Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Delusions of Empire


In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, made mention of his country's “zone of privileged interest”, which I take to mean that the Russians still maintain, or pretend to maintain, a watching brief over the constituent republics of the old Soviet Union. It was a warning, in other words, to NATO and the West to maintain a respectful distance.

But events earlier this year in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan have made this neo-imperialism sound ever so hollow. The ethnic clashes in the latter and the failure of Russia to send a peace-keeping force, requested by the Kyrgyz government, is arguably the greatest demonstration of the limits of both power and ambition. After all, here is a country that is still not freed itself from the wars in Chechnya, or lost sight of its disastrous involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The official line from Moscow was that it could not interfere in Kyrgyzstan’s internal affairs, a curious contrast with the previous intervention in Georgia.

If anything the growing divisions with Belarus are an even greater blow to Russian esteem and pan-Slav ambitions. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the president of Russia’s western neighbour and the closest Europe now has to an old-style dictator, is proving to be particularly bloody-minded in his determination not to fall under the servitude of Moscow. There have been disputes over the price of gas. Lukashenka, moreover, is even more awkward over sensitive issues of Russian political prestige. He has refused to recognise the independence of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, the two breakaway Georgian territories that served as a cause for the 2008 war. He also gave refuge to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, a figure much despised in Moscow.

The fact is, despite the power it derives from reserves of gas and oil, Russia is weak both politically and militarily, something that Lukashenka clearly understands. Quite apart from fears of being trapped in another swamp, the unwillingness to intervene in the Kyrgyz situation is an indication that the army is simply not equipped for a prolonged peace-keeping mission. The Russian ‘sphere of influence’ is clearly little more than a geo-political dream, pretence at a power that has vanished and vanished for good.

68 comments:

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  3. Thanks, Adam. I don't read the 'Russophobic' press; in fact I had no idea there was such a thing!

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  7. Well, all I can say is that I've yet to detect it in the papers and magazines I read, which includes The Spectator, The Economist, Prospect, Standpoint along with other specialist publications. I would never take the BBC as a standard of objectivity.

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  8. Adam, forgive me, but you have a constant tendency to overstate your case. I do not believe for a moment that the BBC ever supported 'genocide', a word that should not be used loosely.

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  11. Adam, I repeat my point: the word genocide should not be used loosely. And that's me for the night. :-)

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  13. But, Adam, you do use it loosely, or without understanding. Forgive me for being so brutally direct. Whatever the errors of the Georgian adventure they did not enter South Ossetia with the intention of systematically exterminating men, women and children of a different racial, religious or ethnic group. To suggest that, and to suggest that the BBC supported such a position, is bizarrely off beam. It ruins the basic premise of you argument. It means you risk not being taken seriously. I understand your enthusiasms, but you should really try to express them in slightly more measured terms. Now that really is the last word from me tonight.

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  15. The real weakness of Russia is in the east, that is where the blow will fall.
    Someone I was speaking to recently, who has actualy been to the area, said China is virtualy forming colonies.

    Russias most recent military exercise was an ampibious assault in its far east.
    The only two possibilities are it expects Japan to try something over Saarkilin island or China to seize Vladivostok.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Aigun

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  16. Since Russia is a mystery, we don't know how weak they are or their secret service is still as powerful as it is used to be. But obviously they have still a great impact on old states of USSR.

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  17. Lukashenka fantastises about being the Tsar of all the Russias, as Head of the "Union State of Belarus and Russia" that has had a ghostly existence since it was set up at the point of Russia (and Yeltsin's) greatest weakness and instability in the mid 90s.

    Russia can see him for what he is, however. And ditto with regard to the semi-literate buffoon, rapist (I suppose one should add an "alleged" there, from a legal point of view, not least as his two spells in prison have been officially deleted from the records) and thug, Yanukovych.

    This is quite fun (and sufficiently visual to not require translation, more or less): "Lukashenko's Dream" from the satirical "Mul't Lichnosti" (a play on the Russian words for "Cult of Personality" broadcast of Russian TV last year. He dreams of being a respected leader of note and importance, who the influential the world-over seek out, whereas in reality...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3aGF_yaMv8

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  18. Adam - I will grant that what you say about Georgia may have been true (at least in rhetorical terms) under its first post-Soviet president, Mad Zviad Gamsurkhadia. Wh

    Saakashvili is a hot-head and an unstable character, but not a genocidally-inclined one.

