Monday, May 07, 2007

The bully and the neighbours

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt writes about the Monument crisis in Estonia. An excerpt from a thoughtful article which explores the reasons why Russia seems to be unable to become a normal country:
Why such a fuss? To Russians, the statue was a tribute to their overwhelming losses in World War II — which they know as the Great Patriotic War. To Estonians, it was a reminder of a half-century of Soviet occupation during which the Kremlin shot thousands of Balts; sent hundreds of thousands to Siberia; moved hundreds of thousands of Russians in to take their places; and tried to eradicate their culture, their language and any memory of independence.

The trouble is that Russia has never acknowledged this history, and under Putin it grows less and less willing to do so. The passing of the Soviet Union is mourned, the old KGB is celebrated — imagine if Germans continued to honor the Gestapo — and the current independence of former Soviet states is treated as a transitory error. Neither Putin nor even his foreign minister has deigned to pay a bilateral visit to independent Tallinn. Virtually every neighbor — Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, even Finland — has been subjected to bullying.

“It seems they cannot tolerate any democracy on their borders,” Estonian President Toomas Ilves told me in a phone conversation late Friday night. He sounded weary after a week of crisis, but hopeful that tensions would ease, particularly after Estonia had received support from the West, including an invitation that day from President Bush for Ilves to visit the White House in June.

Democracy in Estonia or Georgia, Ilves suggested, calls into question Kremlin claims that “Western-style” democracy won’t work in that part of the world. An absence of democracy at home, in turn, makes it awkward to face history, “because if you start saying the Soviet Union was bad, well, what was at fault? One-party rule, a lack of human rights?” — it’s all too familiar.

Russian leaders dwell inordinately on the lack of respect paid them — but the more they stifle democracy at home, the less cause others have to show respect and the more the Kremlin ends up having to demand respect in a Soviet way. “Now Germany commands a tremendous amount of respect,” Ilves told me, “not because people any longer are afraid of it, but because it is a thriving and effective country.
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