Friday, August 29, 2008 

The current state of affairs.

The cliché is that crises seem to develop and take place in slow motion. When it comes to the continuing Russian occupation of Georgian territory outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it's been anything but. Predictions of what was to come have been shown to be wrong in record time: Georgia's chances of joining Nato were said to be dead and buried after Saakashvili's murderous, hot-headed gambit, something proved demonstratively false by the meeting of Nato which looks set to accelerate the process. Additionally, no one thought that South Ossetia and Abkahzia would have their independence or, rather their absorption into Russia declared so quickly, something which President Medvedev started the process of at the beginning of the week, quite possibly in response to the Nato declaration, if not in so many words.

It is therefore probably foolish to make predictions about what is still yet to come, but that's never stopped anyone before. Firstly, for all the talk that this shows Russia awakening from a slumber, or that this means an end to the unipolar world dominated by the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still remains fundamentally weak, if not even further weakened by the war in a far off place of which we know little. Few in Russia probably expected the vehemence of the response from the West over Georgia, especially considering that beyond a shadow of a doubt it was the Georgian assault on South Ossetia, involving up to 300 gun barrels which started the brief but brutal conflict. This does not even begin to excuse the wholly disproportionate response from Russia, which still continues with the presence at Poti and outside of the breakaway regions, but it does mitigate against complete condemnation.

Indeed, what has occurred so far has been a further hugging from the West of the likes of Ukraine and Poland ever tighter, as shown by Miliband's mostly decent but at times breathtakingly disingenuous speech in the former country. As the Guardian leader noted, Nato has been expanding its role concerning energy security in the region. To believe that Nato does not have a sphere of influence and that its expansion is simply an expression of individual democracies exercising their sovereignty is absurd. Equally absurd is the idea that Russia's next move might be to annexe the Crimea, where again allegedly the country has been distributing passports. For all the hype over the Orange Revolution, Ukraine remains bitterly divided, and might still yet opt for the pro-Russian Yanukovych over Yushchenko, such has been the in-fighting and incompetence of the pro-Western parties.

The one trump card which Russia still holds is its stranglehold over Europe's energy supplies. Germany's policy towards Russia is almost certainly blunted directly because of its reliance on Russian gas. Even this though is in danger of being broken almost directly because of the conflict in Georgia; the Russian economy is increasingly reliant on these very same exports, and as Nosemonkey points out, even if Russia was to cut off supplies, something which simply isn't going to happen, the West would recover. Russia, on the other hand, would continue to die a slow death. For the moment we need each other much more than anyone is willing to admit - and this mitigates against any further action in western Europe.

Increasingly, the precedent for the Russian action and the swift declaration of independence in SO and Abkhazia is Kosovo. It's not a direct parallel because SO and Abk are quite obviously going to be absorbed into Russia proper, rather than become independent statelets like Kosovo, but the declaration of independence for the region at the beginning of this year is both the catalyst and will be used as the justification. For those of us without restive provinces, and despite the Troubles and current disagreements in Northern Ireland over policing, ours no longer really cut the mustard, this was a no-brainer; for Spain, however, still racked by secessionists in both the Basque and Catalan regions, it was also a no-brainer, with them refusing unlike much of the rest of Europe to recognise the new territory. Georgia, too, recognized the potential for where it could lead, with Saakashvili calling the decision hasty. Putin, however, couldn't have predicted the future any better, quite possibly because he knew what may be to come: "undoubtedly, it may entail a whole chain of unpredictable consequences to other regions in the world" that will come back to hit the West "in the face".

For the most part then, for all the changes, much has stayed the same. To believe that this will in any way prevent the US or the US and ourselves from stepping in more or less anywhere outside of Eurasia should there be even the inkling of a "threat" would be naive. With the insurgency apparently stepping up in Somalia, it probably won't be long before US strikes there against "al-Qaida" targets are once again in the news, in a war which is in effect being waged via the Ethiopian occupation, and it's doubtful that even Obama's election would change that. Russia still remains the same paranoid country that it has been since the beginning of the 90s, increasingly encircled but only occasionally striking out in battles that it knows it can win in its own highly diluted "sphere of influence", whether it be Chechnya or now the breakaway provinces of Georgia. Unhelpful and becoming too prominent figures such as Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya will continue to be rubbed out. The question has to be whether confrontation is worth it over this issues, and fundamentally, the answer is no. The current path however is that exact confrontation, and in the meantime the wholesale demonisation of Russia beyond that which it deserves will likely continue apace.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Friday, August 15, 2008 

The status quo ante.

Earlier in the week, the clear winner of the short but brutal and terrifying conflict in South Ossetia and Georgia, if indeed even now the war can be described as truly over, was undoubtedly Russia. However the war came about, and even if the actions of its military could be described as illegal, few could disagree that on both a moral and realist level that Russia had to respond to the assault on Tskhinvali, started cynically by Georgia just three hours after it had called for a ceasefire. Also forgiveable and understandable was the initial push on into Georgian territory, to ensure that the Georgian military had indeed pulled back and was no longer posing any sort of threat either to the South Ossetian citizens Russia regards as its own or to the Russian army itself. While shrill voices were already starting their chorus of accusations and counter-claims, Russia could for the most part stand with its head held relatively high.

7 days on from the beginning of the conflict, the picture has changed dramatically. Partly thanks to the undoubtedly superior Georgian propaganda and the response from Western democracies, most notably America, and partly due to the chaos, revenge attacks and collective punishment being wrought on Georgian territory, most of the goodwill which was generated has evaporated. More dangerously, the overwhelming message emanating from the media, including from the liberal press, if not from the majority of commenters yet, is that this marks a return to the old Cold War mentality. It goes without saying that Russian actions, arrogance and intransigence have encouraged this. There is no reason whatsoever for the Russian military to still be occupying any Georgian territory outside South Ossetia, and while some will be sympathetic to the apparent destruction of Georgian military hardware, ostensibly to prevent any repeat of last week's surprise attack but also doubtless to set back its development by years, neither is justified and also both are in breach of the ceasefire agreement now signed by both sides. Also chilling are the Russian remarks today threatening Poland over their decision to agree to host American missile silos, making clear in the cruellest language that such actions make it a potential target for a nuclear attack. While the missile shield is undoubtedly targeted at Russia rather than Iran, nothing whatsoever can justify such frightening allusions to devastation we thought had ebbed away.

The response from American politicians and commentators however has been little short of nauseating. For both George Bush and John McCain to stand up and say with straight faces that in the 21st century nations don't invade other nations is close enough in relation to Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize for some to declare modern day satire to be dead. Both surely mean that in the 21st century nations don't invade democracies, but neither seems to have the subtlety to dilute their remarks that far. Even those who initially supported the Iraq war have admitted that it has been a foreign policy disaster without parallel since Suez - and yet we and our "allies" seem to imagine we have both the right and the record to lecture Russia on a conflict which has so far probably claimed the lives of a hundredth of those who have been killed as a result of our actions in Iraq. To today see Condoleezza Rice standing on the same platform as Saakashvili, both pretending that Russia is the aggressor, with Saakashvili once again bringing out the most pitiful hyperbole that apparently only a Harvard education can imbue an individual with (correction: the Guardian's corrections and clarifications column points out that Saakashvili's LLM is from Columbia law school), Rice delivering deadpan that "this is no longer 1968", an ahistorical remark which makes a mockery of her personal specialism whilst an academic on the Soviet Union, is little more than a joke, albeit one which is lapped up by a media which seems unquestioning of the idea that the Russian menace is firmly back.

For those looking for the democracy to support, or sympathise with, neither Russia nor Georgia adequately fits the bill. While it is inaccurate to refer to Russia as a dictatorship, as some have over the last few days, there is no doubt that after the liberalisation under Yeltsin the country has been turned by Putin into a autocratic state where very little dissent is tolerated. The media is almost entirely state controlled, the elections are rigged, although it also seems quite possible that even if they weren't, Medvedev or United Russia, Putin's party, would still be in power, and as we know only too well, the state itself appears to be involved in sanctioned assassinations of those who know too much or who refuse to remain quiet. Equally disingenuous though is the presentation of Georgia as a happily functioning Western-style democracy. The suspending of Imedi TV's licence (interestingly owned at one point by News Corporation), the brutal suppression of opposition demonstrations, and the report of fraud during last November's elections give the lie to the model democracy statements. If you wanted to get into a battle over whom smells the least, it would be Georgia, but that is surely counter-acted by the initials actions of the country in provoking the Russian military response.

