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Soviet Union

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Georgia: Another Messiah

30 October 2013

Georgia: Another Messiah

By Gwynne Dyer

“My work here is done,” said the masked man, as he mounted his horse and rode away. But he didn’t go very far away.

Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia doesn’t actually wear a mask, but he is mysterious enough without one. It’s never been quite clear how he got so rich – his fortune is estimated at $6.4 billion, about a third of the entire country’s annual GDP – but the real puzzle is his motives and goals. Why did he bother to become prime minister at all if he was planning to quit after only one year?

He returned home only ten years ago, after twenty years in Moscow. He built a huge and spectacular mansion in the hills above Tbilisi, the capital, and began doing good by stealth. The small Transcaucasian republic was near economic collapse at the time, and he quietly subsidised beloved Georgian artists and actors who could not make ends meet.

At one point Ivanishvili even paid the salaries of state employees when the government could not, and it has recently emerged that he paid for the massive new cathedral that now adorns the city centre. He clearly disliked the country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, but he shunned politics and mostly stayed out of sight on his secluded estate like a James Bond villain, stroking his tame zebras in lieu of the statutory evil cat.

Then, eighteen months ago, he formed a political party that quickly combined with others to form the Georgian Dream coalition. Last October it won a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections and Ivanishvili became prime minister. On Monday his candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, replaced Saakashvili as president and his triumph was complete. So now he is going to quit.

Two months ago Ivanishvili announced that he would retire as prime minister as soon as Margvelashvili was installed in the presidency. Some other member of the Georgian Dream coalition will take over as prime minister, while Ivanshvili devotes himself to “strengthening civil society in Georgia as a private citizen.” Georgians must not think of him as a messiah, he says.

There have certainly been too many messiahs in Georgia’s recent history. After the old Soviet Union broke up in 1991 the first president of independent Georgia was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former dissident and ethnic nationalist who led the country into a civil war. Georgia lost control of the ethnic minority regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under his rule, and he ended up shooting himself when surrounded by hostile militia troops.

Next came Eduard Shevardnadze, an old Communist apparatchik (he spent six years as the Soviet Union’s foreign minister) who had once gained fame as an anti-corruption crusader. Back home, however, he presided over one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. His inner circle wound up controlling about 70 percent of the country’s economy, while most ordinary Georgians continued to live in wretched poverty.

The last messiah was Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the non-violent “Rose Revolution” and restored democracy to Georgia in 2003. But Saakashvili also started and lost a war against Russia over breakaway South Ossetia in 2008.

The Georgian economy more than doubled in size during his decade in power, but at least a quarter of the population lives in extreme poverty and unemployment remains above 15 percent. When people protested about his policies, they were met with violence and repression – so when Ivanishvili gave them a plausible alternative, they flocked to his banner.

Ivanishvili has never offered a coherent plan for Georgia or even very distinctive policies; Georgians appear to have chosen him as the next messiah simply because he has a lot of money and seems to be generous with it. And it doesn’t bother them where it comes from.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in the chaotic decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and like all the other “oligarchs” who emerged in Russia at that time the exact route he took on his rise to great wealth remains obscure. All of them did it by privatising former state companies or property into their own pockets at derisory prices, but just how they managed that is rarely explained, and would usually not bear close inspection.

Never mind all that. Ivanishvili is the only Georgian billionaire, and his wealth and wisdom will save us all. In Monday’s election, his presidential candidate got 62 percent of the vote, compared to only 22 percent for the candidate chosen by the last messiah. (Saakashvili could not run for president again himself, having served two full terms.)

Ivanishvili’s decision to retire from high political office himself is less quixotic than it seems. He’s not actually relinquishing power: with loyal placemen in both the presidency and the prime minister’s office – president-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili said that he would always listen to his “authoritative friend” – he can continue to dominate affairs without having to take any personal responsibility if things go wrong.

