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Web Letter

I lived in Tbilisi in 1998-99 and would like to offer my perspective on your article. I hope you have listened to your Georgia reporter on RadioNation and now understand that the situation is much more complex than this article recognized.

The idea that every ethnic group in every country should have the right to break away and form its own country is downright silly. Claiming this right for the South Ossetians is like arguing that the Abenakis in Vermont should be permitted to secede from the US--and there are more Abenakis in Vermont than Ossetians in South Ossetia. Neither the ethnic Ossetians nor the Abkhazians had a majority in their provinces before the ethnic cleansing that occurred during and following the clashes in the early 1990s.

If the US had acted more respectfully toward Russia during Yeltsin's presidency, then it is likely that relations between the US and Russia would now be much friendlier. However, the current Russian leadership seems intent or regaining its influence on the neighboring republics of the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, I doubt that the genie can be stuffed back into the bottle quickly, given the distrust between the US and Russia based on US actions over the past twenty years and Russian hostility toward the governments of the Baltics, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. While the US can and should work to repair our relationship with Russia, at the same time we need to find ways to help the former Soviet republic maintain the independence and freedom it has developed over the past twenty years.

Improving our relations with Russia without abandoning our friends in the other republics won't be easy. But finding ways to accomplish this objective could be a key to avoiding a new cold war.

David S. Martin

Amman, Jordan

Aug 29 2008 - 1:51pm

Web Letter

If The Nation clamors for independence for 70,000 (if that many) Ossetians in a region the size of Rhode Island, how about the Chechens, Quebeçois, Bretons and Corsicans? Russia's aim is to annex South Ossetia and depose Saakashvili.

Joel Sprayregen

Chicago , IL

Aug 25 2008 - 2:06am

Web Letter

This is precisely what I've been saying to people since the war broke out. Not only was this provoked--at least partially--by US-led NATO negotiations and what we can candidly call encroachments, but NATO itself is a dated alliance. Why does it still exist? What are the good reasons for its continued functioning?

Well, that's very simple. Since the United States has decided to exempt itself from international law (and consequently the rulings of the International Court of Justice), then a broader military alliance, which can equally be exceptional, is necessary for providing tentacles to manipulate foreign affairs, particularly now that the actual military force of the United States is either outsourced or stretched too thin.

It somewhat reminds me of that famous Mai 1968 poster, where the Gaullian police officer is patting France on the head and hiding a baton behind his back, with the words "Votez Toujours! Je Ferai Le Reste."

Eric Gade

Washington, DC

Aug 19 2008 - 12:57pm

Web Letter

The criticism of Russian conduct appears not only within the ranks of neoconservatives, but from others such as Zbig and Holbrooke. Of course the Russian position has its sympathizers. Some might thnk, however, that it is oxymoronic to label oneself a "progressive" and a defender of Mr. Putin. Eschewing even the notion that a clock is precisely accurate twice a day, The Nation maintains that everything the Bushies support must be disgraceful and wrong and everything they oppose must be proper, simply because the conduct has earned the Bushies' approbation or condemnation, as the case may be. Senator Obama's appeal lies in his scholarly, cool and pragmatic approach to domestic and world crises. His election depends on his refusal to don the ideological blinders that have obscured both the Bush Administration's and The Nation's view of the world.

Thom Seaton

Berkeley, CA

Aug 17 2008 - 1:44pm

Web Letter

Currently, there is only one superpower--the United States--and other political-military powers are the European Union, Russia and China. During the time of the cold war, there were basically the two superpowers and their zones of influence, while China lived isolated and Europe was not united, although Western Europe was of course participating in NATO as an ally of the United States with different grades of involvement and sympathy to the "Western cause," which was basically fear of communism.

The United States and Europe founded NATO not as an aggressive alliance but as a containment of the advancement of communism. It was a time when half of the world distrusted the other half. Today, except for isolated cases, communism is no longer alive, and NATO has lost its prime military reason to exist. Now, NATO may be redefined instead as a contract in which the US will defend Europe against aggressions coming anywhere from the East. Who in the East would dare to attack militarily the powerful Europe or the superpower of the US? Hard to imagine such scenario, but there we are with countries more and more to the East on row to sign up for NATO and "feel free" from Russia.

Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and several other central Asian states have been under varying degrees of Russian influence during the last 300 years or so. They were part of the Soviet zone of influence during the cold war as all the Americas, Western Europe and the other side of the Pacific (Japan, Australia and so) were under the US influence. With the breakdown of communism the West should have known that even as it won the cold war, it gained a multitude of responsibilities, a new family. Because some political systems may be evil, but as evil as they are they provide political stability to provinces, regions, states and confederations. Since the breakdown of the Berlin wall, we have seen so many new Eastern Europe states acquire independence, not to mention the former Soviet Republics.

The situation inside Russia has not been good since that fall. Finally with Putin the people of Russia found an administration with which they could identify, because it appealed to Russian nationalism. While I believe that Russian people are wrong in taking that stance, we must realize this is a country that was invaded by Europeans in several occasions and that, being Slavic, its traditions and culture were very much different of the those of main Europe, specially the West. Russia therefore still does not trust many Western countries, nor Asian either.

Russia lost the cold war, now it is deeply afraid of loosing friends, not having one ally in the world. So we should think what is the purpose of NATO in signing countries like Ukraine or Georgia into the alliance? Everyone sees things so much differently! NATO is abusing its power to ensure an alliance that will stop in the Russian limits. The former Soviet countries still fear Russia, but much more likely they want to gain "status" for their countries--most probably for further Western investment in their economies. Russia is seeing this as "everybody against me" and is furious with some countries, such as Georgia, trying to be "part of the West."

I think the policies of the US and NATO should show great respect to Russia, not only because it deserves it because it is still a great military power but mainly because the world needs its contribution for world peace. No world order is conceivable where Russia does not participate as a world co-leader. The US should not put the missile interceptors on Poland, nor sign out for NATO countries that always were under Russian influence. Russia, on its side, should compromise to respect these small countries. As to whether these small regions should be or not independent or part of Georgia, that is a tough decision involving those ethnic groups. But the heart of this conflict is the attitude of Georgia's president, trying to defy Russia politically and militarily. Of course Russia's response was way off-limits and should be condemned, but I can understand a country that is feeling it does not have the respect of others.

Jorge F. Talavera

Escondido, CA

Aug 16 2008 - 10:34pm

Web Letter

Ms. vanden Heuvel mentions that she has friends on all sides in the region, but appears unfamiliar with the post-Soviet-breakup history of the area. Some of her statements have already been contradicted by Human Rights Watch and other on-site researchers as well as Western press interviews with refugees. But when she referred to the pre-conflict Russian troops in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as "peacekeepers," I stopped reading...

Arvo Lannus

San Jose, CA

Aug 15 2008 - 3:43pm

Web Letter

You are flat-out wrong in saying that the United States would be at war with Russia now if Georgia was a member of NATO and Mikheil Saakashvili led it into South Ossetia. The situation wouldn't arise. Whatever about Tbilisi and Gori, NATO would never pledge itself to defending a disputed patch of land like South Ossetia.

Senator Barack Obama's position should be to tell Georgia he supports its right to join NATO if it so wishes and also the European Union, when it met the requirements, provided it gives up its irredentist claims on the breakaway regions. That's leverage enough to begin with both Moscow and Tbilisi.

As for US media commentary and coverage, you fail to mention that Russian accounts of huge numbers of casualties were faithfully passed on from the beginning--allowing for the comparison with Kosovo. And we simply don't know at this stage if and to what extent the Russians set a well-made trap. Saakashvili's action may have taken them by surprise, but given that for the first time in decades they engaged the regular army of another country, it's hard not to believe there wasn't a plan in the works.

And how could the editor of The Nation of all publications finesse the fact that, whatever the provocation (and, arguably, if you make a territory with a third of the population of Yonkers the issue, then you're looking to be provoked), a wealthy, autocratic capitalist nation of 145 million people attacked a small and relatively poor country of 4.5 million? In this context, your phrase "escalating the fighting" doesn't quite describe the terrorizing over several days of a civilian population, one that was well aware of what happened to its neighbors in Chechnya. (It's also rather unfortunate in this context that a writer for a respected liberal publication, Mark Ames, should so casually use language like "punish their leaders.")