If the Western world was slow to respond, surprised and distracted by the initial confusion and the Olympics, then that has quickly been forgotten. The most fair-handed have been without doubt both the French and the Germans; Nicolas Sarkozy, desperate to impress perhaps because of his domestic unpopularity and the French presidency of the EU quickly engaging in the diplomacy which brought about the agreement that has now been signed by both sides. Angela Merkel, with her comments that some of the Russian response has been disproportionate is also difficult to disagree with. Then again, that too is doubtless influenced by the German dependence on Russian oil and gas. The boorishness of the comments from the Americans about "bullying and intimidation", neither of which they have ever engaged in, and especially not during the futile search for a second UN resolution on Iraq, is again something to behold.

As for the long-term consequences, these too appear to have changed as the week has gone by. Georgia has probably lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia for good, however much it protests. Their loss will certainly not however alter Georgia's ability to function, and one has to wonder whether they could have stayed Georgian in the long term, war or no war. Additionally, at one point it looked as though the Russian victory had been so crushing that Saakashvili could be in immediate trouble. That has now dissipated, perhaps with the continuing Russian occupation further uniting the Georgian people around a leader they might otherwise have dismissed at the first opportunity for his recklessness. If this was meant to be Russia flexing its muscles and emerging from its weakness post the collapse of the Soviet Union, that too now looks doubtful. Instead the encirclement not just continues, but at an apparently renewed pace. I fear also that Paul Krugman is wrong in his belief that this marks the end of Pax Americana - while America was never going to rush its military forces to the defence of Georgia, especially when she acted so suicidally, the idea that this means an end to of the monopoly of military force on their behalf is naive. What we have instead witnessed is that no one else can dare to act like either America or Israel has and expect to get away with it as they have. While the attack on Iran that once looked ominously close has faded into the distance somewhat, it can be guaranteed that if it does come that those same people who have so exculpated Russia this week will be in the forefront in defending, justifying and apologising for it.

In short, nothing has changed. It's maybe that, rather than Russia itself that we should be most concerned about.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Monday, August 11, 2008 

Another war in the silly season.

As always with the fog of war, it's next to impossible to know accurately at any stage what genuinely is happening in Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia unless you're on the ground. To a degree, however, we're now fairly certain of what started it. Although there have been months of provocation on both sides, while Putin was away in Beijing attending the Olympics, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili seemingly gave the order for a large assault, if not for the whole of South Ossetia then most certainly for its capital, Tskhinvali. Survivors of the attack, streaming to the Russian border for safety, describe carnage and snipers shooting at them as they fled. The Russians have claimed that up to 2,000 people were killed, although they've also hyperbolically described it as a genocide. How much of Tskhinvali has been destroyed or damaged is unclear, as the Russians have yet to let any journalists into the capital.

If Saakashvili was hoping that the assault would go unnoticed, overshadowed by the opening ceremony, or alternatively with Putin away that the Russians would be slow to respond, neither occurred. Within hours the Russian counter-assault was launched, with such apparent planning that they have since been accused of planning the wholesale invasion and subjugation of Georgia. Yesterday the Georgians pulled back from South Ossetia entirely, and according to Saakashvili are now under a unilateral ceasefire. Not clear at the moment is just where the Russians are, what their intentions are, and whether returning to the status quo is possible, let alone desirable. Reports throughout the day have claimed that the Russians have cleaved the country in two, have taken Gori, 47 miles from Tbilisi and a town subjected to bombing raids, and have also taken Senaki, 25 miles from the Abkhazia boundary. All have been denied and counter-claimed or clarified, with no real confirmation to make the reality clearer.

Atrocities have undoubtedly been committed by both sides. Craig Murray calls Georgia's actions lawful, but by the survivor accounts we have heard they were certainly being completely indiscriminate in both shelling and sniping. Russia's response has also clearly gone beyond the realms of defending citizens that both they and it regard as subjectively their own; the raids on Gori, attacks on Tbilisi airport and the targeting of economic as well as military installations further confirms this. As Craig also states, what is desperately needed is an immediate ceasefire from both sides so that the dust can settle, for the true picture of what has happened to emerge, and so that those now travelling to the region to engage in urgent diplomacy do not have their trips completely wasted.