Money doesn’t talk; it gives commands. And it doesn’t really do democracy, either: Ivanishvili’s government has already begun arresting Saakashvili’s former ministers on various charges, and the ex-messiah himself can probably expect the same treatment once he leaves the presidency. Salvation for Georgia is still not at hand.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 12. (“There have…poverty”; and “Ivanishvili made…inspection”)

 

 

The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

17 October 2012

The Other Cuban Missile Crisis

By Gwynne Dyer

This month is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis (16-28 October, 1962), so we’re going to hear a great deal about the weeks when the world almost died. But the past is a foreign country, a place where everything was in black-and-white and men still wore hats, so it’s just scary stories about a long-gone time. Or so it seems.

The outlines of the tale are well known. It was 17 years since the United States had used nuclear weapons on Japan, and the Soviet Union now had them, too. Lots of them: the American and Soviet arsenals included some 30,000 nuclear weapons, and not all of them were carried by bombers any more. Some were mounted on rockets that could reach their targets in the other country in half an hour.

Both Washington and Moscow therefore had some version of a “launch on warning” policy: if you think the other side’s missiles are inbound, launch your own missiles before you lose them. There couldn’t be a more hair-trigger situation than that, you might think – but then things got a lot worse.

At the start of the 1960s Moscow had gained a new Communist ally in Fidel Castro, but the United States kept talking about invading Cuba. So Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved some nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba to deter the United States from attacking the island. However, from Cuba the Soviet missiles would be only five minutes away from their American targets. That caused panic in Washington.

Early in October, 1962 the first Soviet SS-4 missiles arrived in Cuba, and American U-2 spy planes discovered them almost at once. President John F. Kennedy knew about them by 16 October, but he did not go on television and warn the American public of the risk of nuclear war until the 22nd.

He then declared a naval blockade of Cuba, saying that he would stop Soviet ships carrying further missiles from reaching Cuba by force if necessary. That would mean war, and probably nuclear war, but at least the blockade gave the Russians some time to think before the shooting started.

The Soviet leaders were now desperately looking for a way out of the crisis they had created. After a few harrowing days a deal was done: the Soviet SS-4 missiles would be withdrawn from Cuba in return for a public promise by the United States not to invade Cuba. The crisis was officially over by 28 October, and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. It was closest the world ever came to an all-out nuclear war.

Even so, they weren’t really scared enough. They thought that a couple of hundred million people would die in a “nuclear exchange”. At that time, nobody yet knew that detonating so many nuclear warheads would cause a “nuclear winter”: the dust and smoke put into the stratosphere by firestorms in a thousand stricken cities would have blocked out the sunlight for a year or more and resulted in a worldwide famine.

What almost nobody knew until very recently is that the crisis did not really end on 28 October. A new book by Sergo Mikoyan, “The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Mikoyan, Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Missiles of November”, reveals that it continued all the way through November.

US intelligence was unaware that along with the SS-4s, the Soviet Union had also sent more than a hundred shorter-range “tactical” nuclear missiles to Cuba. They weren’t mentioned in the Soviet-US agreement on withdrawing the SS-4s from Cuba, so technically Khrushchev had not promised to remove them.

Fidel Castro was in a rage about having been abandoned by his Soviet allies, so to mollify him, Khrushchev decided to let him keep the tactical missiles. It was crazy: giving Fidel Castro a hundred nuclear weapons was a recipe for a new and even bigger crisis in a year or two. Khrushchev’s deputy, Anastas Mikoyan, who was sent to Cuba to tell Castro the happy news, quickly realised that he must not have them.

The second half of the crisis, invisible to Americans, was Mikoyan’s month-long struggle to pry Castro’s fingers off the hundred tactical nuclear missiles. In the end, he only succeeded by telling Castro that an unpublished (and in fact non-existent) law forbade the transfer of Soviet nuclear weapons to a foreign country. In December, they were finally crated up and sent home.

So it all ended happily, in one sense – but the whole world could have ended instead. As Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary in 1962, said forty years later, “we were just plain lucky in October 1962 – and without that luck most of you would never have been born because the world would have been destroyed instantly or made unlivable in October 1962.”