But the problem at the heart of your analysis is the American mindset (seen on the left, right and center) that views various nationalities and ethnic groups--whether Slovenes or Basques or Serbs or Ulster Unionists or Bosnian Muslim or Croatians--through certain prisms. Are they pro- or anti-Western, or pro- or anti-"imperialism," for example? In this case, are they a little too friendly with George W. Bush? Or John McCain? You've forgotten the concept of the alliance of convenience--used famously, amongst others, by the radical nationalists who founded and then ran the Irish state for decades. (Democracy in Ireland has so far outlived the Kaiser by ninety years.)

The fact is, Georgians would be just as happy to do deals with Joe Biden or Pat Buchanan or Nancy Pelosi as with Dick Cheney. Your view of small nations as mere pawns goes against the spirit of the left project that, particularly since the breakup of the USSR, has stressed the importance of healthy and democratic, pluralistic civil societies.

Any serious analysis would show that Georgia has been moving, if fitfully, in the right direction in that regard over the past eighteen years--and, yes, with the encouragement of the EU and the US.

What progressive couldn't support your notion of a "new security paradigm"? But do you really believe the American left should be identified with the non-expansion of NATO at the very moment a non-NATO country's army is being forcefully dismantled by Russia?

Pro-Putin commentary in the West (like Michael Binyon's recent op-ed in the Times of London) is sensitive to the "humiliations" poor little rich Russia suffers at the hands of the wicked West, yet isn't similarly attuned to the legitimate fears and aspirations of its formerly subaltern nations.

The Nation would like these states to be free to pursue an "independent" relationship (again consider the context of the invasion in August 2008) with Russia, and not to act like a "virtual US colonies."

For his part, Binyon seems to believe that spheres of influence are perfectly legitimate and reminds us that Ukraine and Georgia are "two countries long part of the Russian Empire, whose history, religion and culture were so intertwined with Russia's." I'm suspicious of invented nationalist histories, given that nationalism itself is only 200 years old. But Georgians know that Tbilisi, which was acquired in the early nineteenth century by the tsar, is more than 1,500 years old.

Georgia, briefly a stronghold of the Mensheviks (whose rule was crushed in a sea of blood by the youthful Beria, a local boy made bad), would like to be out from under the thumb of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Many citizens there and in other former Soviet states would likely view The Nation's concept of an "independent" relationship with Russia as not incompatible with Binyon's ideas about spheres of influence--and so, indeed, might the Kremlin's hawks.

No one doubts that Saakashveli is an adventurist, one who quite possibly misread the mixed signals he got from the United States and the West generally, but if that relationship wasn't as advanced as it is, might not Russia simply have crushed its enemy in the Caucasus?

You mention rigged elections--a claim has been made about all of Georgia's polls in recent history and led directly to Eduard Shevardnadze's fall in 2003--and also refer to Saakashvili's violent crackdown against protestors late last year. And although you chide others in the media who fail "to provide the full backdrop," you don't mention that the Georgian president was forced to retreat from that hard-line stance (perhaps under pressure from his Western allies and his own civil society).

I was in Tbilisi for a week in May and, like most visitors, found it a remarkably welcoming place. I was there to research a sports story, but I heard and saw enough to realize that it's a relatively open society. Tbilisi has reverted to its pre-tsarist role as one of the "crossroads of the world." Most of the foreigners you encounter in this would-be "US colony" aren't American.

The Europeanizing and globalizing tendencies are clear enough. The kids no longer care much about once great Dinamo Tbilisi, but instead follow the fortunes of A.C. Milan, Manchester United and Barcelona. America is seen as "cool" but somewhat remote. At an institutional level, the society's international aspirations are expressed by the blue-and-gold-stars flag of the EU, which adorns almost all public buildings.

I couldn't help contrast such information with what I saw one night back in my hotel room on the BBC--military vehicles parading through Red Square on Victory Day for the first time since the collapse of the USSR.

