I was surprised today to have several people send me a link to an article in the Belarusian state-controlled media claiming that I am bankrolling the Belarusian opposition to the tune of $211,000 (!).
Wow! I wish!
This online newspaper is still very aptly titled Sovetskaya Belarus. I'll say!
Unfortunately for the opposition, I haven't given any such grant or indeed any grant at all to Charter 97, as the article claims, or any other groups or persons. I simply don't have anything remotely like that kind of money, nor am I in any position to give out grants (too bad!).
The article also says that I'm from "American Helsinki Watch" -- which is the name of the organization I worked at from 1980-1990 -- now known as Human Rights Watch, an organization that isn't a grant-giving body, either, and isn't involved within Belarus.
It's truly bizarre, such a precise number like that -- $211,000 -- that I wonder where they could have gotten it.
I sure didn't give any grant like that, and frankly, I doubt that anyone did -- Charter 97 and other groups in Belarus, and the presidential campaigns, had only very modest support. Indeed, if they had the 3.9 billion euro promised by the Polish and German foreign ministers to Lukashenka if he held fair elections -- and had it well before these so-called "fair elections" -- we might not be having this conversation right now, while our friends like Andrei Sannikov are sitting in the KGB prison.
About 13 years ago, when Charter 97 first was formed, I was head of the International League for Human Rights (where I worked from 1997-2002). I recall that we invited Charter 97 to become an affiliate, like dozens of other affliates around the world. This absolutely infuriated the government of Belarus, and they even dispatched a diplomat from their UN mission to show up at our office at the time to threaten us with a legal complaint to the New York State attorney general (!) to get our non-profit status revoked because we were now operating as a "foreign lobby" without declaration.
That's how they viewed innocent, legal, *rightful* activity that involved documenting and publicizing human rights violations in collaboration with a local NGO. They thought they could deal with us in the United States the way they deal with people in their own country -- with brute intimidation and force. We ignored them. You are allowed to have foreign affiliates. All good.
At that time I believe we had funds of something like $25,000 specifically for this project which was used for computers and going to UN and OSCE meetings to make the case for human rights in Belarus. But that was a long time ago, and I don't think that's where this current concoction comes from at all -- it doesn't make sense.
I've never in my life had any grant of this size of "$211,000" myself, let alone had it somehow to give to anyone else. For years, I have worked as a freelancer with a modest income that is a fraction of this amount.
As I look at the list of other "financiers," I have no idea if any of those claims are true, but I couldn't help thinking this: and what if they are?!
All of them are perfectly fine organizations -- Frontline, which defends human rights defenders, the Norwegian Helsinki Group and so on. If they had 6,000 euros or $98,000 to give to a good group like Charter 97 in Belarus -- what of it? That's a perfectly legal thing to do -- at least in the free world, in a normal country. The work that Charter 97 and other groups in Belarus do is open and transparent -- you can see for yourself by opening up their website what they do. Funding their website and publications and meetings would be a *good* thing, if you could. I wish indeed I did have a quarter of a million dollars to give to this worthy cause -- but I don't, and never had, and never gave anybody a dime to help them in this last election -- more's the pity.
And those who could have afforded it didn't either -- that's the real tragedy.
The article goes on to provide even more speculative information, making claims about the U.S. government-funded foundations National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute, both organizations that do give grants for training and education during elections -- and do so lawfully and legally, despite the sinister spin the Belarusian government is trying to place on it. Here the KGB (I'm not going to pretend this is a "journalist") recites a conversation they unabashedly describe as having been obtained from Skype -- so much for the common belief that Skype calls or instant-messaging can't be hacked by the KGB -- if it is true. Yet as with other claims in the piece, there is a lot of vagueness and insinuation that are not likely backed by reality. Two million dollars for the Belarusian opposition?! In your dreams.
As for the fact that Sannikov, coordinator of Charter 97, and others mentioned ran in the absurdly unfair presidential elections with 9 other candidates, there isn't anything immoral or wrong about helping their groups or web sites while they are engaging in such a civic activity, either. We all get that such a presidential "election" is more like an opportunity for organizing a social movement, not some authentic means of achieving power. Surely the results --jailing and beating for most of the candidates! -- should illustrate that, if other factors like the mere three months to prepare and lack of normal access to broadcasting don't.
I hope if those other foreigners *did* give these grants (and the stories about them could be as made up as the one about me), they don't feel ashamed or somehow spooked by this curious revelation, which, if true, could only come from the KGB reading people's e-mails or bugging their phone conversations or digging in their bank accounts, which is the real illegal and immoral activity here.
This bald-faced and big lie about me is especially pernicious because when somebody's actual name is used, and a precise figure, and even the name of something that sounds like an authentic organization, many people believe it -- and it's very hard to undo.
FYI, you were mentioned as a financier of Charter'97 in the first part of "declassifying" intel on opposition. Your name is one of the few foreigners mentioned by the full name. See attached.
Obviously, by adding his own spin that I'm "one of the few foreigners mentioned," he's somehow making *that* fact "mean something" -- although I can't imagine what his "hint" is or what this is supposed to mean.
To enlighten me, he added the following in a subsequent message:
My point was to alert you to an article that potentially misrepresents your relationship with Charter'97. It's not like I shared secret information.
You've told me before that you had been working with them at least for some time so that wasn't anything new (as well as most of the article). The sums of money is the least credible thing in reports by Belarusian government.
*below is my personal opinion based solely on previous observations and to be taken as is.*
Also, since they mentioned you by name there is a chance you might come up in future reports. Usually, "random" representatives of "outside forces" are mentioned only by their first name (like it is the case with some in the article or in the Iron on the Glass documentary). Belarusian government uses full names only when they have significant amount of information about that person or that person is of high importance.
Gosh, Baranov seems to know an awful lot about the methodology of the Belarusian KGB. But as I keep telling him, as he has been arguing with me for weeks about the inefficacy of the human rights approach, they are professionals, and we are amateurs. You don't try to beat them at their own game. Instead, while it does seem futile, you have to keep documenting violations, filing petitions, holding vigils and engaging in open and peaceful work, not subterfuge and manipulation --this is the only thing that has ever worked.
And yes, this also means giving money to help people in social movements under fire, if they ask for it -- and they should be the judge of whether it harms them, not the KGB, and not Evgeny Morozov.
Is Baranov's theory about some huge file on me supposed to somehow scare me into silence? Or make me fearful about some kind of WikiLeaks-like expose?! I recall being mentioned in some tendentious Belarusian KGB-inspired article in the past long ago, for some statement I made at the UN or something which they didn't like -- and what of it? These governments don't like human rights activists and journalists that criticize them. That doesn't mean that our activity is unlawful or wrong -- it's right! I'm afraid we aren't people of "high importance," either -- just look at what has happened to our colleagues. They are in jail. Everyone should be trying to get them out, and this distraction, like others, shouldn't deter them.
I haven't been very active on Belarus for some years, as I've had to focus on other work and family commitments. I do help when I can as a volunteer, translating or arranging meetings. I've occasionally translated proposals, documents and letters to the UN for Charter 97 and other NGOs in the past -- and I'm proud to have done some tiny bit to help.
I haven't been to Belarus in years because the last time I tried to get a visa I was turned down, but I did travel there many times in the past. I'm not sure why the current crop of henchmen have picked my name out of the hat; maybe it's because I stood up for the opposition on this blog in the past -- which couldn't have been read by more than 500-1000 people at the most but may not have been missed by the KGB. Who knows?!
But this sort of smear about foreign aid is especially pernicious coming at a time when Evgeny Morozov, originally from Belarus, and Clay Shirky, who often cites the Belarus example apparently because he once studied it in in the past, are writing screed after screed in high-profile publications like Foreign Policy and the New York Times screaming that aid to dissidents abroad to assist them with Internet sites is wrong, and gets them in trouble.In article after article, they mount the thesis that the U.S. should stop such programs because they are the kiss of death -- essentially doing the work of authoritarian governments for them by attacking America at its root, and leaving the field clear for the dictators to spend whatever *they* need to spend for Internet *un* freedom.
Something like this KGB concoction comes along, and it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy for these pundits, and they will constantly, smugly, and self-righteously point to articles like this and other files that might be used against people in jail as a reason for the U.S. government to stop devoting a portion of its completely miserly foreign aid budget to democracy promotion overseas.
So I can only repeat: the origin of evil here is the tyrant Aleksandr Lukashenka and the Belarusian state; people who innocently and in good faith try to help those opposing oppression from abroad are not part of that evil, and of course, the people opposing it aren't, either.
Whether or not such grants were disbursed -- and in my case it is a completely mythological grant -- the Belarusian KGB -- as the secret police are still called -- would find reason to persecute and prosecute these people *anyway*. Aid in solidarity to people fighting oppression is a good thing, and those who are wagging their fingers and tattle-taling in shrill voices ought to stop and think: what's really wrong with this, for God's sake!
It's more than fine for governments and private citizens to give money to causes abroad. It is not illegal -- except in authoritarian countries like Belarus that put some sinister spin on normal civic activity that is the exercise of universal human rights. The "colour revolutions" aren't concocted abroad and artifically astro-turfed by such grants and are certainly not pernicious -- those movements exist anyway, and the amounts they might get from abroad are never remotely sufficient and often are spent on Western consultants.
I say this very emphatically, because we're in an era when not just Evgeny Morozov or Clay Shirky are spouting hypocritically about this sort of giving (although neither of them have anything to say against anyone donating money to the foreign operation WikiLeaks which is abetting the theft and publication of classified government documents, nor do they spend any energy at all denouncing all kinds of dubious giving, from the Cuban government's fomenting of subversion around the world to the Kremlin's propping up of their like-minded movements in the near abroad, to the EU's support of Palestinian groups engaging in hate campaigns against Israel).
We live at a time when political forces of various types around the world are all too eager to try to get the U.S. government, and indeed any American private foundation or individual citizen to stop giving to those they sympathize with abroad -- and they're doing that mainly for the worst possible reasons, because they either make common cause with authoritarians, or they don't want to challenge them as part of an anti-American or anti-Western worldview, or because they are seeking power for a wired transnational elite, and they want to promote themselves as analysts whose defeatist and quietist prescriptions are heeded (Morozov snorts at the Belarusian opposition and only favours figures like Angela Davis (!), and Shirky thinks Iranians should stop confronting the mullahs head-on and stick with tame single-issue topics like inheritance and divorce laws for women).
This outrageous Belarusian KGB lie is of course part and parcel of the whole fiction the Belarusian KGB is now concocting in general about the events of December 19. Disturbingly, they've had some success in even getting offices that should know better like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to believe their version of the story involving "radical wings of the opposition that incited violence" as unfortunately one statement already indicated. Even more outrageously, I've found some pretty high-profile journalists and analysts spouting this line of "dangeous calls by the opposition for a national salvation government" and "opposition members spending too much time abroad" as well -- although they should be ashamed of themselves.
Belarusian agitprop is working over time to show tendentious films on TV purporting to portay the opposition as "storming" the government building on December 19. But as numerous amateur videos and videotapes made by professional news organizations on the scene amply display, the only storming done was by provocateurs, and by the police beating peaceful demonstrators. A lot of this material is on Youtube and various independent websites and it should be marshalled to make the case before the truth is stamped out by the lies of those in power.