|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #54|
McCain’s Kyrgyz Connection: The “Freedom House” That Isn’t Free
The US Presidential Candidate, His Lobbyist-Advisor, and the “Tulip Revolution” Gone Awry
By Bill Conroy
Presidential candidate John McCain aboard the campaign plane with top foreign policy advisor and lobbyist Randy Scheunemann in May of this year.
The tiny “Stan” nation of Kyrgyz, located in the heart of a region rich in oil and natural gas deposits and under the shadow of giants Russia and China, has recently been in the news in relation to another matter connected to the McCain campaign.
The Associated Press and other mainstream news reports recently making their rounds in Blogistan reveal that one of McCain’s chief policy advisors on foreign affairs, Randy Scheunemann, has a past history of providing lobbying services (for compensation to the tune of at least some $50,000) for a Houston businessman (and big-time Republican rainmaker) named Stephen Payne. The targets of the lobbying efforts (which centered on, among other things, “energy issues”) were Congress, the National Security Council and the Department of State.
McCain’s camp has gone to great lengths to distance itself from Payne, a business friend of President George and VP Dick Cheney, and to downplay the role Scheunemann played in his lobbying efforts for Payne. (USA Today reports that Orion Strategies, a management consulting firm founded by Scheunemann, “earned $540,000 from its foreign clients” over the 12 months ended Dec. 1, 2007, and “received $56,250 last year from March to July from McCain.”)
Payne is now in the hot seat, facing the spotlight of a Congressional investigation, after being taped in an undercover sting set up by the Sunday Times of London offering to introduce the former president of Kyrgyzstan (Askar Akayev) to high-level Bush administration officials, including possibly the president himself, if Akayev agreed to make a hefty donation to the legacy of President George – his presidential library fund:
So despite McCain’s efforts to extract himself from the Payne quid-pro-quo offer to Akayev (who, by the way, was run out of office in the “Tulip Revolution,” a revolt of the people of his nation against his repressive regime), and the lobbying efforts on behalf of Payne by one of McCain’s top advisors, the Kyrgyzstan connection seems to be sticky like fly paper.
The revolt that drove Akayev from power in 2005 is layered with double standards and duplicity with respect to U.S. policy. To understand the context, it is important to note that Kyrgyzstan is home to both Russian and U.S. military installations (the latter of which was set up originally after 9/11 as a staging area for U.S. forces targeting Afghanistan).
With that bit of information, an analysis penned in early spring 2005, right around the time of the Tulip Revolution, by Justin Raimondo for Antiwar.com is of some interest as an historical perspective.
Raimondo suggests that Akayev’s government had given the U.S. government some heartburn just prior to the Tulip Revolution over our airbase in Kyrgyzstan, threatening to prevent the deployment of some AWACS reconnaissance planes – allegedly to appease Russia.
Akayev’s split allegiances and unpredictable nature (a trait not uncommon to dictators) prompted a more forceful U.S. interventionist hand (that some might describe as a U.S.-backed coup d’etat), Raimondo contends.
From his story in Antiwar.com:
It was thought necessary to gin up a “revolution” in Kyrgyzstan, for whatever reason – certainly not “democracy” – and the die is already cast. As to why Akayev was targeted – in particular, by John McCain and the hyperactive American ambassador, Stephen Young – is only partially explained by the tension over the Ganci [U.S.] base. There was another change in Akayev’s policy that took place around the same time as the AWACS controversy, however, one that particularly angered the politically powerful gang over at “Freedom House” [remember that name], which is close to McCain and the neoconservatives.
Akayev had started to make moves against Islamic extremist elements, particularly the cult-like Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization, which had begun to make inroads in Kyrgyzstan. “Freedom House,” which supports the terrorist Chechen movement – and any movement that opposes Vladimir Putin and Russia – had recently taken up the cause of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT). As the Institute for War and Peace Reporting put it:
“In another sign of Kyrgyzstan’s apparent shift away from the West, the country’s security forces have accused foreign civil rights advocates of helping the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. At a government meeting on 28 June, National Security Service, NSS, spokesman Tokon Mamitov said the banned group was exploiting the undue attention it was paid by groups like the United States-based Freedom House.”
Map of Central Asia
“But it is not clear whether the appointments carry any legal weight,” the BBC report states.
Raimondo offers some interesting insight into the leaders that emerged in the wake of the “revolution.” Kulov, he says, was a high-ranking minister during the Soviet era, who “commanded troops who killed dozens of protestors … during the days of the Soviet Union”; Bakiyev, was forced to resign previously from the prime minister post in March 2002 after “riots broke out in his home region in the south …. (and) police fired into a crowd of 1,500, and five people died”; and Kadyrbekov, served as “deputy leader of the Communist Party … and (is) a man … with a somewhat dubious reputation.”
In July 2005, several months after grabbing power, Bakiyev was officially elected to a five-year term as president of Kryzygstan and appointed Kulov as prime minister. That election, however, was marked by irregularities, including a “problematic” vote count, according to The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
From the OSCE’s report:
Of particular concern were a small number of serious irregularities observed, including apparently deliberate fraud such as ballot stuffing and some implausible increases in turnout figures. The process deteriorated during the counting and results tabulation.
In April of this year, press reports indicate that Kadyrbekov was arrested in Kryzygstan – accused of “abuse of office, financial mismanagement and other corruption-related crimes.”