Then he said the bit that applies to us. “Something like that could happen today, tomorrow, next year. It WILL happen at some point. That is why we must abolish nuclear weapons as soon as possible.” They are still there, you know, and human beings still make mistakes.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Both…worse”; and “Even…famine”)

 

 

History and Lies: Russia

27 June 2010

History and Lies

By Gwynne Dyer

The Georgians took down the last statue of Stalin last week. There used to be thousands of such statues all across the old Soviet Union, but the Communists themselves tore almost all of them down after the great dictator and mass murderer died in 1953. They left the one in Gori, in northern Georgia, because that’s where he was born and the locals were still proud of him.

Even after Georgia got its independence in 1991, the six-metre (20-foot-high) statue of Stalin continued to stand in Gori. But now, just when you might think that the Georgians would be starting to approve of Stalin – after all, he was responsible for the deaths of more Russians than any other Georgian, or indeed anybody else – they go and tear his statue down.

They’re planning to replace it with a monument to “victims of the Russian aggression” in the 2008 war, so the history they’re peddling in Gori will still be based on lies. (It was Georgia that started the war with
Russia in 2008.) But the bigger lies will be told in Russia, and they will be told mainly about Stalin.

Two weeks ago, a group of politicians and academics met in Moscow’s main library to discuss how to make Russians proud of their history. The answer? Get an upbeat history book into the schools. “(The book) should not be a dreary look at or apology for what was done,” explained Prof. Leonid Polyakov of the Higher School of Economics.

The politicians were from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, and they wanted the academics to come up with a single history textbook for use in all Russian schools. It should downplay the crimes and
failures of seventy-four years of Communist rule – the purges, the mass deportations, the famines, the gulags – and concentrate on the glorious epic of the Soviet victory in the Second World War. Which means they must rehabilitate Stalin.

Rewriting the history books is not a Russian monopoly. The Texas Board of Education recently caused a great furore by deciding that its history textbooks should show that the founding fathers of the United States, and the authors of its constitution, intended America to be a Christian nation, not a country committed to the separation of church and state. Even that is an easier job than making Stalin look good, but it can be done.

Start with the proposition that the Soviet Union played a key role in defeating Hitler (true), and that the war was a heroic victory against great odds (false). This is the first place where you wind up having to
give Stalin some credit, because he was definitely the man in command throughout the war.

Then, to justify the terrible cost of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, and to slide past the purges and famines of the 1930s, you have to argue that those horrors were what allowed the miracle of high-speed industrialisation that laid the groundwork for a Soviet victory in the war. Once again, Comrade Stalin gets the credit, for the industrialisation happened on his watch.

It’s all lies and distortion. The Soviet Union’s population was twice that of Nazi Germany, and its industrial power and technology were not significantly inferior. If Stalin had not murdered most of the Red Army’s senior officers in the purges of the late 30s, and if he had not stupidly let himself be surprised by the German invasion, the war would not have lasted so long and killed so many Russians.

As for the alleged miracle of rapid industrialisation, it was only needed because most existing Russianindustry was destroyed by the revolution and the civil war: industrial output in 1922 was only 13% of thatin 1914. If there had been no revolution and no Stalin, and Russia had just started growing again after the First World War at the same rate as other capitalist countries, it would have been far too strong by 1941 for Hitler to dream of attacking it.

Russia’s history in the 20th century was an unmitigated and unnecessary disaster: the first half tragic and very bloody, the second half merely impoverished and oppressive. Even today, Russia has not
regained the rank among the developed countries that it held a century ago. What can one do with such a history but deny and rewrite it?

One can tell the truth. Germany’s 20th-century history was also terrible, and Germans had to bear a burden of historical guilt for harming others far heavier than anything Russians should feel for the crimes of their own imperial past. If today’s Germans can see their past with clear eyes and still feel pride in their present and hope for their future, why can’t the Russians?

It’s not a lost cause. There have been some encouraging instances recently of Russians facing up to the less proud bits of their history, like Prime Minister Putin’s attendance at the ceremony commemorating the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners in Katyn forest in 1940, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin for “mass crimes against his own people.”

