One or two recent notable press items on events in Georgia and Russia:
In the International Herald Tribune on Thursday, Georgia’s prime minister Zurab Nogaideli gave an account of her government’s approach to the spying crisis, and had this to say about his reaction to it:
Viewed from Tbilisi, Russia’s strategy is to depress and disembody a small nation that seeks to be free, that desires justice for its forcibly displaced citizens and that wants to instill democracy in a country that was for too long subjugated to another state and another ideology. We are a European nation that seeks to end our process of decolonization and become fully democratic. We remain mystified as to why Russia seems to perceive a threat from a small democracy on its border.
Georgia remains a work in progress. In three years, we have put an end to the rampant corruption and gangster politics that bedeviled our citizens for over a decade. Last month, the World Bank praised Georgia as the least corrupt transitional democracy. We are improving our system of justice. We are in a rush to make our prisons more European and less Soviet. We have cut through the bureaucracy that stifled private initiative and encouraged the black market, introducing reforms that have fueled economic growth. We are appealing for help to make our frontiers more secure so that people and weapons never pass illegally through our territory to other European destinations.
We are all too aware of what we still need to achieve. Our task is made harder by the fact that Russia’s leaders do not seem to share our aspirations for our citizens - or for their own. We regret this because what we wish for all Georgians, we also wish for all Russians. It is in our common interest. It is a necessity for the region and it is vital for a European Union whose security is now contingent on peace in our region.
We can no longer allow the global challenges of terrorism, energy insecurity and poverty to be reduced to pawns in a diplomatic game.
We have chosen a European path for our country. We seek European and international help to consolidate our democracy, secure our borders and foster peaceful conflict resolution that will benefit Georgia, Russia and our European partners.
The Guardian Weekly looks at Russia’s New Racism. An excerpt:
Few people [in Russia] express much concern about racist murders or the neo-Nazi craze. If we are to believe the Russian press, “fascism is in vogue”. The celebrity magazine Caravan recently put a picture of singer Irina Allegrova in SS uniform on its front page and apparently no one objected. In August Russian Newsweek ran a feature on “underground fascist culture”, embodied among others by Tesak (a nickname that means big knife), who produces sickeningly violent video-clips. Newsweek described him as the “Leni Riefenstahl of Russian Nazis”.
Among the videos on Tesak’s website is one showing the (fictitious) hanging of a “Tajik drug dealer” by hooded thugs, who then cut up the corpse and burn it. Under the heading “Do something practical” the site offers a pro-forma letter for budding informers, encouraging those spotting an illegal on their block to tell the police.
Dmitri Demushkin is one of Russia’s neo-Nazi ideologists. His own movement, the Slavic Union, has almost 5,000 members in the Moscow area alone. Thirtyish, with frizzy hair, suit and tie, he does not fit the skinhead stereotype, presenting himself as a “consultant for the presidential administration”. However, his flat has been raided twice in recent months and he has been denied a permit to organise concerts. Otherwise he is unruffled, claiming that “instructions have been issued at the highest level that I should not be disturbed”. He adds that he has “sympathisers all over the place, at the Kremlin and the Central Bank, at Rosoboronexport [which handles arms sales] and the FSB [the KGB’s successor], with the public prosecutor and the police”. He even has supporters in the Russian Orthodox church.
He is sure “national-socialist ideas will triumph in Russia”. He likens Russia now to the Weimar Republic. Demushkin maintains that “increasing numbers of young people think highly of Adolf Hitler”. Events such as the Kondopoga pogrom “are certain to recur. Lots of groups are working on it”, adding: “We were the ones that started it. Ordinary people support us. The authorities will have to accept our ideas or go.”
Nevertheless it seems ironic that far-right ideas should enjoy such widespread success in a country that paid so high a price - 27 million dead - in the war against fascism. “Many people do not connect these ideas with the Nazis and there are plenty more who don’t think Hitler did anything wrong, apart from attacking Russia,” says Alexander Verkhovski of the Sova NGO, which studies xenophobia. Nor is the craze for Nazi symbols a recent thing, he points out. A popular TV drama at the end of the 1970s, 17 Moments of Spring, told the story of a Soviet spy, Stirlitz, working undercover for the Nazis. His Waffen-SS uniform looked so smart it started a craze. Verkhovski recalls: “In school playgrounds all the kids would play at being Stirlitz, doing Nazi salutes.”
In Eurasia Daily Monitor, Igor Torbakov examines the international implications of the Georgia crisis, and comments:
…the significance of the Russian-Georgian spat goes far beyond the limits of the South Caucasus, thus making it a truly international problem.
First, it is widely accepted in Moscow that the United States sees Georgia as a geopolitically pivotal state and strategic partner. Thus the Kremlin believes that Tbilisi would never risk antagonizing its powerful northern neighbor without an encouraging nod from Washington. As a result, U.S.-Russian relations, already fragile, have deteriorated even further at a time when Washington badly needs Russian support in dealing with the nuclear defiance of North Korea and Iran as well as in the fight against the global jihadist networks.
“It is time to put aside the traditional hypocrisy and accept that what has developed around Georgia is a sort of mini Cold War,” one Russian liberal commentator asserts. Some Russian and international analysts warn about the danger of using Georgia as a playground in a zero-sum game between the world’s great powers. The problem is, they say, the big-time international actors risk ending up hostage to the weaker players. The latter are usually seen as the great powers’ proxies, but in fact they are sometimes quite good at playing the “big guys” off one another to pursue their own strategic ends.
Second, it is clear that Tbilisi’s urge to break up the Russia-supported status quo regarding the “frozen conflicts” is prompted by the approaching deadline to determine the status of Kosovo. As the likely outcome for the Serbian province is some sort of independence, the Saakashvili government is racing against time, fearing that Georgia’s breakaway regions may be lost forever following the international contact group’s decision.
While the West has always argued that Kosovo is a unique case, Russia has been pressing for the universality of the Kosovo model. But on October 4, the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, acknowledged that Kosovo’s quest for independence could have a negative effect on Georgia’s territorial integrity, conceding it would set a “precedent.” He also said that, during a recent phone conversation, the Georgian president had confessed to “tremendous worry” about the possible consequences that the ongoing UN-sponsored Kosovo status talks could have for Georgia. “We are trapped here,” Solana told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “President Saakashvili is trapped, all of us are trapped in a double mechanism that may have good consequences for one, but not for the other.”
The way this tricky knot is untied will seriously affect Russia-West relations. “The simultaneous exacerbation of the situation in Kosovo and the unrecognized regions in Georgia,” one Russian commentary argues, “will have reciprocal effects, threatening to destabilize the situation in both cases.”