Your publication has played an honorable role in exposing the neocon cabal that runs the State Department. But do you believe that hubris is the preserve of the United States? Do you not allow for the possibility that global power-plays and grand plans are concocted in other capitals--particularly those of countries that are rather less democratic than ours and have a history of extreme secrecy? Do you believe that a malignant foreign policy is something that grows only inside the Washington, DC, beltway?

These may seem foolish rhetorical questions--but you seem to have barely blinked when a nation with the population and area size of the Republic of Ireland, though with a fraction of its wealth, was attacked by a rising superpower.

Binyon (who quite possibly admires tanks and regards EU flags as provocative) praised Putin's superior chess skills in his war on Georgia. But one web poster in at the end of his piece suggested that if it's a chess game, the far more patient EU will be the winner. The "humiliated" Russians still can't figure out (nor can Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld) how old Europe created an empire without deploying a single tank.

Peter McDermott

New York, NY

Aug 15 2008 - 3:12pm

Web Letter

1. "Certainly Russia should be condemned for escalating the fighting beyond what was necessary to defend South Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers." (quoting vanden Heuvel). Russia acted precisely as it should: A. to stop the marauding and slaughter; B. to establish a generous perimeter of space cleared of mercenary psychokillers; C. to listen to reason, without taking anything back. The Israel First neocon traitors Kagan and Kristol call that response a "trap" Saakashvili fell into. Too bad there wasn't a Bear around to spring Reagan's contra trap.

2. The right of secession claimed by S. Ossetia, Abkhazia against Georgia isn't a "guiding principle," established since World War I, as Mark Ames says. The Confederate states spilled a lot of blood only a century or so ago for the same principle. Let Freedom ring. Nor is defending the "union"--by Lincoln, Saakashvili or Putin--a guiding principle, established since World War II. But never mind. He's right-on about "because we say so" no longer cutting any mustard in resolving contradiction between the two in contradictory ways: putting Kosovo Albanians up to it, v. Serbia; denying its democratic validity for those who would go with Russia. Maybe it takes a bear foot to squash the bullshit.

3. Speaking of which, to go with the media's disfigurement, it should be noted that these two separatist ethnic identities are specifically mentioned in the history of Georgia as empty of Jews (according to "The Virtual Jewish History Tour," by Joanna Sloame, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia are virtually void of Jews due to the military conflicts in these areas" ). What are left appear to be people who want to belong to Old Russia, which Putin represents, as before the secular Ashkenazi Bolsheviks turned it into a Soviet identity-less regime, and to have nothing to do with enablers of Hasnamuss individuals like the Georgian president Scheunamann and McCain. Who could blame them?

Vanden Heuvel is certainly right-on in calling for an entirely new way of thinking about the strategic and political situation facing America, not based on post-WWII, pre-Vietnam war discourse. This must include ways of talking about Israel as the world's albatross.

4. Blood on the Caucasus. Blood in the Ozarks. Blood in Tennessee.

Sid Thomas

Binghamton, NY

Aug 15 2008 - 12:30pm

Web Letter

Excellent article by Ms vanden Heuvel; so why doesn't she support the only candidate who makes sense in both foreign and domestic policy, Ralph Nader? Because she fears the election of McCain? Centrist Democrats were marginal in both 2000 and 2004. We must pull the Dems to the left; not reward them for going to the center!

When will the left learn to support its own?

Alvin D. Hofer

St. Petersburg, FL

Aug 15 2008 - 10:57am

Web Letter

Fact 1: Georgia started the fighting, shelled a sleepy Ossetian town and killed a substantial number of Russian civilians and peacekeepers on the Olympic night, all to a tacit Western approval, since I've heard no words of condemnation.

Fact 2: Official Georgian body count is 175 dead.

CW: The Russian response is "disproportionate," blah-blah-blah.

Looking at it from another perspective, Russia has used the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and attacked Georgian military and dual-use installations outside the immediate conflict zone to prevent further bloodshed.

Anatoly Panov

Moscow, Russia

Aug 15 2008 - 9:07am

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