You can however hardly blame Russia's initial response to what was a naive, foolhardy and apparently murderous gambit by Saakashvili. As korova notes, back at the end of last year Saakashvili's approval ratings were hovering around the 16% mark. For all the talk of Georgia and its wonderful emerging liberal democracy, Saakashvili has presided over, like in Russia itself and China, a virulent rising of nationalism, promising in effect that both South Ossetia and Abkhazia would remain a part of Georgia, and even potentially be re-taken. If last Thursday/Friday's events were him putting his plans into effect, then it has backfired in a way that he must have surely at least contemplated it might. For all the overwhelming support that Saakashvili is now receiving from the West, they must privately be fuming that such an apparently suicidal mission was even contemplated, let alone attempted, although it would be hugely surprising if America or intelligence agencies didn't have even an inkling of what was shortly going to happen. It will almost certainly kill Georgia's chances of joining NATO for years, if not decades, and the West's desire to encircle Russia through the alliance, for that is undoubtedly what it is, cannot yet be realised.

There is of course a hypocrisy an inch thick running through the entire debacle. It's impossible not to be reminded of events two years previous when Hizbullah's attack and kidnapping of Israeli troops sparked the near month long war which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 Lebanese civilians and nearly 200 Israelis. Then the boot was on the other foot: Israel's missile attacks on Beirut airport, on power stations and on the residential sections of Beirut where Hizbullah had its base were by no means disproportionate, words that no one in government in this country or in the Bush administration uttered, even when Qana was hit for a second time. Bush has just described Russia's actions as "unacceptable in the 21st century", even though Israel too invaded and attacked a sovereign, democratic state in just as vicious a fashion. Our own actions in Iraq leave us with next to no legs to stand on when lecturing other nations for invading sovereign states, yet we continue to act as though we are paragons of the international scene. We refer to Russia as though nothing has changed since the days of the cold war, as though we are the perennial abused and victimised, and yet still America insists on installing missile interception systems in Poland and the Czech Republic which it pretends are aimed at Iran but which are quite transparently really meant to protect against attack from Moscow, encircling it slowly but surely. We then wonder why the Russian bear, to go with the cliché, then dares to on occasion show its fangs.

There are, to repeat, no good guys here. Russia, as if it needed to be mentioned, is hardly acquiescent when it comes to regions which want to break away from it, such as Chechnya, subjected to horrific conflict throughout the 90s and into the 00s, with the destruction which Grozny suffered an reminder of what Georgia might yet be in store for. Georgia however, and its desire to be seen as the victim, are equally as false and facile. What must urgently be rejected is the tendency to see this either as a resurrection of the cold war or as a great opportunity for the old Russiaphobia to once again take hold, something which CiF seems to be trying to achieve. All of the historical precedents which have been sited, whether they be 1938, 1956 or 1968, are not yet applicable, nor does it seem they will become so. It also undoubtedly punctures another hole in the fatuous idea of Thomas Friedman's that countries that have McDonald's don't go to war with each other. The key now is ensuring that this war is ended before any McDonald's themselves are destroyed.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Friday, January 04, 2008 

The darkening of democracy.

Even before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the apparent stealing of the Kenyan elections by Mwai Kibaki, resulting in violence which has left 300 dead and displaced 180,000, the omens for democracy in 2008 were looking ominous. Time magazine, never the most astute judge of character, having previously chosen Hitler, Stalin, the American soldier (perhaps would have been justified post-WW2; not after Korea or Iraq) and "you", as in the individual in the information age as the person of the year, bizarrely decided that Vladimir Putin, having started the year belligerently fusillading against the west as if the cold war hadn't ended while finishing it by interfering in elections which he would have won anyway was worthy of the title. Elections in Nigeria and Uzbekistan were similarly denounced as flawed and rigged, while only the shock, marginal defeat of Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms in Venezuela emphasised the power and justice of the least worst system of government of the lot.

