Friday, September 26, 2008
The view from the Kremlin
My long-planned visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow came exactly one month after the five-day conflict between Georgia and Russia. In Moscow, my tour group met with a Kremlin official and most evenings, after all-day visits to lavish palaces, churches and museums, I watched the news program, “Russia Today,” on TV from the hotel. (See). I read The Moscow Times (in English), the international Herald Tribune, and the St. Petersburg Times to gain an understanding of the Russian viewpoint of the dramatic events that began on August 8, 2008. While a scant week in Russia hardly scratches the surface of a complex, ever-changing political scene affecting East and West relations, it does provide a snapshot of post-conflict assessments and illuminates changes in Russian life.
The Kremlin official’s message
We were addressed by Sergei Ivansyaun, a pleasant, balding, middle-aged career diplomat who had been posted in San Francisco for six years in the 1990s. He currently holds a title that was far too long for me to record, but he is with the Security Division of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He regularly peppered his talk with jokes about the Russian character and offered a brief history of Georgia’s relations with the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He characterized the military clashes between Georgia and South Ossetia in the 1920s, 1989 and 1992 as “armed genocide” by Georgia. After the 1992 conflict, peacekeepers composed of Georgian, Ossetian and Russian troops were deployed to a buffer zone.
When “Georgian troops entered Ossetia [on August 8, 2008] after hours of military preparation,” said Ivansyaun, Russia intervened militarily to protect its peacekeepers. In addition, he pointed out that “94% of the Ossetian population are Russian citizens, and Moscow acted to protect them.” In Abkhazia, 98% are Russian. Once Moscow responded, “the Western media took notice and called it ‘Russian interference,’” Ivansyaun charged.
In closing, Ivansyaun asked us to take the truth back to our country and to send a message to our presidential candidates.
The Medvedev press conference
On September 13, I watched a press conference on “Russia Today” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and foreign journalists. The president, hand-picked by former president and now prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has been called Putin’s puppet by the Western media. I found his answers (as interpreted) to be complete, intelligent and articulate – and undoubtedly in lock-step with Putin’s. (Putin’s press conference was televised the previous day, but I couldn’t see it.)
Of the August 8 events, Medvedev said he received a middle-of-the-night phone call from the Defense Minister that Georgians were moving toward South Ossetia. “I took no decision and hoped those dimwits would have enough brains to stop. They didn’t! We held ourselves until they started firing rockets, shelling residential blocks and shooting at peacekeepers. Only after that real attack, I had to give an order to respond.” He continued, “Russia was not expected to react like that. Georgia got the idea: do whatever you want, Russians won’t meddle. That’s a diplomatic mistake that belongs to textbooks for diplomats.”
Medvedev compared August 8 to our 9/11: “The world has changed almost in an instant after those events. It came to my mind that for Russia, August 8 is almost like 9/11 for America.”
He denied that Russia is interested in resuming the Cold War, but proclaimed, “Russia is not scared by threats of isolation. Now we are stronger [than in the 1990s]. We are not going to put up with humiliation.”
On an economic note, Medvedev stressed the need to maintain good relations and encourage trade with the East and West. He said, “We will do everything we can to diversify our energy routes to Asia, but with no harm done to our European partners. On the contrary, it will ensure greater stability. This is about oil deliveries, gas deliveries and the development of nuclear energy.” He boasted, “Russia is a big gas nation. If we see that there’s a market in the East, we’ll develop new fields. Naturally, it must be balanced and must not cause economic disasters.” ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito