From the CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria at http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/08/29/zakaria.georgia/

CNN: So Russia wins?

Zakaria: Well, even if it wins in the narrow sense, it will lose in a broader sense. Russia's actions have scared all their neighbors, aroused anti-Russian nationalism..



The recent outpour of indignation about Russia's intervention in the secessionist areas of Georgia has caught many off guard. It seemed to be an event that came out of nowhere, and yet there was a logical progression leading up to it. In musical terms, it's not a sudden outburst of a triumphant melody, but a repetition of a theme that has slowly been building up to a crescendo.

The history is mind-boggling when you try to sum it up in moral or ethical terms. It is very true that Russians can build a case of repeated grievances committed against them by the former Soviet Republics since the fall of the Soviet Union: they can tally them off one after another. But, when you look at European history as a whole, sometimes two wrongs, three wrongs, and four wrongs may make a right. In the case of Russia, a wrong against it after 1991 ironically made a right.

There is a litany of abuses that Russia has imputed to the "The Near Abroad", the term Moscow uses to refer to former Soviet Republics. When Vladimir Putin was a functionary working for the St. Petersburg mayor, he once mentioned that the biggest issue to occupy Russia in the post-Soviet era was the status of Russians living just beyond the borders.

And sure enough, Russians who lived in the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have had it tough.I don't pretend to be a historian and a political expert versed in the history of Russian relations with the former Soviet Republics, but I do know bits and pieces. It would be hard to overlook Russians' repeated complaints about language requirements being "imposed" upon them in the Baltics, not to mention restricted rights of travel, both of which are business impediments.

And folks, business is what it comes down to. The Russian mentality is used to being able to draw upon resources of their former Soviet Republics and the possibility of trade being closed off is a major fear factor. Russian media products, tv, radio, newspapers, and etc.., always have had a built-in market in Russian-speaking regions outside of Russia. People go back and forth and products move. Naturally once Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined NATO and the EU, the reach of the Russian market had lessened due to more tightly-closed borders and the decline of the Russian language. Russia fears that this could be the case with Georgia and the Ukraine, were they to join NATO. (Abkhazia, once a popular Soviet Black Sea resort, wants the Russian borders to be open so that Russian tourists and their money can flow in.) Relations with Ukraine are also tense since Russian is not an official language despite its widespread use. Russia's economic and cultural relations with Kiev would worsen if Ukraine's tentative hopes of entering NATO and the European Union come to fruition.

But there's something twisted in the whole idea of Russia having interests in cultural and economic links with its former Soviet Republics. When you think about the question of whether Russian minorities deserve to be educated in their language and to have the option to travel back and forth and thus maintain ties with Russia proper, the answer, at least from the point of view of Russian's neighbors, is ultimately no.

If the Russian minority insists on respect in the former Soviet Republics, it is a deeply delusional and unreasonable demand. You see, there's history. History is deeply implicated in cycles of action and reaction. Russian colonization and exploitation of the Caucasus, the Baltics, as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus have left their mark on these places.(Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, was reduced to starvation, while Stalin appropriated its harvests to feed the Soviet workforce.) While it may be deeply desirable and even ideal for countries to respect their minorities, offer them full rights, this doesn't hold for a case in which the minority has been an oppressor. He who has been the enemy has no rights in the lands that he has left behind once they were forced out of his greedy, clinging grasp.

This is a case where the concept of minority rights may not apply because the former Soviet Republics view Russia first and foremost through the prism of its past abuses. Because they see Russia as an empire bent on restoring lost influence, the question of minority rights is rendered invalid. After all, in terms of the post-Soviet space as a whole that spans Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Russians are still a majority and not a minority.

So, Russia's claims to minority rights are only abstractly legitimate in the Near Abroad that considers its Russian population an intrusive majority. If history of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union were to be put aside, it would be unreasonable for NATO to welcome Georgia, Ukraine ,and other former Soviet republics into its military alliance. Of course, it's perfectly normal for Russia to perceive a threat in an alliance it is not a part of. In a hypothetical conflict between Russia and one former Soviet Republic that has become a NATO member, all NATO members would after all band together to take action against Russia.

Russia perceives this encirclement as wrong, but history says that two wrongs make a right. The former empire that subjugated ethnically distinct nations and robbed them of their heritage and the freedom to shape their own political fate cannot expect to be treated with fairness. The Russian people living in the Near Abroad may talk all they want about being closed off from Russia. Yes, it was no fun for Russians living in a Baltic state to have to worry about visas and legal complications when they wanted to cross the border to go to a supermarket in a nearby Russian town. But you can't deny the fact that under Soviet rule, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians weren't allowed to travel west of their borders, and not even to their homeland for those sent to labor camps in Siberia.

