Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The War of Words over South Ossetia (Part 1)

My head hurts from trying to disseminate all the information and opinions surrounding Georgia-Russia conflict over the last 5 days. Blogs, news, and official government announcements.
There are two very vocal sides: the Russia-skeptic side and what I will call the "pro-Russia crowd. " The "Pro-Russia crowd" have always felt that the West has an anti-Russian bent in its media and politics. These are often businessmen blogging from Russia. Their blogs usually make the following points:

1. Isn't America being hypocritical?
a) If U.S. troops were killed anywhere in the world by a military force, wouldn't the U.S. respond with overwhelming force?
b) If China or Iran were to help build Mexico's military, provide advisory assistance to their government, and full-fledged support, wouldn't the U.S. want regime change in Mexico?
c) Doesn't Russia have the right to object to Western meddling in its neighbors and doesn't Russia have a right to object to independence for Kosovo, since it was basically an international vote? Why does America want to have more rights for itself than what it gives others?

The U.S. has used the Monroe Doctrine to justify intervention in Grenanda, Panama, Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Haiti, and other countries in our hemisphere-- plotting coups, assassinating leaders, funding guerillas, etc. We look down on Russia for doing the same things in theirs.

However, the problem with b) and c) is that it assumes that totalitarianism/socialism and democracy are morally equivalent. I believe that they aren't. Iran and China can't easily un-elect their leaders if they dislike their policies. Free speech, free press, and free opposition don't exist in those countries. Our government does bad things all the time, but we are aware of it because we have a free press, and we can criticize our own government. Not so easy in other countries (and not so easy in Russia).

The answer to a) is "absolutely." But, it's very hard to paint the S. Ossetian conflict in such black & white terms.

2. Aren't the Neocons to blame for this mess?

[nutshell] In the 1990s, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and a bunch of right-wingers sought to resurrect a "Reaganist" foreign policy. They created the Project for the New American Century (Wiki), a thinktank to essentially foster Pax Americana. The Neocons sought to maintain U.S. dominance of economic and military affairs calling for a strengtening, restructuring, and redeployment of the U.S. including a focus on Southern Europe.

After the Soviet collapse, Russia struggled with economic and political reforms. Hyperinflation, the rise of the oligarchs, falling commodity prices, Chechnya, an alcoholic President; Russia was weak. The purported Neocon strategy was to keep Russia down-- expanding NATO (which Reagan said America wouldn't do if the Soviets would free Eastern Europe), withholding aid, criticizing Russia's slow move to democracy and free markets.
All the while seeking to develop oil sources that would bypass Russia--particularly in former Soviet Central Asian states. The U.S. began cultivating important relationships with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.

Russia didn't like being criticized, and mourned the loss of the old days. Putin came to power, the price of oil and gas began to climb, foreign investment in Russia began to surge as the free market finally began to operate efficiently and Russians returned from abroad with Wall Street educations. Russian youth finally had something to be proud about. (Read Kremlin Rising for a good view of this). Putin declared that the era of being talked down to by America was over.

Bush II and his cabinet were the very embodiment of the Neocons (Bush was just the name to get Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, etc. elected to real power). Bypassing the newly-strong Russia became important. The U.S. clashed with Russia over the Balkans, as Russia was a strong ally of Serbia. The U.S. supported a democratic revolution in the Ukraine, helping defeat Putin's choice for leadership. When Saakashvili was swept into power in Georgia, it was seen as going just a little too far. [nutshell]

Fast forward a few years and you have 25% of the Georgian Army trained in the U.S., armed by NATO countries, and promised NATO membership without the seeking of Russia's blessing. Georgia is a key conduit in the "bypass Russia" energy plans, and has a President eager to retake lost lands, by force if necessary, and outspokenly critical of Russia's President.

2 years ago, Russia closed all rail, road, air, and mail routes to Georgia. They also outlawed financial transfers to Georgia. Time Magazine reported at the time:

Saakashvili's heavy hints that he might force the (Abkhazia, S. Ossetia) issue has allowed Moscow to accuse the Georgian leadership of threatening aggression. And it has certainly helped President Vladimir Putin rally the Russian public behind a nationalist cause. A poll taken by the Moscow-based Echo Moskvy radio station late last month found that 40% of its typically liberal audience believe that Russia's national interests justify any hard line on Georgia.

The Neocon foreign policy led to an offended Russia that was eager to heal its wounded pride and became increasingly nationalistic. It also led to the support of an aggressive government that New Russia didn't like in its backyard. And thus you have a recipe for conflict.

The problem I have with #2 is similar to the problem with 1(b)(c). Putin said early on that "the Russian people are not ready for democracy." All the television news stations were taken over by hostile Kremlin takeovers, leading to dramatic televised standoffs in some instances, and most radio stations as well. Elections were "managed," opposition parties harrassed and opposition leaders jailed. Journalists killed. Chechnya was retaken and soldiers committing well-documented heinous crimes went unpunished. Government-funded youth movements like Nashe train teenagers that the West is a liar and that a cult of personality behind Putin is OK.

In recent years, several Western business leaders have been kicked out and their assets seized by the government. BP-TNK is the latest of these. American accounting firms have learned that it's hard to do business in Russia. OSCE election monitors were denied visas, Western NGOs were kicked out along with non-Orthodox missionaries. Often, the press gets blamed rather than the government out itself. Take today's example of reporters in Gori recording footage of Russian tank patrols in and around the city. 3 hours later, the Russian government denied it had even had troops in Gori at any time. Does the camera lie? What other examples do you want?

The Neocons, for all their faults and arrogance, have not succeeded in fundamentally eliminating American democracy. Witness the wave of anti-neocon Democrats being elected to power. If Abu Gharaib had been in Chechnya do you think you'd have seen pictures on the news about it? Do you think people would have been prosecuted?

When you begin to remove free speech and free press (and free religion in many instances), you lose the very elements that make a free democracy function well. I believe that democracy > totalitarianism, communism, socialism, or anarchy.

Now, the pro-Russia blogs will call those last two paragraphs "Western propganda" or "Neocon lies" or "garbage" from "someone who's never been there." I've been there, I have friends there, I've studied its neighbors pretty well (used to live in the Caucasus), and I read a lot of books and newspapers from there. Either the vast majority of people are lying and Russia is a free utopia, or the vast majority are fabricating sources. It's kind of like denying the Holocaust or questioning its happening-- you have to ignore a whole lot of evidence to reach such a positive conclusion.

The stock market in Russia might be free (and much of the investment climate might be--with the caveats above) and booming, but so what? If all you care about is making money, then Russia and China are Heaven. But, for those of us who care even more about justice and human rights as well as freedom of speech, press, and religion, then Russia has serious issues.

*Accompanying the "Pro-Russia crowd" are U.S. university students who are studying Russian. Everywhere I go, I find students studying Russia passionate about Russia, enamored with Putin, collecting Soviet memorabilia, and often revering Stalin as "The Man." They tend to do semester studies or summer trips and come back deeply critical of U.S. policy. I remember what my own Russian classmates were like, almost all were liberal arts majors.

Tomorrow I'll try to conclude my thoughts as the situation continues to evolve horrifically on the ground.

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