lördag 23 augusti 2008

Russian in Georgia

I rarely comment on international affairs as the issues are too complex, but in this case there are general points to be made. The break-up of the Soviet Empire was a humiliation for the Russians, as many of the countries that became independent had been part of the Tsarist empire for centuries. Others, including the Baltic republics, had enjoyed just a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1938. All of these ex-Soviet countries have ended up with significant Russian minorities. It is also a fact that post-Communist Russia is not turning out to be a very nice country, though that should have been expected. A further complication is that Western Europe is becoming dependent on Russia for its energy supplies. All of which creates problems all-round, and especially for the ex-Soviets.

If I was a politician in any of these countries I would want to make sure that my Russians would not become a focus of discontent. If there were any areas with significant concentrations of Russians, I would organise plebiscites with a view to redrawing national boundaries, even if it meant having enclaves of Russian territory and the loss of mineral rights, pipelines and other sources of what are, in effect, rental income. It just is not worth trying to hang on to territories where the inhabitants want to be independent or part of another country.
Where the Russians are dispersed, matters are more complicated. The first priority here must be to make sure that economic opportunities are available to all, which means that land value taxation must be a key policy. The other issue relates to citizenship and other rights. As I understand it, Russians in Estonia were, and possibly still are, required to take a language test and satisfy other requirements if they are to obtain citizenship, which thereby makes them EU citizens. At the same time, Russians in general seem not to have shared in the prosperity of the country, which is far from being a welfare state, and the same applies to Latvia. A possible way round the problem would be to give Russian residents of the Baltic states the usual rights of EU citizens, to work in any EU country, which I am not sure is the situation at present. Apart from considerations of natural justice, this would give these Russians a vested interest in things remaining as they are and possibly reduce their numbers. This policy has prevented the Israeli Arabs from becoming a source of unrest for the past sixty years – despite the trouble all around, the Israeli Arabs are well aware that they enjoy greater freedom, security and prosperity than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East and that is it not in their interest to rock the boat.

Finally, there are the military implications of all this. Was it a good idea for the Baltic republics and the former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO? The Russians may be the bad guys but it is not surprising that they now feel encircled. What was the point, other than to treat Russia as a potential enemy? Now it is on the way to becoming an actual enemy. And if Russia sent its army into Estonia, what precisely would the NATO response be? Would anyone risk a nuclear confrontation? And what of Sweden, which has almost dismantled its defences to save money? The possibility of joining NATO is now being discussed, a notion which goes against a tradition of over 200 years of neutrality. Looking further back into history, however, Sweden once projected its power over the entire Baltic and included in its territory Finland, Estonia and parts of what are now Russia, including the site occupied by St Petersburg; most was lost to Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Finland at the beginning of the nineteenth, and there was a narrowly avoided war with Russia in the 1850s. The stupid thing about all this renewed confrontation with Russia is that if there is any real enemy; the threat, surely, is a common one against both Russia and all the western countries? And boxing the Russians in by encircling them with threatening alliances just helps to feed their paranoia and makes it more difficult for a reasonable leadership to emerge.

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