For those of us who still remember World War II (either because we lived through it or because we grew up, as I did, in its immediate aftermath), what’s happening today in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia looks strangely ominous.
Not long ago I completed a book telling the story of one woman’s remarkable survival as a girl of only fifteen in eastern Poland at the onset of World War II (A Raft on the River, Paul Mould Publishing, UK). When Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia simultaneously invaded her native land to carve up and devour her country between them, little Miriam’s family lost everything, including their lives. She, alone, survived to flee into the countryside and fend for herself, living off the land where she had to. Today, both Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union are gone, of course, but Miriam’s story remains to remind us of the horrors of naked nationalism when coupled with aggression.
The Soviet empire of captive and client states along Russia’s historic borders has long since dissolved and individual states have arisen as free republics, replacing the old captive nations of the Soviet Bloc. To the north the small states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have reclaimed their freedom while, to Russia’s west, Ukraine and Belarus have done the same, though Belarus has recently slid backward, thanks to the machinations of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Formerly president of the Russian Federation, succeeding its first president, Boris Yeltsin, Putin recently engineered his own succession to thwart the term limits built into the modern Russian constitution that barred him from running again by putting a crony, Dmitry Medvedev, in his old seat while moving over to the premiership – until he can run for the presidency again, of course.
Now Putin has turned his attention to Russia’s southern borders where a number of other breakaway states formed. One of the most democratic is the tiny republic of Georgia, situated in the Caucus Mountains, where American-educated reformer Mikheil Saakashvili was elected in 2003 on a platform of moving the country toward the European mainstream.
But with high world oil prices Russia, a major international producer of oil and natural gas, has been on an economic tear. In recent years, Putin’s begun to flex long unused Russian muscles once more, beefing up both his military machine and his own public rhetoric. Apparently regretting the passing of the old Soviet Union and its de facto Russian empire, Putin, an ex-KGB operative, is seemingly doing all he can to bring it back.
He spurned the Bush administration on Saddam Hussein in 2003, joining with former French president Jacques Chirac and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to thwart administration efforts to form a UN-sanctioned front to end the Iraqi dictator’s brutal tenure. (Schroeder later took a job with Gazprom, the state-owned Russian oil and gas conglomerate, after retiring from German politics, becoming a Putin employee in name as well as fact.)
Most recently Putin’s Russia has stood in the way of Washington’s efforts to halt Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons while belligerently objecting to America’s planned deployment of an anti-missile system in the former Soviet client states of Poland and the Czech Republic to defend Europe against a potential Iranian nuclear missile attack. When he can, the Russian president-cum-premier has also exercised the power of the pump by shutting down gas supply pipelines to countries to his west when they displease him. Europe may soon find it has its hands full.
Now we’re witness to still another example of Putinesque chutzpah as the Russian premier’s handpicked successor, Medvedev, sends Russian troops storming into Georgia while Putin blandly and brazenly attends the Olympics with President Bush. This abrupt military invasion of the Georgian Republic has the look of a calculated effort to reverse the impact of the 2003 elections there and, for good measure, the residual effects of the old Soviet Union’s demise.
But it’s all so far away and we have our own concerns. Why should we care? One has only to look back at Miriam Feuer’s story. The wartime destruction and genocide she lived through occurred in Eastern Europe, too, though it’s certainly not unique to that part of the world. Nor is the sudden incursion of foreign troops with the goal of overrunning and absorbing a neighboring country. Hitler and Stalin did it back in the 1930s and ‘40s and the Soviets continued to do it afterwards in Eastern Europe, sending their troops into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, while backing martial law by the now defunct Polish communist regime in 1981.