Pakistan and Kenya's problems seem on one level to be intertwined. The elections in Pakistan were postponed to February the 18th on the back of the torching of electoral lists and facilities that would have been used in the vote, although one is also mindful of the Pakistani states' interest in hoping that the sympathy towards Bhutto likely to manifest itself in support for her Pakistan's Peoples Party will evaporate over time; in Kenya meanwhile, independent recounts and confirmation of the vote have been made impossible by the rioting which included the destruction of polling stations which still contained the ballot papers. A week after the vote, only now is Kibaki apparently offering a re-run of the election, and even then only if a court orders it, something which would never have been necessary had he and his party not so contemptuously ordered the election co-ordinator to announce the results before he was even certain of them, and then swiftly had themselves sworn back in. Both countries are also frayed on ethnic and tribal lines, Bhutto's supporters from the Sindh denouncing the Punjab at her funeral, while the faults in Kenya have become only too apparent in the aftermath of the burning of the Pentecostal church in Eldoret, carried out by members of the Kalenjin tribe, supporters of the opposition leader Raila Odinga, against the Kikuyu, the tribe to whom Kibaki belongs.

It is however far too easy to slip into hyperbole and exaggeration about the situation in both countries. The BBC's coverage of the fallout following the elections in Kenya, for some reason sending Ben Brown to present short segments from Nairobi, pieces more than saturated with the notion of making the worst out of what has happened so far, seems out of all proportion with what has actually occurred. When the politicians themselves are talking about genocide and ethnic cleansing with all seriousness, when what has actually took place so far have been random acts of savagery committed by those who are always looking to take advantage of such short crises, it encourages the fear and paranoia that has apparently left 500,000 needing immediate help. Before even the torching of the church had took place newscasters were breathlessly murmuring the magic terms, "civil war", just as they had just after Bhutto was murdered, despite her death only leading to understandable rioting and little more. Even less realistic has been the doom-mongering emanating from America about the possibility of the mullahs getting their hands within reach of Pakistan's nuclear trigger, despite the Islamist parties never previously receiving more than 10% of the vote and the conflict in the Afghan border region showing no signs of no spreading, the odd suicide bombing usually targeting the military or not.

The current dip of faith in democracy worldwide can't be written off as one of those blips that occur from time to time. While subverting the vote goes all the way back to the rotten borough, it was the hanging chads of 2000 that showed you can steal an election and get away with it. After all, if you can do it in the greatest democracy in the world, who the hell's going to care when the brutal dictator of a former Soviet state quite clearly breaks every rule going? While Simon Jenkins flails about a little in why we can't ourselves say much, it's an indictment of both own politics when only 22% of the electorate vote for a party which then gets a 60-seat plus majority on such a meagre share of the vote. The irony of the Bush administration's original rhaspodising about the very democracy that had favoured its opponents was only followed by hypocrisy when the wrong people won in the elections forced in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood candidates, although standing as independents, gaining a large number of seats, whilst in the occupied territories Hamas surged to a huge victory over the corrupt Fatah, earning them a boycott still in place for their refusal to compromise with the demands of the international community which says nothing about Israel's continued breaching of UN resolutions and building of settlements in the West Bank, even if Ehud Olmert pays lip service to the road map. The quiet abandoning of the democracy project afterwards was inevitable.

Some solipsists claim that democracy is vital because they don't tend to go to war, or go to war against one another. The west though has only ever been supportive of democracy when it gives a result which is to its liking; from Chile in 1973 to Palestine in 2006, and now Pakistan and Kenya, with America's plans ruined with Bhutto's assassination, and its original welcoming of the result in Kenya, likely because of its support for the "war on terror", only to later embarrassingly withdraw it, democracy is only ever a means to an end. While to those on the ground who find themselves in the thick of it, where it really can be a matter of life and death, we haven't far moved on from the days of putting up with a son of a bitch as long as he was our son of a bitch. Whether this century goes towards Putin's model of managed, illusionary, autocratic democracy or back to its true, localised and liberating form isn't likely in our hands, but in those who still wield the ultimate power of deciding what is righteous and what is against our interests.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Share |

Tuesday, July 17, 2007 

Cold war syndrome.

