McCain Rocks the Vote
Christine Stone
British Helsinki Human Rights Group

Special to

The astonishing rise of Senator McCain in the American presidential race has prompted the pundits to examine his life story and career. Inevitably, there is lots of stuff about the war hero, campaign finance reformer and anti-tobacco missionary. McCain is also known to be strong on foreign policy. However, a cursory look at the McCain presidential web page fails to reveal one of his most significant foreign policy roles – that of chairman of the directors of the International Republican Institute.

The IRI was founded in 1983 "to promote democracy, strengthen free markets and the rule of law …[it is] a global campaign against tyranny and totalitarianism" to quote its own publicity material. Although it is not part of the Republican Party – it poses as a private, nonprofit organization, no doubt for tax purposes – its directors are all prominent Republicans. High-profile members of the board include Jeane Kirkpatrick, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. The Democratic Party has an equivalent body the National Democratic Institute – the NDI.

Since the collapse of communism both the IRI and NDI have become increasingly active, sending teams to far away places to train political parties, promote an independent judiciary and help in the conduct free elections. But, although their titles suggest a separate political profile they are two heads on the same body. Both are largely funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID which, in turn, receive money from the American taxpayer. Both have favoured the return to power of former high-ranking Communists which has also meant co-opting foot-soldiers from the new left who have extremely liberal ideas about drugs, sex and financial probity.

Despite its emergence in the Reagan presidency, many ordinary Republicans might raise an eyebrow at some of the activities – and activists – of the IRI. For, while the likes of 'Queen' Jeane Kirkpatrick are put on the writing paper as a nod in the direction of traditional Republicanism, the worker bees in the background are anything but traditional. In a classic example of entryism someone hired by the IRI, say, in Moscow or Zagreb is more likely to be a shaven-headed, left-wing apparatchik than a collar and tie wearing member of the bourgeoisie.


Since the collapse of Communism the IRI has concentrated its activities in the former Soviet bloc, and on elections in particular. Senator McCain himself has often been there, right at the coal-face.

In December 1993 he led a mission of 25 IRI observers to Russia's first post-Soviet parliamentary election. The Institute's report published afterwards make no mention of the brutal assault on the Russian parliament the previous October. Instead the rapporteurs concentrate exclusively on the conduct of the poll – and their response to it is nothing short of ecstatic. They found "the emergence of a multiparty system within two years of the collapse of the Communist's single-party monopoly to be a truly remarkable development."

The poll also sought approval for the country's first post-Communist constitution which was passed by a small margin. Despite strong suspicions at the time that the vote had been fiddled, the IRI was unperturbed: "The Russian people also deserve recognition for their endorsement of a post-communist constitutional order providing a clear division of power…"

In a statement issued the following April even the head of of Russia's Central Election Commission admitted that votes in the constitutional ballot had been augmented as a result of election fraud. But the IRI and Senator McCain had moved on and there was no apology from them for their failure to note any such problems.

Such insouciance is not without interest. One of McCain's election promises is to put a stop to the funding of corrupt Russian mafia and business activities. But , the people most implicated in bleeding Russia dry over the past decade have been the 'democrats' supported by the IRI, their task made all the easier by the by the 1993 constitution which concentrated power, almost exclusively, into the hands of the president.

A glance at some of the grateful recipients of IRI assistance in Central and Eastern Europe is also revealing.

Skender Gjinushi, speaker of the Albanian parliament , thanks the IRI for its assistance in drafting the Albanian constitution in 1998. What the IRI does not say is that Gjinushi was a member of the brutal Stalinist Politburo of Enver Hoxha's Communist Party until 1990 and one of the main organizers of the unrest that led to the fall of the Democratic Party government in 1997 and the death of over 2000 people.

President Stoyanov of Bulgaria drools: "Without IRI's support we could not have come so far so fast." Indeed. So far did they come that Ivan Kostov (who supplies another encomium to IRI) was catapulted from his job teaching Marxism-Leninism at Sofia University to being prime minister of Bulgaria and a leader of 'reform'.

In Slovakia, former Communists turned ministers in the post-1998 election government, Ludovit Cernak and Eduard Kukan, also add product endorsements. Kukan tells us that he was "an early friend in Bratislava." How early, one might ask? Was he a "friend of IRI" when he was the leader of the Communist Party's workplace organization at the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs or earlier, perhaps, when he was Czechoslovak ambassador to Mengistu's Ethiopia or, even when he was working for the St.B. as agent SKOPEC?

But, you might say, all politicians in this part of the world are bound to have been leading party members up to the end of the regime? The answer, I'm afraid, is not so. Governments led by people with, at most, vestigial ties to the Party and, at least, no ties at all have been elected to govern in Central and Eastern Europe. In most cases, these people have lost out – the latest being the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) – being replaced by former high-ranking Communists who still tried to keep the party's hold on power in the first free election in 1990.

In all cases the IRI has played a leading part in bringing these changes about. Its methods are questionable but it is the results that should cause dismay.

Consider Albania. During the mid-nineties leftist human rights groups joined the Clinton administration in criticizing Sali Berisha's Democratic Party for its perceived totalitarian policies. Despite early support for the Albanian Democrats from George Bush's administration there was no support from the Republicans in the US when attempts were made to destabilize the government in Tirana.

In fact, the IRI, which had an office in the Albanian capital, parroted all the accusations against Berisha's party. An IRI official in Washington went as far as to call the hero of the anti-Communist forces, Azem Haijdari, "a pig" in an interview in 1998 while supporting the bona fides of the ex-Communist Socialist Party of Albania. European right-wing parties also have their own 'trade-union', the European Democratic Union, and although it was less than combative, the EDU made some attempts to understand the problems faced by Berisha's party and put its case in international forums.

Haijdari was murdered in September 1998, but only after the country had been plunged into lawlessness during widespread unrest the previous year. A new Socialist government made up of former Communists has not improved the situation one jot. Albania is now recognized as a Mafia state where the collapse of law and order has led to widespread smuggling of drugs and people to Western Europe. Is this the kind of regime ordinary Republican voters want to promote?

In the last few years both the IRI and NDI have expanded their involvement in the election processes of certain countries. Whereas they began by simply monitoring the conduct of the polls they soon extended their activities by opening local offices from where they offered assistance to political parties while monitoring the overall 'democratic process'. In many areas the IRI has been even more active than its sister organization.

Providing the expertise for improved polling practices is one of its specialties. On the surface this looks innocent enough but the conduct of opinion polls can also subtly affect the outcome of an election itself. Those most likely to act as pollsters are young people. During the 1998 election campaign in Slovakia (where the IRI was particularly active) it even occurred to an anti-government newspaper, The Slovak Spectator, that some people were obviously unprepared to divulge their voting intentions to their young interlocutors because they suspected them of being opposition supporters.

Also, polls which show surges of support for one party or another can affect peoples' voting intentions. An IRI-sponsored poll produced shortly before the recent Croat election showed the governing HDZ party with only 18% support. Although the party was trounced on election day itself it gained 26% of the total vote, 8% more than the IRI's pollsters predicted. The dismal showing for the party in the early IRI poll could have led many people to think a vote for the HDZ was a vote well and truly thrown away.

But any pretence of objectivity is negated by reading the IRI letter of invitation sent to prospective observers to the Croat elections. Dated 6th December 1999 and signed by Lorne Craner, the IRI's executive president and former McCain foreign policy advisor, it announces that "Croatia's brand (my itals) of government has been nationalistic and authoritarian"….and that "not a single election held in Croatia since 1990 has been reported upon favourably by international observers." Not only does this statement grossly distort the facts it also raises the question of why such a pariah state should have been allowed into such international organizations as the Council of Europe which promote human rights and democracy.

In spite of its manifest bias the letter concedes that the (authoritarian) government in Zagreb will have to officially accredit foreign observers like those from the IRI. Whether it is to its credit or an example of monumental stupidity, it did so.


