Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro agree: There is a vast international conspiracy underway to destabilize their governments and eventually oust them from power.
They are convinced that the protesters storming the streets of Istanbul and Caracas are nothing more than mercenaries serving foreign powers or “useful idiots” unwittingly aiding the shadowy interests working to overthrow their governments. Vladimir Putin shares this view. He has said that the revolts in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, which forced his ally, former President Viktor Yanukovych, to flee to Russia, were also instigated by foreigners. And who, according to these autocrats, is behind this dark global conspiracy?
Western Democracies, of course.
Putin, Erdoğan, Maduro, and other leaders who share their fears (Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe, etc.) assume that foreign intelligence services and other secret agencies are the main instigators, organizers, and funders of the protests against their governments. Their fears are not entirely unfounded. After all, the CIA does have a history of helping overthrow leaders that the U.S. government didn’t like at the time: Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973. But today’s dictators and their semi-authoritarian colleagues seem to feel equally threatened by private philanthropic organizations that operate openly in support of democracy and human rights.
In fact, their most public and strident denunciations have often been against non-governmental organizations and democracy activists rather than foreign spy agencies. For example, during a recent press conference, Putin explained that “our Western partners” had interfered in Ukrainian affairs before. “I sometimes get the feeling that somewhere across that huge puddle, in America, people sit in a lab and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without actually understanding the consequences of what they are doing,” he said. This isn’t the first time that the Russian president has denounced meddling by, to use Julia Ioffe’s paraphrase, “American political technologists.” He also saw their hand in the large anti-government demonstrations that spilled into Moscow’s streets in December 2011 and May 2012.
So who are these American political technologists? Activists and employees of foundations who are promoting democracy, documenting and reporting human-rights violations, calling for media freedom, observing elections, and denouncing torture.
According to leaders who undermine democracy, imprison opponents, persecute journalists, and rig elections, the noble goals of these organizations are just hypocritical fronts for their true mission: to undercut their rule. And thus, the world’s full-fledged dictatorships and authoritarian-leaning governments do what they can to make life hard, if not impossible, for such groups. These regimes are bent on avoiding a repeat of the color revolutions that brought political change in the Balkans and several former Soviet countries during the early 2000s, or an eruption like the Arab Spring uprisings.
Full disclosure: I am on the board of directors of two of these international organizations—the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Open Society Foundation (OSF)—and I receive no financial compensation for my involvement with them. The goals of both are to support organizations that strive to improve democracy and human rights in nearly every corner of the world. I don’t work for any government and have never received instruction or pressure from a government regarding initiatives to support or regimes to oppose. During board discussions for the NED and OSF, I have never seen evidence that a government is determining our agenda or decisions. Needless to say, I don’t expect the believers in the “great conspiracy” to believe me.