Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Briefly 2: Furniture

5. A late addition (late to Democratiya too) is this piece by David Clark in which he reviews the western liberal response to the Georgian situation. Here are a few passages:

[Rather than making comparisons with the cold war of the 20th century]...A more revealing historical comparison is perhaps 1848 – the so-called Springtime of Nations – a year of revolution for national and political freedom that engulfed Europe only to succumb, within a few months, to the forces of counter-revolution and reaction. The leaders demanding self-determination for the peoples of Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and the Czech lands, among others, were a mix of constitutional liberals, democrats and republicans; their opponents, the autocratic continental powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia and the Ottomans...

...It might seem odd in an age of political cynicism in which the fruits of past struggles are taken so casually for granted, but Guiseppe Mazzini, Lajos Kossuth, Stanislaw Worcell and other leaders of 1848, who came together as exiles in London to form the Central Committee for a Democratic Europe, would have recognised in today's Europe the fulfilment of some of their highest ideals. They struggled for national liberation, but their instincts were deeply internationalist and they assumed as a matter of course that a Europe of free nations and peoples would come together in fraternal and voluntary union. Mazzini was among the first to call for a United States of Europe...

...There have always been those on the right astute enough to see through Putin's sly appropriation of Stalinist symbolism and recognise him as an archetypical nationalist strongman. A generation earlier, the same sort of people lauded Pinochet, Zia and Marcos. ..

He then cites writers on both right and left who defend the notion of spheres of influence, particularly Russia's sphere of influence, then goes on:

...Even the Guardian's editorial writers fell into this trap when they described NATO expansion as a 'sphere of influence' project comparable to Putin's, as if there could be any equivalence between a voluntary association of democracies and an authoritarian hegemonic block constructed by means of military intimidation and energy blackmail. The way to avoid conflict, apparently, is for NATO to 'stop rearranging the furniture on Russia's sensitive southern border' (Guardian Editorial 29/8/08). Discounted in this assessment is any recognition that people living next to Russia have the right to determine their own international alignments, especially if they conflict with the preferences of leftwing journalists and pundits living safely in the UK.

This presents obvious problems in relation to the professed democratic values of the people making this argument. The way round this is to question whether the western orientation of former communist countries is really democratically based at all. According to Milne:

American military bases have spread across eastern Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian client government after another through a series of colour-coded revolutions.

This is an astonishing distortion of what has been happening in Eastern Europe since the end of the Soviet era. These governments haven't been 'installed'; they have been elected in almost every country where the people have had a free and fair opportunity to decide from themselves. It is from the demands made by these voters that the clamour to join NATO and the EU has come, often in the face of disinterest or scepticism from western elites. There has been no American plot or even a consistent and coherent American policy, as the confused and disjointed response to the Georgia War amply shows.

Yes, I am generally in agreement with this. I want to to be true. One part of me though fears that the claims of realpolitik generally overrule the claims of virtue. It is, after all, my own, and any Hungarian's, experience; and it is in fact precisely what happened in the nineteenth century. I do not doubt that Russia is a paranoid state. Its war losses were enormous after all. It has just lost an empire based on what it broadcast to be virtue.

Clark is right though: there is no 'equivalence'. Those who claim there is do so because their ideas of the politics of virtue are based principally on hatred of the west, and of the USA in particular. Anything the west / USA does must then be opposed. Anyone who opposes, not even what it does, but what it may support, must therefore be in the right. For me, if I had to choose, it would be the west every time.

But Clark does simplify a little in support of his argument. The politics of virtue are rarely purely virtuous. Hands are never absolutely clean. Russia does feel walled in, and whatever regime had been in power there, it would have acted just as Putin's mafioso-Russia acted. We know this, and so did Georgia. Encouraging Georgia was the easy part. It was The Voice of America that encouraged the revolution in Hungary in 1956 then failed to deliver anything.

The west can't "rearrange the furniture" in other people's houses of course, or 'install' anything, but it can approve or advise, especially it is asked to lend some of its own furniture. The art and psychology of such advice is complicated, not so much flag-waving as brain surgery.

As students in Leeds we lived in a block just below an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter, both of them neurotic, depressive and undergoing treatment, some of the treatment electro-convulsive. A previous tenant had left an old piano in our flat and I was longing to play it. The women asked me not to, or if I was going to, to let them know in advance. And even then I was to play quietly and for no longer than half an hour at a time. I did not think these were ideal circumstances for making music. It wasn't convenient and one couldn't just do it when in the mood, but, slightly resentfully, I still played the piano in the way they asked so as not to drive them to more sessions of ECT. I did not bang on my rhetorical drum all through the night.


NickP. said...

Hello George how are you ?

I have finished the traslation of your poems in Greek and I will publish them in the next few weeks in my blog :


Nick P.

George S said...

Thank you, Nick. I'll look them up.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

The situation is indeed more complex than it was in the good old days of the Cold War. At least the conflict borders were drawn clearer.

At first I was taken aback by the seemingly hot-headed behavior of Georgian government. But several sources that analysed the sequence of events preceding the Georgian attack came to an interesting conclusion. Here is one:


There are more posts on the conflict in the same place. Comes to show that Russian chiefs continue acting based on same old imperial ambitions.

George S said...

Thanks, Snoop. I'll link to it. I do read Totten sometimes but I haven't recently. What he says doesn't altogether surprise me and it looks very comprehensive.

A university colleague of mine who has just written a book on Chechnya is now investigating the Georgia story. I bumped into him in the street today and this was the subject we ended up talking about. He was talking about the Ukraine being next.