It's difficult to know exactly how to respond to the decision to expel 4 Russian diplomats over the refusal of Moscow to extradite Andrei Lugovoi. At first look, it seems both to be by no means a harsh enough display of displeasure, considering how a British citizen was murdered in cold blood using elements which could have only have been obtained by going through government channels, yet also a pointless gesture for gesture's sake, making it even less likely that any sort of deal could possibly be reached.

There's so much murk surrounding the whole case that it's almost impossible to come to any firm conclusions about anything involving it. What we do know is that Litvinenko is not the only critic of the Kremlin under Putin to die in highly suspicious circumstances, nor is it likely that he will be the last. The question ultimately is whether the decision to murder him went right to the top, whether it was taken by underlings, or even by those simply associated or formerly connected to the FSB/KGB who now consider any dissent about the course which the new Russia has taken as treachery to be responded to with deadly force.

If we are to connect the dots between the two most high profile individuals to be assassinated, Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, the motive may become slightly clearer, but not by much. Both Litvinenko and Politkovskaya had made damaging, highly controversial contentions, in the former's case concerning the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, which started the second brutal war in Chechnya and quickly elevated Putin to president, and in Politkovskaya's case her continual exposes of the abuses on the ground in that other poor, benighted country. Litvinenko accused the FSB of being behind the bombings, a false flag operation which, if true, most certainly served its purpose. While Politkovskaya concentrated more on the situation that those bombings brought about, she wasn't immune from entering the same kind of conspiracy ground that Litvinenko did; she conducted an interview in the aftermath of the Moscow theatre siege with a Chechen FSB agent, Khanpash Terkibaev, who she considered to have been the real kingpin of the hostage taking, arranging for them to make the journey to Moscow, with the promise that he would also arrange for them to get out afterwards. Just to further set the mind racing, a file which Litvinenko gave to Sergei Yushenkov containing his own allegations and suspicions was eventually passed to Politkovskaya. Every single character in this whole pass-the-parcel game is now dead: Yushenkov was assassinated just days after his return from visiting Litvinenko. Terkibaev died in a car accident in Chechnya.

In additional to all the conspiracy theorising, we have to consider the money aspect. Litvinenko had become good friends with
Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch that managed to get away, at least for now. Much of Putin's popularity lies with his continuing attempts to cut the alleged robber barons who made their money buying and selling formerly state controlled assets at what are now considered prices well below their actual worth down to size. Considering how the vast majority of Russian people suffered, at least in the short term, during the "experiments" in extreme neo-liberalism conducted in the early 1990s, and how the country itself has only now just about recovered, we always ought to keep in mind the fact that Berezovsky is himself wanted in Moscow on fraud and political corruption charges. While it's unlikely that he could get a fair trial in the current climate, we should always keep open the possibility that the charges against him are credible, whatever we think about Putin and the FSB's antics. This then raises the question of why Litvinenko, and not Berezovsky, who is much more of a substantive threat to Putin than Litvinenko was, who could be dismissed as a conspiracy nut especially considering some of his later accusations, was not the target himself. It might well be that Litvinenko's murder was a warning that if he kept up his campaigning, and potential funding of what Putin fears most - a velvet revolution - that he would be next. If this was the objective, then it has backfired spectacularly, as we have since seen.

A lot of commentators have one basic problem with Russia: they see it instantly through the prism of the cold war, as if the Soviet Union never went away. As understandable as this is, especially considering how Russia has started to once again exercise its long-resting might, it misses the point that Russia is now more isolated than it has ever been. The money might be flooding in because of its reserves of natural resources, but on most policy matters it has never felt so alone. While once it even seemed likely that Russia could eventually join the EU, it now finds itself as a pariah once again. This is not entirely through its own actions, as bad as its human rights abuses and drift away from democracy have been: the rise of the neo-conservatives in Washington, with one of Bush's first acts being to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty,
and now with the prospect of having missile interceptors in Poland, supposedly aimed at Iran and North Korea when anyone with even half a braincell realises they're directed at Russia, has been just as influential. The West has treated Russia since the collapse of communism as a subjugated nation, never to be allowed to rise again. That it appears to be attempting to do so is as much a reason for some of the opprobrium it's received as its own repression of political opposition has been.

