Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"First as Tragedy, then as Farce"

"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce"

Karl Marx

Russia scares people. It is big and aggressive. It has a history of the blackest tyranny. It is the largest state on the planet, stretching across eleven time zones from the Baltic Sea to the Bering straits. It has a massive army which is armed to the teeth, including the largest nuclear arsenal of any country. It has repeatedly invaded its neighbours. It possesses the largest mineral reserves including the largest gold reserves, and amongst the largest oil and gas reserves on the planet. Until August it possessed the third largest foreign exchange reserves, second only to China and Taiwan.

It is also a state which expresses a grievance.

In the face of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and then the Soviet Union itself, the Russian leadership has become truculent- In 2005 Vladmir Putin has declared that "the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century".

Yet for most of its subjects, the creation of the USSR was the disaster.

Here in Estonia, the Soviet invasion in 1940 killed or exiled one third of the population.

More than 40% of the Chechens were killed during the forced deportation to Kazakhstan in the 1940s.

There is not one single family in the USSR which did not have at least one member taken to the labour camps of Siberia and cities like Magadan are quite literally built upon the bodies of the millions who died there. No one knows how many people were shot or tortured to death- the Soviets lacked the methodical documentation of their crimes that allow us to know with some accuracy the crimes of Adolf Hitler's regime in Germany.

A realistic, even conservative, estimate would be that the Soviet tyranny imprisoned 40 million human beings in the GULAG. The death toll is in the millions. The Holodomor- the famine deliberately created by Stalin in 1932-33 may have killed 10 million alone.

The legal successor to the Soviet Union is the government of the Russian Federation. Unlike the Federal Republic of Germany, the Russian Federation has not fully acknowledged the crimes of its predecessors. Russia does not accept that the invasion of the three Baltic States was criminal, for example, preferring to continue the Soviet fiction that the rape of the Baltic was a "voluntary incorporation".

The invasion of Georgia in August last year showed that the tough talk from the ex-KGB members who control the Kremlin was not bluster. Russia intended to maintain her interests in former Soviet republics- by force if necessary. Thus Russian troops are stationed in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova and Georgia with or without the consent of the governments of those countries.

Yet, as I have noted before, August 2008 may prove to have been the high point of the Putin regime. The shocking economic turnaround in Russia is putting huge strain on the social cohesiveness of the country. Now the World Bank is forecasting a deep recession of at least 4.5%, the OECD suggests the fall will be nearer 6%.

The great fear is that Russia is as dangerous a power as Nazi Germany was in the 1930s. Wounded by her terrible history, resentful of her diminished status, the relatively minor challenges that the Putin regime is making to the international system are a potential threat. As the economic crisis hits Russia ever harder, Putin may seek the cheap popularity that foreign adventurism seems to bring him and lead his country into a global conflict. Putin is, in this world view an analogue to Hitler- amoral and brutal and determined to restore the power of Russia, by force.

My friend, Edward Lucas, has written well on the subject of the threat that the aggressive and resentful regime of Vladimir Putin poses to the freedom of his countrymen and the stability of the international system. His Book "The New Cold War". He notes that the New Cold war is being fought with Money. Thus the latest acquisition by the Russian Surgut of the Hungarian National oil company, MOL, is very much a part of the same sinister pattern that Edward sees. Russia is still seeking control of all of the infrastructure in oil and gas that was broken up after the fall of the USSR.

Yet it seems to me that the scale of the economic challenges that Putin faces will not- as they did with Hitler- reinforce the grip of the Siloviki on Power. The ruthless nature of the group of four or five people who control the Kremlin is undoubted, yet their failure to deliver economic stability has nullified the informal pact by which public political dissent could be muted.

Putin is facing ever growing resistance to his incompetent government by cronies. After riots in the Russian far east, around the city of Vladivostok, discontent is now obvious across the whole country. The failure to help those who have become unemployed could have dramatic, even revolutionary consequences. Yet the usual beneficiaries of economic crisis: nationalist extremists are the ones supporting the regime. It therefore be that the Liberals who having been leading the dissent against the regime also end up leading the rebellion against the increasingly faltering and chaotic regime. After all ,Russia does have a history of Liberal rebellion: the Decemberists in 1825, and repeated rebellions across the 19th century culminating in 1906 and February 1917.

Perhaps we should rather now think of Mark Twain:

"History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot."

Yet the the rhyme may be in Russian history, rather than German- if the Kremlin can not address the concerns of the Russian people, then its ruler may be removed- by force or by assassination if required. Czars Feodor II, Vasili IV, Ivan VI, Peter III, Paul I, Alexander I, Alexander II and Nicholas II were all assassinated, and there were many plots against all the other rulers- even if they survived.

Uneasy lies the head that wears that particular crown.

Watch this space.

4 comments:

Newmania said...

Excellent and interesting article.

Richard T said...

I think there are a couple of factors which need put in the balance.

First is the utter incompetence of Russian governments throughout history. Look at tsarism - in the 20th century and the sinking of British fishing boats in the north sea because they were thought to be japanese; the massacres after the defeat in 1905; the simple inability to fight wars. The Soviet regime relied on mass fear to survive until it collapsed through its own internal self contradictions. Is the current regime, even with its KGB under or over tones much different?

Second is the strong continuity of Russian foreign policy - a very thick cordon sanitaire of client states either allied or cowed; a clear readiness to defend aggressively what it sees as its interests; a willingness to meddle; an almost paranoid wish to maintain status as a great power. This has obtained perhaps originally from the days of Peter the Great and most clearly since the mid 19th century with the aim to dismember the Ottoman Empire and to oversee Orthodox states through to bullying former parts of the Soviet Union.

The question then follows - do we best manage relations with Russia by recognising history and managing sensibly or, as the USA is prone to do, by indulging in power politics and a certain amount of double standards when it comes to spheres of interest?

Fundamentally although its economic weakness is now a reality, the need to manage relations with Russia remains and certainly along its southern borders, I'm not sure that there is not a great deal of overlap of mutual interests.

neil craig said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cicero said...

Richard, I think your point about Russian incompetence is well taken and I think you are right- The Putinistas *are* incompetent. The trouble is that their history of corruption and brutality means that they are now riding a tiger that they can not get off from.

I would therefore say that the West should not be humouring the Kremlin but instead take a very robust line in defence of the NATO members which border Russia while being more pragmatic about such issues as Iran- hoping that Russia's childish policy in supporting the Mullahs will be recognised as a direct contradiction of their own interests. Therein lies the rub: the corruption and incompetence of the Kremlin makes them take anti Western positions even when they are obviously counter productive, and even stupid. Therefore any Western olive branch to this erratic and suspicious regime needs plenty of quid-pro-quo for it to acheive any gains.

Neil Craig: Just to re-iterate: I will not accept further postings from you without the apology I asked for. Even then your positions on Serbia would be unacceptable in a Chetnik bar in Belgrade and I will not allow my blog to be made a platform for such rubbish.

I will switch on comment moderation if you make it necessary.