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Friday, August 15, 2008

West Suffers Retrograde Amnesia on Georgia.

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The West Suffers Retrograde Amnesia on Georgia.


By Hugh Graham, August 15, 2008.

Like an amnesiac who can't recall anything before a few years ago, the West sees the turmoil between Georgia and Russia as a resurgence of Soviet imperialism. The West and the U.S. in particular have insisted on a history whose seminal big bang took place with Soviet Communism in 1917, an early period of temporary insanity from which Russia has only just wakened and for which it has finally been forgiven. And now the idea is to stop it from backsliding.

Purblind and a-historical as everyone seems to remain in the post-Communist world, we fail to see that the contemporary world was made before 1900. The business between Moscow and Tbilisi has nothing to do with the former Soviet Union and everything to do with Russia, the old Russia of the 18th century, even the 16th. Two centuries ago, Russia was having territorial disputes with Persia and Turkey in the hostile no-man's land between the Black and Caspian seas. The region's great, medieval Kingdom of Georgia had already collapsed with the Mongol invasions. By the 15th century it was a power vacuum. Soon Turkey claimed western Georgia and Persia claimed the east. Christian Georgia asked Russia for protection. Russia claimed the former kingdom as a protectorate and buffer against the Muslim empires. Russia defeated Turkey and Persia in turn. And so Christian Georgia became Russia's buffer against any further Turkish or Persian expansion. The Soviets kept it that way.

Russia is not the newly enlightened, post-Soviet democratic state which the West fears will backslide. Russia has been an imperial power since the sixteenth century. It approached the west in 18th century under Peter the Great solely to get hold of western economical and technological advantage. Russia fought Napoleonic expansion and the liberal ideas of the French Revolution. It shared in the occupation of Europe in 1814 and occupied eastern Europe in 1945. Russia has always been imperial Russia and the west should have expected it to do what it has in fact done: resume its imperial course.

But Washington and NATO have been hanging on to the fervent hope that Russia will understand that there is no yesterday and that it is a new democratic republic like all the others; and once it has won its little gold star for good behavior, it can join the modern world, the world of fairness and good sense. In other words, the West itself. The West's game has been ridiculous. Washington led the way in welcoming Russia as a cheery new member of the western world. Despite the West's tone of condescension, the friendship was hotly pursued. The 9/11 attacks and the threat of militant Islam, which will go down in history as a mere hiccup between the fall of Communism and the resurgence of the East, were seen to cement forever a jolly, heartfelt solidarity. With alacrity, it seemed, the West could reclaim eastern Europe, Georgia and Ukraine for democracy- and perhaps even Russia itself- never for once thinking that Moscow, after the Lithuanians, the Poles, Napoleon and Hitler might consider it yet another extension of the West's sphere of influence into Russia's own; that any group of democratic nations might be seen by Russia not as progress, but as a rival bloc with its own interests.

NATO's eastward encroachment has been a spectacular exercise in historical blindness. Now, at the very moment that Russia and NATO are colliding over Georgia, Washington has further entrenched its nuclear shield program in Poland. The West, pious and morally superior, has allowed itself to fall into the hypocritical game of provocation and counter-provocation. How on earth is Russia, which is still the Russia of Peter the Great and Ivan IV, expected to respond?

How is it to respond with its memory of the Caucasus? Washington and NATO failed, upon the fall of the Soviet Union, to adopt historical realism. With Russia, they could have declared the belt from the Baltic states, down through Poland, Ukraine and the Caucasus to be be strictly neutral. To regard the area as tender, difficult and keep it non-aligned. And not to treat it as a power vacuum for East or West or as heathen territory for missionary democrats. There is no better way to bring back 18th century Russia in full force than to forget that it once existed and still has an afterlife.
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