Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Valdai view of the world

As Russian troops start to move out of the Georgian port of Poti, one can almost hear the first sighs of relief among Western observers who have been privately convinced that Moscow would not even begin to honour the terms of the updated peace agreement brokered by President Sarkozy. Yet the situation remains tense and fraught with the possibility of further conflict, as the Kremlin has announced that it will not withdraw any troops from the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and will even increase its troop numbers there substantially.

Reports are now appearing in the British press of what has been said by prime minister Putin and President Medvedev at the meeting of the so-called “Valdai Discussion Club” in Moscow. The Times correspondent focuses quite coolly on the “short, articulate former lawyer” Medvedev’s characterization of the Georgia war as “Russia’s 9/11”, almost accepting the mind-boggling assertion as if it were a statement of fact. In the Independent, Mary Dejevsky writes of Medvedev’s “fierce public warning” to Georgia, and in the Guardian, Jonathan Steele also presents the “9/11” comparison for the edification of the paper’s readers. In today’s Russian-language edition of Kommersant, Steele is quoted as saying, in connection with Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia: "At first I thought it was a mistake, but now that I’ve thought it over a bit and heard the voices of your prime minister and president on the reasons for taking such a step, I think that I’m in agreement.” (Сначала я думал, что это было ошибкой, но затем, поразмыслив и услышав голос вашего премьер-министра и президента о причинах такого шага, я думаю, что я сейчас соглашусь.)

I was born in 1945. Two books I grew up with were William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) and Berlin Diary (1941), which gives an account of Shirer’s work as a foreign correspondent in Germany during the 1930s. For me, the similarities between the accounts of the Valdai meeting and the 1930s Berlin propaganda ministry press conferences described by Shirer in his books , while not exactly parallel, are too obvious to ignore. The behaviour of some sections of the British press also looks similar: although the Daily Mail was the only British newspaper to give open support to the Nazi government during the 1930s, other British publications (including the Daily Telegraph and the Times) adopted an editorial line that conflicted quite strongly with the reports of their own journalists, who could see what was actually happening on the ground.

Perhaps the Valdai reports mentioned above are just an anomaly. After all, the British press, like most other sections of the West's media, has been strikingly honest in giving a clear and vivid account of events in Georgia which has left little room for equivocation where Russia’s behaviour with regard to ethnic cleansing and the treatment of civilian populations is concerned. The principal danger comes not from censored reporting – there is little of that – but from events like the Valdai meeting, which the Russian authorities have devised as a way of influencing international opinion. Reports of what is said and heard at such meetings need to be read with some caution, as through them, either deliberately or by accident, the voice of the Orwellian Kremlin world-view, with its "peacekeepers" and "security zones", can also be heard – as Orwell himself wrote in 1945: “the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a State which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of 'cold war' with its neighbours."

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