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September 1, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Blitzin’ Solzhenitsyn

The great Russian Bear has been dozing with one eye open. After nearly two decades of alcohol-induced slumber, her fur infected by mobster fleas, she has shed prosperity, oil and sweat. But she has raised her head, she is pissed off that all the other animals are running around scoffing at her, and she has begun to swipe at the little ones.

Two significant events have propelled Russia into the spotlight over the last month: the first was the death of nationalist, anti- Stalinist author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; the second was the invasion of Georgia. While the death of a single writer may seem unimportant when compared with the bombing of a sovereign nation, the second event can best be understood by looking towards Solzhenitsyn.

In 1945, aged 26, the twice-decorated soldier Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticising Stalin’s handling of the war in a letter to a friend. He was then imprisoned in several gulags before being released to a cancer ward in 1953. At the same time Krushchev replaced Stalin and, nine years later, published Solzhenitsyn’s account of the gulags One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich as an indictment of his predecessor. However, Krushchev’s reign would end within a couple of years, and his successors would not tolerate dissidence in literature, so Solzhenitsyn fled the USSR in the 70s, becoming its most prominent critic-in-exile. Lengthy tomes such as The Gulag Archipelago would lay out Stalin’s crimes in detail, but it was in Ivan that Solzhenitsyn really undermined the Soviet system, detailing the minute details and irritations of the gulag – hiding one’s Bible, having to bitch at other inmates to work faster so as to avoid food reductions – that took away prisoners’ individuality.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed Solzhenitsyn to return to his homeland – and here’s where things really get interesting. Because Solzhenitsyn wasn’t at all happy with Russia’s new found freedom, seeing in democratic capitalism the worship of materialistic mammon killing the spirit of his beloved Orthodox faith. In 1978, he had criticised the USA as unmanly for pulling out of Vietnam. So he became a supporter of Vladimir Putin’s drive to restore the glory of Russian nationalism. Even Russia’s greatest anti-Communist dissident longed for her military to return the Bear to glory, and this explains why she could not tolerate Georgia asserting her sovereignty over an area Russia still feels responsible for.

Georgia
The Georgian town of Gori is the birthplace of Stalin, and many Russians still cannot see Georgia as separate from the motherland. The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are also unhappy that they are supposed to be a part of something called Georgia, rather than the Russia they have always known, and have hosted Russian troops since the 90s. Their ill-defined status would always cause trouble if Georgia sought to act independently of Russia on the international stage.

The Economist describes South Ossetia as “headed by a thuggish former Soviet official, Eduard Kokoity, and run by the Russian security services. It lives off smuggling and Russian money.” One of its major exports is counterfeit currency. But what makes South Ossetia so dangerous is the fact that it is a patchwork quilt of Georgian and Ossetian ethnic villages, with Ossetians making up two thirds of the population and Georgians the remaining one third – and any moves towards independence could lead to ethnic strife. Over the last few years, Russia has distributed Russian passports and citizenships to Ossetians, which the Georgian government sees as an act of provocation. Then in July Russia staged military manoeuvres by the border, and Ossetian separatists exchanged fire with Georgia, culminating in Georgia’s invasion of what is still, technically, its own territory, on 7 August.

Russia immediately responded not only by moving troops into South Ossetia, but also by bombing and occupying Georgia proper, just as the Olympics began halfway around the world. On 10 August, Georgian and Russian athletes took bronze and silver medals in the women’s 10-metre air pistol, and embraced upon the podium, while back home Russia continued to drive back Georgian forces with around 150,000 people fleeing their homes. With the help of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the warring nations agreed to a ceasefire on 12 August, and Russia has slowly been pulling back – though they claim those troops that remain are ‘peacekeepers’.

Why would Georgia provoke Russia into such a conflict, given their vastly uneven military resources? Russia has over a million soldiers, 6000 tanks and 1700 combat aircraft; Georgia has 37,000 troops, 230 tanks and 12 aircraft. Surely they knew they wouldn’t win, so why provoke the Bear to swat them like this? The answer lies in Georgia’s enigmatic president and his love for the West.

Mikheil Saakashvili, known affectionately by his people as Misha, is at 40 one of Europe’s youngest leaders. A lawyer in New York during the 90s, Misha returned to Georgia as Minister of Justice under President Shevardnadze, but his attempts to fight corruption brought him into conflict with his superiors; in 2004 when he stood against his former bosses for the presidency and lost in a blatantly rigged election, subsequent mass peaceful protests overthrew the government. This ‘Rose Revolution’ led to a new round of elections, in which Misha was elected president with a genuine majority of over 90 per cent of the vote.

Like Solzhenitsyn, Misha believes in a kind of jingoistic democracy, combining a desire for economic and political openness with military defence of Georgia’s borders. In return for his support of the US invasion of Iraq, the US has trained and equipped the Georgian military, and Misha has been pursuing Georgia’s possible entry into NATO. So perhaps he believed that NATO would defend him against a Russian attack, which would explain why he was so willing to take on a clearly superior force. But this plan backfired – perhaps, having defended the independence of Kosovo against Russian wishes, the West knew it would be hypocritical to oppose Russia’s support for the independence of South Ossetia. If, indeed, South Ossetia really wants to be independent.

At the end of the day, this conflict should not be about Russia’s need to remain a global player, or Georgia’s desire for closer links to the West. What has been forgotten in much of the coverage of this issue is the wishes of the inhabitants of South Ossetia. Unfortunately, these wishes are almost impossible to determine, since the province is so ethnically divided. In a 2006 referendum, 99 per cent of voters demanded independence from Georgia – but since almost none of the one-third ethnic Georgian population voted, the referendum does not reflect the will of the entire community, and like in Northern Ireland, simple independence is not the option. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch claims that both sides used disproportionate force during their invasions, while villages have burnt and several thousand people have been killed. Stink.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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