When Russia launched its August military intervention in Georgia, the West was reminded how dangerous it is to poke a sleeping bear with a stick. The particular provocation that enraged the beast was Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s unwise attempt to reassert control of secessionist South Ossetia by force, but the vigour of Moscow’s response was as much a message to NATO as to Tbilisi.
When the Soviet Union broke up, following the collapse of European Communism, most politicians in London and Washington saw this as the welcome liberation of oppressed peoples. Indeed, that is how much of the indigenous population of the 14 newly independent states, from Lithuania through to Kyrgyzstan, saw it too. But not the millions of ethnic Russians, who suddenly found themselves to be ‘foreigners’ in lands they had considered as part of Greater Russia since Tsarist times.
This affects far more than the Russian-speaking population of the two breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who have been given Russian passports by the authorities in Moscow. There are substantial Russian populations in Estonia and Latvia, for example, many of whom now feel themselves second-class citizens, while in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians have been agitating for their region to be removed from independent Ukraine and incorporated into Mother Russia.
The Ukrainian situation is potentially the most dangerous. The late Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev gave the Crimea to the Soviet republic of Ukraine in celebration of 300 years of unity. While that did not particularly matter so long as Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, it became a huge bone of contention following Ukraine’s declaration of sovereign independence. Even today, many buildings in the elegant Crimean port city of Sevastopol fly the Russian, rather than the Ukrainian, flag.
What is now worrying Ukraine (as well as the Baltic States) is that Moscow used its supposed obligation to defend ethnic Russians in South Ossetia as the justification for its incursion into Georgia. But it soon became evident that the operation was largely punitive: to teach Georgia a lesson by incapacitating its small armed forces and to cause huge damage to the small country’s infrastructure. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also let it be known that he would like to
encourage ‘regime change’ in Georgia. He and Mikheil Saakashvili loathe each other.
As always in such disputes, it was the civilians caught in the line of fire who bore the brunt of the suffering. There appear to have been many acts of gratuitous brutality committed by both sides; no-one came out of the conflict smelling of roses. That partly explains why the 27 member states of the European Union reacted differently to the situation. Some, including Poland, supported the Georgian government strongly, whereas others, such as France, were more even-handed, to the extent of appearing pro-Russian.
Seeing both sides of the argument was not the only reason Nicolas Sarkozy and some of his colleagues were emollient towards Russia. There was also an element of trying to reduce tensions before Russia did anything even more drastic. Were the Russians to intervene in the Baltic States, for example, other NATO member states would be obliged to respond militarily. Russia has already conducted cyber-warfare against Estonia, so military intervention in the Baltic is not totally far-fetched.
NATO was not obliged to intervene in Georgia because Georgia is not a NATO member, yet. But therein lies another problem. Georgia aspires to membership (and indeed would like to join the EU too one day), and at the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April, a strong message was sent to Tbilisi that membership is a realistic aspiration, though not just yet.
It is not surprising that Russia finds that prospect deeply unsettling. Seen from Moscow, the country is being increasingly surrounded by Western-oriented countries – several of them formerly part of the Soviet Union – which by implication become almost anti-Russian.
Slapping down Georgia was more than just a rebuke to a former vassal. It was a warning to all of Russia’s near neighbourhood that there are limits to have far they can step out of line with Moscow’s perceived strategic interests. And it was a warning to NATO and the West in general that Russia is not a busted flush, but rather a resurgent power, bolstered by massive revenues from its energy resources and by a renewed nationalist fervour.
The big question now is whether things in Ukraine will take a turn for the worse. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is still based in Sevastopol, which adds a special dimension to the situation there. What recent events have done is to demonstrate to the government in Kiev and to those in neighbouring states, that if they offend Moscow, Russia will not hesitate to react forcefully. The message is clear: there are limits to independence.
The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Fryer spent part of this summer lecturing round the Black Sea. He is a member of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN.
Martyr for Freedom of Expression.
The January 2007 killing of the 52-year-old Turkish-Armenian editor and writer Hrant Dink, shot dead outside the Istanbul offices of his newspaper, Agos, was a gruesome reminder of the political and ethnic tensions within Turkish society.
Though Dink eschewed the more strident statements sometimes made by the Armenian Diaspora in France and the United States, his call for modern Turkey to acknowledge the true extent and nature of the massacres and forced eviction of ethnic Armenians in the closing years of the Ottoman Empire cost him his life.
A gentle, humane man, he spent much of his childhood in an Istanbul orphanage, where he met his future wife, Rakel. Hrant worked hard to bring about reconciliation between Turkey’s majority population and its Armenian and Kurdish minorities.
For these efforts, he was repeatedly harassed, subjected to death threats and prosecuted for the crime of “insulting Turkishness.”
Dozens of writers, journalists and publishers have similarly found themselves defendants in such cases, many of which have been initiated by the far-right, ultra-nationalist Union of Turkish lawyers. Over the past few years, I have attended a number of such trials in Istanbul and the Turkish capital, Ankara. Their Kafkaesque nature struck me like something from another era.
On several occasions, the courthouses were surrounded by phalanxes of heavily armoured riot police, who were there to keep baying nationalist demonstrators away from the accused. Even inside the courtroom, the neofascist prosecution lawyers would sometimes harangue the judge and physically assault defence counsels. High on the wall of the court, the mask of the political father of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, gazed impassively down on the chaotic proceedings.
Though many of these cases – such as one last year against the Nobel Literature Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk – have been dismissed or dropped, others are adjourned again and again, prolonging the agony of the defendants. The strain on them is tangible. Hrant Dink, before his murder, spoke of the ‘psychological torture’ he went through trying to understand why some people hated him so much.
The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condemned Dink’s assassination and rightly said that a bullet had been fired at freedom of expression. And thousands of Turks, young and old, of all ethnic groups, marched in Istanbul to protest against the shooting. Yet there are still dark forces in Turkey who are prepared to use violent means to preserve what they see as the nation’s honour and they have not been effectively curbed.
This should not just be a matter for domestic concern for Turks. The country aspires to be a member of the European Union – a move which the ultra-nationalists strongly oppose. So the EU can and has put pressure on the Turkish government to improve its human rights record and to change or abolish laws that make such things as insulting Turkishness a crime.
Non-governmental organisations, such as the international writers’ group PEN, have been prominent in lobbying Ankara, as well as sending observers to monitor trials. Thanks partly to their efforts and to the high profile coverage in the Turkish media of freedom of expression cases, the authorities are well aware that the persecution of literary figures who write or talk openly about the conditions experienced by the Armenian and Kurdish minorities, past and present, could scupper the country’s chances of EU membership, as well as damaging Turkey’s reputation in the wider world.
It would be wrong to see this as an entirely Turkish problem, however. Within the current EU, there are numerous cases of discrimination against minority ethnic groups, such as the Roma, not to mention antagonism towards immigrant communities.
It is not surprising, therefore, that in countries as diverse as Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic, both politicians and academics are questioning whether we have the right approach to the realities of living within an increasingly multi-cultural society.
Hrant Dink’s murder was thus not just an awful reminder of unresolved tensions between different communities inside Turkey and the links between these and national identity. It should serve as an alarm bell to all of us to meet the challenges of harmonious coexistence and mutual respect.
The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Fryer is a member of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN.