid accountability, but in June 2020, the scandal erupted again with full force. The prosecutor for the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a war crimes court based in The Hague, indicted Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, and nine other former KLA military leaders on a range of crimes against humanity and war crimes charges. The prosecutor stated that the accused individuals were "criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders" involving hundreds of Serb and Roma victims, as well as Kosovo Albanian political opponents.

Ukraine’s supposedly democratic government has become nearly as great an embarrassment to Washington. In late 2013 and early 2014, Barack Obama’s administration strongly backed demonstrators who unseated the duly elected (but pro-Russia) president Viktor Yanukovych. Even if the so-called Maidan revolution was not a CIA-orchestrated coup, as Moscow charged, Washington’s meddling in Ukraine’s internal political affairs was substantial and obvious. US officials openly celebrated that a pro-Western government had supplanted Yanukovych.

But Ukraine’s professed democrats have fallen substantially short of that political ideal. The first elected government in the post-Yanukovych era, headed by economic oligarch Petro Poroshenko, adopted a number of ugly autocratic policies. To wage the war against eastern separatists, Kiev instituted military conscription and proceeded to arrest critics of that action. Authorities jailed television journalist and blogger Ruslan Kotsaba on February 7, 2015, and charged him the following month with treason for making a video denouncing the conscription law. Kotsaba become Amnesty International’s first "prisoner of conscience" in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution. In a trial largely devoid of due process, a Ukrainian court convicted him of the lesser charge of obstructing the armed forces and sentenced him to 3 ½ years in prison. An appeals court finally overturned his conviction in July 2016, but only after sustained pressure from international human rights organizations.

There were other examples of the government harassing the media and seeking to curb dissenting views. In July 2015, Ukraine’s State Commission for Television and Radio Broadcasting proposed new measures to ban books, magazines, and movies that were guilty of "promoting war, racial, and religious strife," and "threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine." Prohibited conduct also included "humiliating and insulting a nation and its people [i.e., Ukraine]."

Censorship powers always are suspect in any political system that purports to be democratic, but the vagueness of those provisions (and the absence of any meaningful independent review or right of appeal) was especially alarming. Indeed, it soon appeared that anyone who disputed the government’s version of developments surrounding the Maidan revolution or the subsequent separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine was likely to be silenced. Ukrainian authorities even banned the movies of French actor Gerard Depardieu, who was a critic of Kiev’s policies.

The Poroshenko government’s response became even more restrictive. Ukrainian authorities issued an order banning 41 journalists and seven bloggers from even entering the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the newly publicized list was merely part of a larger blacklist that contained the names of 388 individuals and more than a hundred organizations who were barred from entry on the grounds of "national security" and allegedly posing a threat to Ukraine’s "territorial integrity." The government retreated slightly when foreign journalists reacted with fury because the list of banned individuals included one German and two Spanish writers, as well as three BBC reporters. Those names were then removed. The other people on the blacklist remained, however, and Human Rights Watch criticized the Kiev government in September 2017 for imposing yet more restrictions on journalists.

In addition to such autocratic policies, the Poroshenko government continued a de facto alliance with ultranationalist and even neo-Nazi factions that were involved in the Maidan uprising. An especially odious group was the openly pro-Nazi Azov Battalion, armed fighters who helped the government maintain internal order as well as fight eastern Ukrainian separatists. Such authoritarian elements repeatedly attacked not only recalcitrant Yanukovych supporters, but Jews, gays, and other targets.

Matters have not improved all that much under the government of Volodymyr Zelensky, who defeated Poroshenko in April 2019 elections. Public resentment at Poroshenko’s increasingly autocratic and corrupt behavior had become so pronounced that Zelensky, a professional comedian and political amateur, won in a landslide. But both the corruption and repressive behavior have continued under Zelensky. An especially graphic example took place in early February 2021, when the Ukrainian government closed several pro-Russia, independent media outlets, and did so on the basis of utterly vague, open-ended standards.

Despite such embarrassing revelations, there is no indication that U.S. leaders intend to back away from supporting their so-called democratic clients in either country. As long as a regime is willing to support US foreign policy objectives, Washington seems willing to continue singing that regime’s praises, even as evidence mounts about abusive, authoritarian conduct. Apparently, the pro-democracy mythology must be continued at all costs.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).