So if the goal of the Tulip Revolution was to oust a dictator in favor of an open democracy, it certainly didn’t seem to pan out. But one thing the new leadership did bring to the table, Raimondo points out, was support of the Iraq war and of the U.S. military base in Kryzygstan. Akayev, by contrast, was not so cooperative.
From Raimondo’s report:
President Akayev did not take direction well, or, at least, not well enough. Akayev was too adept at playing off the U.S. against Russia and China …
If Raimondo is correct, and Akayev was driven from power with the backing of U.S. groups such as Freedom House, with the blessing of U.S. politicians like McCain, then it would appear the motive for that effort went beyond simply promoting democracy – given Akayev was ultimately replaced via a flawed election by leaders with equally oppressive tendencies.
On page 19 of a financial disclosure report filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics on May 15, buried in the small print under the category heading “Positions Held Outside U.S. Government,” McCain discloses that he serves as “Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for the Media Support Center Foundation (MSCF), Kyrgyz Republic – “a nonprofit printing press.” According to that report, McCain served in that position from April 2003 until the “present.”
MSCF printing press
Author and MIT professor emeritus Noam Chomsky has a slightly different take on the group, however, describing it in his book “Manufacturing Consent” as having “interlocks” with “U.S. government bodies such as Radio Free Europe and the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the (U.S) government and international right wing.” (Former CIA director R. James Woosley served as the chairman of Freedom House from 2003 to 2005.)
MSCF’s Web site indicates that it operates the “only truly independent press that accepts all customers, regardless of political affiliation.” Its “Supervisory Committee,” the Web site adds, “consists of a number of “prominent public and political figures from the Kyrgyz Republic, the European Union and the United States.”
Among MSCF’s accomplishments, according to that same Web site:
During the election campaigns for parliament in December 2007, total pressruns of materials printed by the Foundation for political parties were about 900,000 copies. Political parties using the Foundation included Ata-Meken, Erkin Kyrgyzstan, Erkindik, Social Democratic party of Kyrgyzstan, and the Communist party of Kyrgyzstan. The latter two were successful in winning a minority of seats in the Parliament. [Emphasis added.]
Republic of Kyrgyz Flag
Those folks would have served under Payne’s alleged quid-pro-quo target, Akayev, who was president of Kyrgyzstan from 1990 until he was ousted in 2005. Akayev is now living in exile in Moscow, according to media reports.
Another obscure 2003 report, found on the Web site of John Hopkins University’s Asia-Caucasus Institute, provides the following history on MSCF:
According to Mike Stone, Project Director for the Freedom House printing press project, “the opening of the press marks the culmination of almost two years of Work by Freedom House”. The Independent Printing House is funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labor. The Open Society Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway provided additional support.
… The Independent printing press will be run by the Kyrgyz non-profit organization “Media Support Center Foundation”. Freedom House reports that “a broad-based Board of Directors, chaired by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), directs the foundation. The board also includes former U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake [now a foreign policy advisor for Barack Obama], Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov, and other distinguished individuals from the U.S., Central Asia and Europe.
Ms. Windsor noted the positive support given to the new press by the Kyrgyz government [led by Akayev at the time], which also participates on the Foundation’s board.”
McCain’s financial disclosure report indicates that he has served as chairman of the MSCF Supervisory Committee (described on the MSCF Web site as the “supreme governing body”) from April 2003 until the present (which, according to the filing, was at least as of May 15 of this year). The MSFC Web site lists Martin Callanan as the current chairman of the Supervisory Committee. Callanan, a member of the European Parliament, is a leading figure in the Conservative Unionist Party in England, according to the Web site.
What does this all mean?
Most likely this whole Kyrgyz connection will be downplayed by the McCain camp, written off as a small matter of the Senator making a few phone calls as part of a good-will mission in the service of an organization seeking to spread democracy in a former Soviet-block nation.
But it’s really not that easy to sweep under the rug, it seems.
At a minimum, the Kyrgyz connection raises some tough questions for the McCain campaign, particularly in the context of the unraveling scandal involving his foreign policy advisor Scheunemann — and Scheunemann’s lobbying client, Texas businessman Payne.
After all, while a chairman of the MSCF board for some five years, McCain, as a U.S. Senator, served with members of the Kyrgyzstan government in an organization that had some influence on the economy and politics of that nation — whose former president is now at the center of the Payne affair.
McCain’s role on the MSCF board might prompt some to question, fairly or unfairly, his foreign policy judgment.
If it is the former, why was Akayev replaced with leaders of seemingly equal authoritarian leanings and why are people now connected to McCain’s campaign involved in a quid-pro-quo deal that would only serve to rehabilitate Akayev’s image?
If it is the latter, that certainly does not demonstrate consistent foreign policy judgment, either — given that one of the reasons for McCain’s support of the Iraq war was to topple a dictator and to help spread democracy.
That seems to be a Catch 22 that leads right back to the old politics of the Cold War.
Some might argue Obama advisor Lake is touched by this as well, given his role early on as a MSCF board member.
But this Kyrgyz connection goes beyond the question of the past judgment of advisors and surrogates, because, in this case, McCain himself is a central player.
Why did a presidential candidate and sitting U.S. Senator, who bills himself as the wiser presidential candidate on foreign policy, put himself in this position to begin with?
This whole saga doesn’t make for a very good bumper sticker, but it raises too many questions to be ignored in the context of a heated presidential campaign, I suspect.
See follow-up to this story here:
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism