Democracy, Russia, USA

US Meddling in 1996 Russian Elections in Support of Boris Yeltsin

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Americans are outraged by allegations that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an intelligence service to hack email accounts of the Democratic National Committee. How inexpressibly heinous that one country, Russia, would try to influence elections in another sovereign country, in this case the United States! How unprecedented! How diabolical! How uniquely Russian!

In response, the Obama administration has expelled Russian diplomats, hinted at economic sanctions, and promised further retaliation using America’s “world-class arsenal of cyber weapons.” (NYT Dec. 16, 2016) Obama’s Republican opponents, for their part, have demanded “rocks” instead of Obama’s “pebbles.”

But does the USA meddle in the presidential elections of other countries?

Our friends in South America might have insights here—hundreds of cases of economic and military blackmail, election fraud, assassination,and the violent overthrow of democratically elected leaders. So too in Europe (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Georgia, Ukraine, etc.), east Asia (Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, the Philippines, etc.), north Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco), and dozens of other countries on five of the six inhabited continents. (Joshua Keating, “Election Meddling Is Surprisingly Common,” Slate.com, 4 Jan., 2017; Tim Weiner, CIA: Legacy of Ashes, 2008; Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, 1992, 2006.)

In the welter of red-faced indignation, the torrents of denunciations from Senate hearings and press conferences, talk shows and podcasts, one might have expected someone to pose the rather obvious question whether American agencies have ever meddled in Russian presidential elections. And yet (surprise surprise!) America’s corporate-owned press of record, an institution that constantly flaunts its “objectivity,” has failed to raise that straightforward question.

So, let us raise it here: Has the USA engaged in this sort of meddling? And if so, what effect has it had on Russia?

The answer to the first question, of course, is a resounding Yes. Even as you read these words, you can bet that one or more of seventeenFederal agencies of the United States are busy hacking Russia. (It is a safe bet that other countries are engaged in cyber espionage against Russia and the United States, too, including China and Israel.)

Let us limit our discussion to one single case. Readers will recall that in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election in Russia, opinion polls put the pro-western incumbent, Boris Yeltsin, in fifth place among the presidential candidates, with only 8% support. The same polls showed that the most popular candidate in Russia by a wide margin was the Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov. Moved to desperation by the numbers, well-connected Russian oligarchs suggested just cancelling the election and supporting a military takeover, rather than facing a defeat at the polls. Neocons in the West embraced the idea–all in the name of Democracy, of course. In the end, though, Yeltsin and the oligarchs decided to retain power by staging the election.

In keeping with Russian laws at the time, Zyuganov spent less than three million dollars on his campaign. Estimates of Yeltsin’s spending, by contrast, range from $700 million to $2.5 billion. (David M. Kotz, Russia’s Path from Gorbachev to Putin, 2007) This was a clear violation of law, but it was just the tip of the iceberg.

In February 1996, at the urging of the United States, the International Monetary Fund (which describes itself as “an organization of 188 countries, working to foster global monetary cooperation”) supplied a $10.2 billion “emergency infusion” to Russia.The money disappeared as Yeltsin used it to shore up his reputation and to buy votes. He forced the Central Bank of Russia to provide an additional $1 billion for his campaign, too. Meanwhile, a handful of Russian oligarchs, notably several big contributors residing in Israel, provided more billions for the Yeltsin campaign.

In the spring of 1996, Yeltsin and his campaign manager, billionaire privatizer Anatoly Chubais, recruited a team of financial and media oligarchs to bankroll the Yeltsin campaign and guarantee favorable media coverage on national television and in leading newspapers. In return, Chubais allowed well-connected Russian business leaders to acquire majority stakes in some of Russia’s most valuable state-owned assets.

Campaign strategists for the former Republican governor of California Pete Wilsoncovertly made their way to the President Hotel in Moscow where, behind a guard and locked doors, they served as Yeltsin’s “secret campaign weapon” to save Russia for Democracy. (Eleanor Randolph, “Americans Claim Role in Yeltsin Win,” L.A. Times, 9 July 1996) Yeltsin and his cohorts monopolized all major media outlets, print and electronic, public, and private. They bombarded Russians with an incessant and uncontested barrage of political advertising masquerading as news, phony “documentaries,” rumors, innuendos, and bad faith campaign promises (including disbursement of back pay to workers and pensioners, stopping further NATO expansion, and peaceful settlement of Yeltsin’s brutal war against Chechnya). Yeltsin campaigners even floated the threat that he would stage a coup and the country would descend into civil war if Zyuganov were to win the vote.

It is now public record that the Yeltsin campaign conducted extensive “black operations,” including disrupting opposition rallies and press conferences, spreading disinformation among Yeltsin supporters, and denying media access to the opposition. The dirty tricks included such tactics as announcing false dates for opposition rallies and press conferences,disseminatingalarming campaign materials that they deceitfully attributed to the Zyuganov campaign, and cancelling hotel reservations for Zyuganov and his volunteers. Finally, widespread bribery, voter fraud, intimidation, and ballot stuffing assured Yeltsin’s victory in the runoff election.

The day after his victory, Yeltsin disappeared from the scene and did not reappear until months later, drunk. During Yeltsin’s second term, the “non-ideological” IMF provided another infusion of money, this time $40 billion. Once again, more billions disappeared without a trace, much of it stolen by the President’s chronies, who placed it in foreign banks