    Russia's (and Medvedev's) talk of genocide was a blatant, obscene, lie. No more and no less. Medvedev also claimed that 2,000 people had been killed by the Georgians on the 1st night of the assault on Tskhinvali. By any measure this was a grossly irresponsible, extreme exaggeration. I can't recall the exact death-toll of the entire conflict, but it was almost certainly less than one-tenth of that number, with only a minority of those being civilians. And it was the Russian-supported side that ethnically cleansed Georgians from South Ossetia, not the other way round.

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  19. Adam, I try to draw information from as large a range of sources as I possibly can, even those I don't find sympathetic to my views, but I would trust the RT before I trusted RT, if you take my meaning. It's an agency of a state notorious for the manipulation of media. If they seriously argued that the Georgians were contemplating genocide under the nose of Russia and the world, and that this planned genocide was supported by the BBC, then I don't need to look at it to deduce that I'm in the presence of arrant nonsense. Now, excuse me, I'm just about to dip into The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to bone up on the Jewish question!

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  20. Kunday, yes, a mystery inside an enigma! It's nice to see you again. :-)

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  23. Dominic, yes, absolutely. The situation was bad enough without inflaming it further with such absurd rhetoric.

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  25. Adam, no amount of heroic exposures will ever convince me that the BBC supported genocide.

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  27. Adam, you are now saying something quite different. That's exactly what I meant when I said a word like genocide should never be used loosely. I love words; I'm a great believer in their power, both to convince and to seduce. Clarity and precision of meaning is everything to me, a lesson I took from George Orwell.

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  29. Adam, one problem in Georgia is that many of the leading figures in the opposition (e.g. Irakli Okruashvili) are more extreme and more nationalistic than is Saakashvili!

    And as for persuading the idiots in Brussels...well he may try, but the fact is Georgia is consigned by the EU now to the same "Eastern Partnership" as countries like Armenia , Azerbaijan (an even more loathsome dictatorship than Belarus), or Moldova (a basket case). Which is as firm a way as the EU appears capable of saying "membership? for you? forget about it".


    And all I will say about Russia Today is that sometimes you would think, from their choice of interviewees, that Nick Griffin and George Galloway are the most typical representatives of both the British state and British public opinion (with the equivalents being brought to to represent the US, too)

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  30. Adam, we stand or fall on facts not what we suppose might have happened.

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  31. Well the fact is, he invaded South Ossetia. The fact is no one invades as a gesture of kindness. The fact is Russia stopped the bellicosity directed at South Ossetians.
    The fact is, Saakashvili is a dangerous, mysterious man. One can speculate on what this amounts to. I am frankly glad the Russian Army has afforded us the privilege of speculation--and not the privilege of witnessing genocide.
    As a matter of fact, I rather enjoy this fact.

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  33. Despite my deep admiration of what the Soviet communists did during their first decades of rule - transforming an already underdeveloped economy further put back by the devastating Russian Civil War into the world's third largest economy (only behind Germany and the US and defeating the former's huge invasion against all odds - I am of the opinion that after the Second World War the Soviet/Russian leadership have been suffering from increasing "delusions of empire".

    Despite being labelled as a "superpower", their GDP was, at its peak, 40% of the US's and by the 50s it was already behind Western European economies in GDP per capita terms. Their show-offs of military might were just an acknowledgement of their real weakness... a humiliation that would be made pathetically evident by Japan surpassing them in absolute GDP by the 80s - a country with less than half their population and just a tiny fraction of their natural resources.

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  34. Ah, I can see some potential here, Adam: I shall give up real history to concentrate on alternate history, on the what ifs of time and circumstance. I rather think I might follow in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges in such books as The Universal History of Infamy., or possibly his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, where the world is whatever we conceive it to be!

    Actually I might have considered RT but not now, not on the basis of the kind of 'story' it seems to promote, very much, it would seem, from the Claude Cockburn school of journalism.

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  37. Duot, thanks, I'd love to take this up with you in detail but I have to go out shortly. I'll just say that there is nothing at all to admire in Stalin or the Stalinist system, which effectively destroyed all enterprise and initiative for years after. You might be interested in a blog I intend to post soon, a review of a new book on Mao's Great Leap Forward. Keep watching. :-)

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  38. Adam, they may not have used the word genocide but you did, which I assumed came from them. I'm not accusing you of anything, or if I am it's a tendency to exaggerate. I love Russia; after England it's the one country whose history and literature I find completely beguiling. But I do not love her slavishly. The last thing I've been attempting to do here is to 'crucify' you. I would do you no favours if I allowed you to get away with imprecise language and imprecise thought, even for the sake of friendship. I do hope you agree. Dancing with me is like dancing with the Lillith. :-)

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  41. Adam
    Given your support for Yugoslavia and your dislike of the Nato intervention that divided the country, I find it odd that you reverse your position for Georgia.