But the omens are not good. If the Georgians no longer need that statue of Stalin, maybe there’s a market for it in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“Re-writing…done”; and “It’s not…people”)

Opportunity at Katyn

13 April 2010

Opportunity at Katyn

By Gwynne Dyer

First, a tragedy that almost sinks beneath the weight of a huge historical coincidence. A plane carrying the political and military elite of today’s Polish society crashes, killing everybody aboard, while bringing them to Katyn forest to commemorate the murder of a previous generation of the same elite by Stalin’s secret police in 1940.

Then the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose early career was spent in a later, tamer version of that same secret police force, does something remarkable. He tells one of the main Russian TV channels to show Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film “Katyn” in prime time. It’s more than an apology. It’s a national act of penance.

And after that, the speculation starts about whether this tragedy might be the way that the two great Slavic nations, Russians and Poles, are finally reconciled.

Poland’s historic tragedy was to be located between Germany and Russia. Twice the country vanished entirely, partitioned between its more powerful neighbours – and the enduring symbol of the latter partition is the Katyn massacre of 1940.

When Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, dividing Poland between them, 22,000 Polish officers fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. Some were professional soldiers, but most were reserve officers who in civilian life had been lawyers, doctors, university professors: the country’s intellectual elite. Stalin had them all murdered in 1940, one at a time, by a bullet in the back of the head. That’s what happened in Katyn forest.

Stalin’s aim was to “decapitate” the Polish intelligentsia and make the absorption of eastern Poland into the Soviet Union easier, but Hitler betrayed and attacked his ally in 1941. When the invading German troops reached Katyn, they found the mass graves of the Polish officers and invited international observers to examine the site. That was when the Great Lie was launched.

Moscow insisted that it was the Germans, not the Russians, who had massacred the Polish officers. The US and British governments backed the Soviet story (though they suspected it was a lie), because Stalin was now their ally in the war against Hitler. Only after 1945 did they question it.

In the Soviet Union and Communist-ruled Poland, The Lie was the only permitted version of the story until 1989. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, finally admit that the murders were done by the Soviet secret police, but the Russian public never really had their noses rubbed in the truth.

Whereas for Poles, Katyn is the central symbol of how the country was attacked by its neighbours and then betrayed by its allies. Since it was Russians who committed the actual crime, and Russian Communists who still kept Poland in semi-colonial subjection until 1989, Russians were seen as the worst enemy of all.

So the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre this month was a fraught event. Prime Minister Putin invited his Polish equivalent, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, to attend a memorial ceremony there, but President Lech Kaczynski was not invited. Tusk would settle for a vague expression of regret, whereas Kaczynski was an old-fashioned nationalist who wanted the Russians to apologise on their knees.

Tusk came, and Putin duly expressed his sorrow for the “victims of Stalinist terror,” but he didn’t even mention the word “Poles”. Great states never really apologise, you know. Kaczynski, enraged, basically invited himself to another ceremony three days later, and brought half of Poland’s political, military and journalistic elite with him.

Putin realised that something more was required, and showed up at Katyn again to meet him. When the news came through that Kaczynski’s plane had crashed, he looked utterly stricken. Finally, the grim reality of the place and the occasion got through to him.

Now the apology was real and specific. Now Wajda’s harrowing film on Katyn, previously only seen on a specialty channel, got a prime-time broadcast on Russian TV. Now Russians finally get why the Poles don’t trust them – and most of them have responded with regret, not denial.

The wave of sympathy in Russia for Poles past and present is genuine, and they can even feel it (with some astonishment) in Poland. These moments are rare, and they don’t last long. If you want to make the future different from the past, you have to act fast.

The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has announced that he is going to Poland for President Kaczynski’s funeral. Before he goes, he should look at one photograph.

It was taken in 1984 on the First World War battlefield of Verdun, where a quarter-million French and German soldiers died in 1916. By 1984 France and Germany were in the European Union and NATO together, but after three wars in a hundred years they were still not really friends.

Then President Francois Mitterand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany went there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the First World War. Looking out over the killing fields torn up by forty million artillery shells, they did the only thing they could. They held hands – and Franco-German relations were changed for good.

If Medvedev can find a way to do something as simple but as powerful as that, he could turn the page and start a new chapter in Russian-Polish history. Right now, people are ready for that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 14. (“In the Soviet…enemy of all”; and “The wave…fast”)