Concentration on the young has become another part of the IRI's strategy. Middle-aged and older voters in the former Soviet Bloc have shown scant enthusiasm for the kinds of reformed Communists so loved by the West. They are all too aware of the background of such people now repackaged as amazing proponents of 'reform'. The young have no such memories and, in the eyes of policy wonks from the US, want only to make money and go to rock concerts. But they tend to be apathetic. So, supply them with the money and the music and they will vote as required or, at least once registered can be voted for as "dead souls."

The IRI's first venture into serious 'youth politics' began in the winter of 1996-7 when it helped to organize the opposition protests to President Milosevic in Belgrade. People may remember the crowds with their whistles, keys and cooking pots – all rooting for change. But the protests failed and Milosevic survived. Things fared better in neighbouring Bulgaria where similar groups of angry young people forced the Socialist government from power.

For the 1998 Slovak elections the IRI imported an American ingredient to enthuse the young. Rock the Vote was set up in the US in 1991 with the aim of getting apathetic young Americans to register and vote. As its title suggests this would be achieved by providing large dollops of youth culture – rock and pop concerts as well as promotions in record stores, restaurants and clubs. Rock the Vote also proposed more substantial changes to the American political system by urging two-day voting and a proportional system – both, interestingly, available in some Central European countries where election fraud is not unknown.

In Slovakia, for example, apathy was a serious problem. In some regions less than 20% of those aged between 18-25 had voted in 1994. IRI decided this had to change if there was to be a chance of removing the Meciar government in the 1998 elections. It hired a young Slovak, Martin Kapusta, to set up the Slovak equivalent of Rock the Vote, Rock Volieb. With generous funding from IRI (among others) Rock Volieb was able to pay for the best bands and flood the media with its message. For the benefit of those who believe that foreigners should not interfere in another country's internal political affairs, IRI's Kapusta claimed that "this campaign does not promote any political party, candidates or coalitions." But even sympathizers predicted that "certain parties" would benefit from the activities of Rock Volieb more than others.

The project worked. There was a staggering 84% participation in the Slovak election and the 'reformers' won. Some Slovaks suspected that groups of young people traveled around the country voting more than once – it is possible to vote away from home in Slovakia where two days are allowed for the poll – however, no concrete evidence was produced. Anyway, the 'dictatorial' government of Vladimir Meciar seemed totally unprepared for and unaware of what was going on.

The IRI crowed over the victory, in particular, over its own contribution. "IRI polls changed the nature of the campaign" boasts its winter 1998 newsletter. Senator McCain added a special pat on the back: the result was "a victory for reformers in Slovakia …it was the latest example of "men and women who a decade ago lived behind the iron curtain and are now on the leading edge of democracy's advance."


Perhaps presidential candidate-to-be, John McCain decided that the Rock the Vote technique might prove useful to himself at some future date. Reports from the McCain campaign stress its large youth component. Daughter Sydney McCain works in the 'music business' and her father let slip at New Hampshire meetings that his favourite band is Nine Inch Nails – a group noted for its violent, drug-inspired lyrics. He also boasted of being the only candidate to have attended the MTV awards. It might behoove his Republican opponents to study the IRI-inspired Slovak election campaign. But, then, slothful and ignorant of the real nature of what goes on in the world, they probably approved of it anyway.

Whether the young people who support McCain can bring about an extraordinary victory and contribute to his nomination as the Republican Party candidate still seems unlikely. But the IRI, in which the senator plays a leading role, will no doubt continue its meddling far away from home. In 1982 President Reagan stated that : "Freedom is not the sole prerogative of the lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings." Thanks to the activities of bodies like the IRI (who cynically quote these words of a former Republican president on its web page) such high ideals have now been turned on their head. In much of post-communist Europe the IRI has helped restore ex-Marxists to their "natural" place on top of society. These people mouth the virtues of freedom, like McCain, but do they believe it? Does he?

Christine Stone is director of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. Reports from the BHHRG can be found on the Group's web-site at

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