So, with all this in mind, were Russians more mindful of history, they would understand that their expectations in the Near Abroad are not at all reasonable. They would also understand that the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn that commemorated Russia's "liberation" of Europe from Nazi Germany was an eyesore for Estonians. When Russians laid waste to the Estonian capital in protest of the statue's being moved from a prominent location to the city's outskirts in April 2007, they forgot that two wrongs make a right. Russians think of their soldiers as honorable heroes who died in defense of their country against Nazi aggression. The occasion of this Russian victory in World War II is commemorated every year on the 9th of May. There is, however, a deeply important reason that the Estonian and Lithuanian Heads of State refused Putin's invitation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of "the day of victory" in 2005. They knew that Russia's war was a war of occupation as well as a war of liberation: the reign of one despot, Hitler, was replaced by that of another, Stalin. Whether Russian soldiers personally supported Stalin's occupation of Estonia or not, it is beyond all doubt that Estonians should not have to live with the statue honoring an occupying army.

For many former Soviet Republics, Georgia included, Russia, its language and culture represent the memory of occupation. When Russia moved in its troops to respond to Georgia's attempt to retake South Ossetia, it didn't realize that this move would evoke past aggressions. Aside from Russia's ulterior motives, such as hunger for influence and control of oil pipelines, it's essential not to overlook the fact that the central dimension of this war is an ethnic conflict. South Ossetia's desire to be independent from Georgia is a legitimate issue and Georgia may have been wrong to try to retake the separatist territory. But history lurks in the background: Georgia has been held enslaved by Russia for over 200 years. An empire's invasion into its former colony will never be treated like business as usual. Had the UN stuck up militarily for South Ossetian autonomy, things would have been different. Obama seemed to perceive this tricky situation by saying that Russia cannot be an objective peacekeeping force in a region where it has historically proven itself untrustworthy. That is also my ultimate verdict. All situations where the interests and rights of Russian minorities (or Russian-friendly ethnic groups, as in the case in South Ossetia and Abkhazia) are at stake are best solved without the participation of Russia.

Russians and Russia-friendly ethnic groups will be able to enjoy more freedom of language and travel as soon as they prove themselves not to be pawns of the maniacal manipulations of Russian power in Moscow, bent on exploiting conflicts to legitimatize various military exploits. The Internet attacks against Estonia and violence in Tallinn that were orchestrated by Kremlin-connected activists (i.e. Nashi and other related pro-Putin groups) in Moscow to protest the move of the Bronze Soldier made the Russian minority seem like foot soldiers that would be loyal to the Kremlin every time its leaders beckoned for them to act. When Russia punished Ukraine's pro-Western leanings by jacking up gas prices, pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine were deemed to be in cahoots with Russian bullying. That hurt their campaign for legalization of the Russian language and the preservation of close ties with Russia. And of course, Georgia's embrace of the US and NATO has not been reversed by Russia's total shut-out of Tbilisi in 2006. At that time, Russia imposed trade embargoes and halted all air and land travel to its Caucasus-based neighbor. The retaliatory measures, which also included the expulsion of undocumented immigrants of Georgian origin were supposed to intimidate Georgia and dissuade its pro-Western leanings. Russia's diplomatic freeze may in fact have prompted Saakashvili to build up his military with the goal of retaking South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian interventions in the countries of the Near Abroad only hurt the cause of Russia-friendly minority populations, who actually benefit when Russia does not get involved. Case in point: Russians have been granted the right to be partially educated in their native language in Latvia due to EU pressure for minority rights, rather than through the vituperative denunciations from Moscow. South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and eastern regions of the Ukraine all of whom want to retain their connection to Russia, have seen their case weakened by Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Had Moscow not taken action into its own hands by that military operation, things would have worked out anyway. After all, who can imagine the long-term situation of NATO Troops and European authorities preventing Russians in the Near Abroad from consuming Russian media and traveling to Russia? Putin wants Russians to believe that a new Checkpoint Charlie will be installed along the Russian border and that no Russian residing just beyond it will be able to cross over. But that would only be true if Russia's military is perceived as a threat. And that's exactly what Putin's and Medvedev's actions are making it out be.

P.S: This whole node touches upon a deep philosophical issue: Does a nation who has had to suffer the yoke of foreign oppression need to put away its painful memories and forgive the oppressor? On the one hand, it's unfair for a people to have to pay for the sins of their forefathers, but on the other hand, psychological reality makes forgetting and forgiving incredibly difficult.

Note: I am absolutely no expert in international politics. This is not an academic work suited for reference, but is merely intended to serve as an opinion piece. I defer to knowledgeable people and pay my respects for their expertise in this area.

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