Western reports say Russia is in deep trouble because foreigners are fleeing its stock market following the recent conflict in Georgia. Maybe so. But none of this was very visible to me on a recent Moscow visit.
Shops cater to the newly rich on central Moscow streets that 10 years ago were lined with beggars and peddlers. Construction trucks clog the 12-lane Moscow ring road built well into the countryside. A subway system shuttles hordes of commuters at minute intervals into central Moscow from high-rise developments across that countryside. High wages attract workers from former Soviet republics. The dynamism is almost as palpable as in China.
True, the stock-market collapse was impressive. But it hurt few other than a handful of speculators and the get-rich-quick oligarchs given dominant shares in the economy during the disastrous Yeltsin years.
What hurts the Russians is how the West seems to have ganged up against them, first with NATO’s push into East Europe and then accusing Moscow of aggression simply because it came to the rescue of South Ossetia in August.
Nor was it the first attack. In the early ’90s both South Ossetia and the equally disputed Abkhazia had to fight bitter wars with Georgia to retain the autonomy granted them in Soviet years. Both mini-wars ended with U.N.-brokered settlements under which peacekeepers, mainly Russian, were installed.
Then on Aug. 7-8, Georgian troops suddenly attacked the South Ossetian capital and 16 Russian peacekeepers were killed outright in their beds. Many more Ossetians died (1,600 was the figure given me by the Moscow Diplomatic Academy). Given that many South Ossetians have Russian passports and were liable to severe ethnic cleansing, a strong Russian counterattack was inevitable and justified.
So why is none of this recognized in the West? the Russians ask. It is not as though the facts were hard to find. But even as U.S. and British journalists were filing their detailed on-the-spot accounts of what had actually happened that night, their editors were grinding out the “punish Russian aggression” mantra. The Washington Post says the Russian goal is the overthrow of the pro-West Georgian government. If so, why did the Russian troops leave Georgia once they had stabilized the situation?
To someone like myself who lived and worked in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, the distortions are sickeningly familiar. First the West would do something ugly — invade Cuba, send U2 flights across the Soviet Union on the eve of breakthrough talks, brutalize Indochina. The angry Soviet reaction would then be used to justify the West’s original atrocity, plus further atrocities. The Soviets would then use this to justify their atrocities. Even young children playing kindergarten tit for tat seemed to understand cause and effect better than most of our U.S.-British policymakers.
The Russians with whom I talked seem to have given up on the United States and Britain and are pinning their hopes more on the Europeans for understanding. While some West Europeans now do admit the attack by Georgia was a mistake, they insist that the Russian response was excessive, and that recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics was illegal.
Excessive? Illegal? Then what was the European determination to bomb Serbia en route to having Kosovo forcefully detached from Serbia and recognized as an independent republic? Here the hypocrisy and double standards make even kindergarten tit-for-tat look good. Complaints about the suffering of Georgians now being expelled from South Ossetia fade into nothing compared with the sufferings of Serbs and other minorities ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the now dominant ethnic Albanians, and which the West supported.
Complaints against Russian behavior in Chechnya seem more appropriate. But the West was largely silent there; those suffering were pro-Islam and not pro-West. Most of the Russians I have met have been equally silent. Double standards are not a Western monopoly, it seems.
Future trouble looms. Soviet era ideology endorsed the mixing of populations within loosely defined constituent republics. So in Soviet days South Ossetia and Abkhazia were bundled in together with Georgia proper despite strong ethnic differences. It was all supposed to help create a new Soviet identity of multicultural togetherness. But now all that is being undone as those constituent republics set out to create their own identities — much as happened after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, incidentally, with the very painful results we have seen since. South Ossetia was one result.
Ukraine is another problem waiting to explode. Culturally and linguistically it is very close to Russia and its arbitrary borders include many Russian speakers. Indeed, when we traveled there from Russia in the 1960s it was rather like going from Kanto to Kansai; we had almost no sense of entering a different region.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had even decreed that the firmly Russian populated Crimean region with its important naval port of Sevastopol should also be part of Ukraine, no doubt thinking this would help calm lingering anti-Russian feelings among Ukrainians who had suffered under pre-1953 Stalinism.
Today Ukrainian nationalism is killing those hopes as the regime distances itself from Moscow and seeks NATO ties. Any Russian reaction to this seeming betrayal by a former brother region on its borders — even simple demands that Ukraine begin to pay more for the subsidized gas it receives from Russia — meets predictable Western noise about Russian bullying and blackmail.
Meanwhile, similar cultural conflicts are already well under way in the three Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia together with Moldova and some of the former Soviet central Asian republics. Where will it all end?
Gregory Clark, vice president of Akita International University, was first secretary at the Australian Embassy, Moscow, 1963-1965. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.