Where does this all leave us? What is our response to Russia's own inevitable reaction? Rather than exchanging tit-for-tat diplomatic blows, our answer has to be more subtle. An increase in funding of democratic organisations, NGOs which Putin has desperately banned more out of paranoia than anything else, is certainly one step. Another has to be an attempt to be seen as an honest broker: rather than being 100% behind the decision of the US to place new bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, we have to consider Russia's own legitimate grievance, and attempt to reach a compromise. What Putin and his successor will fear the most is the Russian citizenry themselves: we have to empower them against their own autocrats, not against us.

Labels: , , ,

Share |

Saturday, April 14, 2007 

The slow death of free speech.

It's one of the least edifying rivalries there could be. In the ex-red corner we have Vladimir Putin, the man who may well have launched his brutal war in Chechnya with the help of a false flag terror operation (one of a number of allegations put forward by the assassinated Alexander Litvinenko) and whom since then has been busy reversing the democratic reforms introduced in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, while in the blue corner is Boris Berezovsky, one of the robber-baron oligarchs who made his loot (estimated at £850m) cheap in the 90s and then subsequently fled when turned on by Putin. It's one of those fights where you hope that they both manage to do enough damage to each other to neuter both of their ambitions.

You could call the war of words between the Russian authorities and Berezovsky a phony one, but that would probably be doing a disservice to Berezovsky, for he certainly does deserve asylum, if only because of the obsessional desire for him to be repatriated. He might well be a crook, but it's more than obvious that the Kremlin wants him back, not out of his financial dealings, but because he poses a political threat, much like the other oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, currently languishing in a cell in Siberia. The arrest today of another political figure, former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who leads one of the few Russian opposition political parties still standing up to Putin, is another sign of the widening crackdown on protests of any kind.

The latest outburst from Berezovsky, who told the Grauniad that he is actively organising for a coup against Putin was only to be expected. He has made similar statements in the past, and the murder of Litvinenko will have done nothing to dissuade him that the only solution now is revolution.

What should more concern us here in Britain though is the slow but apparent death of free speech, for Berezovsky is now apparently to be investigated by the police, as well as being condemned for his impertinence by the Foreign Office. There was very little in what Berezovsky said that is objectionable: it's difficult to disagree with his claim that change is impossible through democracy itself, as Putin continues to ban opposition parties and it's widely seen that the last elections in 2004 were far from free and fair. He's also right in saying that few authoritarian regimes are brought down without at least some blood being spilt, even if it's the regime itself that tries to stay power through violence.

These days though, with terror bill after terror bill, and with violence viewed as abhorrent even if it's only ever targeted against a government which cannot be displaced through any other method than armed struggle, government officials inform us it would be "inconceivable" if the police did not investigate them. After all, what if an evil Islamist had called for our current government to be overthrown through violence, Blair and the Queen to be stoned to death or beheaded, with a council of clerics introduced in their place? Such a thing could not go unchallenged by our thought police. Blair himself has of course been investigated previously for supposedly making comments about the "fucking Welsh"; if you can't even say that without fear of having a file drawn up, then Berezovsky is most definitely in trouble.

As ever though, there are humongous double standards here. The very nerve of the Foreign Office, at least partly responsible for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, issuing a statement "deploring any call for the violent overthrow of a sovereign state", is hard to fathom. That wasn't regime change, that was "liberation", which makes all the difference. How many would disagree with someone calling for the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, even by violent means? His thugs are out dispensing their own form of justice to the opposition or anyone who gets in the way, but if you were to do so it would apparently be "inconceivable" if you weren't investigated as a result.

This insanity was warned of last year, as the "glorifying" terrorism part of the larger act was implemented despite substantial Lords and media opposition. As Not Saussure points out, the definition is drawn so widely that you could potentially be caught under it if you called for a country-wide smashing of Starbucks' windows, so Berezovsky would find it incredibly difficult to escape.

While we then witness the death of democracy in Russia, one of the last major remaining opponents to that attack is going to find himself raked over the coals in a still functioning (just) democracy for remarks that few other than an hypocritical Foreign Office find beyond the pale. The real terrorists must be unable to contain their mirth.

Labels: , , , ,

Share |


  • This is septicisle


Powered by Blogger
and Blogger Templates