    The cases are virtualy identical.
    Ethnic Minorities began purging "their" area of any other ethnic group, the central government intervened, and foreign power joined in on the side of the seperatists.

    You cant argue against Kosovan Independance but for South Ossetian Independance, or I cant see how it can be done sensibly at any rate.

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  42. Thanks, Anastasia. I look forward to that blog entry.

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  45. Adam, genocide was planned or it was not. The BBC agreed with this plan or it did not. To make a statement in both cases that it was planned and the BBC supported that plan is anything but ‘hypothetical’: it’s an empirical observation and thus has to be subject to an acceptable standard of proof. Rumour, hearsay and propaganda are not truth.

    I think I should say a word of defence for dear old Auntie, knowing that I’ve criticised her often enough. She tries hard for ‘balance’ and an objective standard of truth, though she does not always get it right. Tonight she did, at least I thought so, in Secret Iraq, part one of a new two-part documentary on the dreadful aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

    Clearly your Brit thing arrived here in error, or it's so nice you said it twice.:-)

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  46. I intend to blog about the Iraq documentary once I've seen the second part.

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  48. Sorry, I should make it clear that I meant my Mao blog. :-)

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  52. Adam, I have no idea if the man was mad or not, though mad people don’t tend to run countries (yes, I know, I know, but it’s an abuse of meaning!). The essential point is you are now saying something quite different, something far more circumspect, though again I disagree with much of what you have said, especially about the alleged 'Nazi sympathies' of the former Ukrainian government. You can speculate as much as you like a perfectly harmless pastime. I would just ask you not to report your speculations as fact. And, Adam, there are an awful lot of people outside Europe. It makes no sense at all to say that they all think this or all think that.

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  54. I am not saying anything different than I've ever said. The Georgian regime attempted an ethnic cleansing. This is speculation. And why is it speculation? Because the Russian Army prohibited this from becoming fact. This is something I am proud of, something I that is a profound source of relief. Cannot you find it within your self to be happy there was not an ethnic cleansing of Russians in South Osseita?

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  56. And no, I don't own shares. I do on shares in the BBC--if I didn't I'd be arrested and put into the gaols Kenneth Clarke thinks ought to be closed.

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  57. Adam, are you referring to Yushanko's posthumous award to to Stephen Bandera? I assume you must be. I can find nothing about the former government 'heaping praises' on Nazi collaborators in general. Bandera is still a hero to many Ukrainians. I think it possible to understand why when one looks at the impact of Stalin's collectivisation on the Ukraine in particular, the area most affected by the terror famine. Man-made famine of the Stalinist type is something I have on my mind at the moment, as you will see if you read my blog on the Great Leap Forward later today.

    The situation throughout the marcher lands of Russia was highly complex after Barbarossa. A lot of local people joined with the Germans not as 'Nazi collaborators', but because they loathed Stalin and saw co-operation with the Germans as one way of securing lost freedoms, of preventiang a return of the Soviets, a delusion, I know, but understandable under the circumstances. I've blogged here about the men of the Latvian SS.

    You began by saying that the Georgians planned genocide and the BBC supported such a plan. That is not 'educated speculation'. It's a statement of fact. I simply do not know what the vast majority of 'extra-European thought' thinks or does not think. I know what I think. I have no insight into the mind of Milband Major. :-)

    Adam , I simply can't take joy in something that did not happened that might have happened when there is not a shred of evidence that it would have happened in the first place! I would certainly be happy if the massacre at Srebrenica had never happened, or that poisoned gas had not been used on the people of Halabja. But it did and it was; I can't change real history; I'm not going to be express pleasure over history that never was.

    The simple fact is, with all due respect, I do not share your Manichean outlook on life; that in the struggle between the forces of dark and of light all good is on one side and all bad is on the other. I don't work like that; my intellect does not work like that; life does not work like that.

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  62. The BBC took a pro-Georgian/pro-genocidal stance during the Georgian War. Adam, there are your words; I took them at face value.

    I used to be fascinated by the Manicheans, by the Albigensian Crusade in particular. You are the perfect Manichean, Adam, because no matter your approach to different circumstances there tends always to be an absolute good and an absolute bad. The Russians are an absolute good so the Georgians and the Ukrainians must be an absolute bad.

    I mentioned those episodes because they were real events, nothing more significant than that.

    No disagreement at all on your final statement. :-)

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  64. I think we can agree on one thing here, in fact I know we can: Georgia's actions in 2008 were criminally irresponsible. On that I have to take my leave. Now I bow out gracefully not before I lift you gently down from the cross. :-)

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