August 17, 2008
Russia still has unfinished business with its neighboursPosted in International Economy · 80 comments ·
Russia has sent out a signal to everyone – ‘don’t mess with us in our own backyard’. This is enough.
Nadia the green-eyed Russian waitress whispered conspiratorially, ‘‘They don’t like us, you know. The Estonians, they think we are occupiers.’’ She glanced over at the other bar staff and continued, ‘‘but we are not. We were born here, this is our land, can’t you see the great Orthodox cathedral – if we came here with Stalin, who do they think built that?”
Nadia, by the way, is having a smoke, dressed in traditional Estonian dress at a tourist trap that is flogging ‘‘real rustic Estonian cooking’’ to hundreds of tourists, who, like me, are in Tallinn for a few days. Although conflicted – making a living as an Estonian, while simultaneously hating Estonians – Nadia represents part of the problem we saw exposed in Georgia. The problem for the West is the hundreds of thousands of Russians who found themselves, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, trapped in countries that couldn’t stand them.
In Georgia the issue is Ossetia and Abkhazia, but here in the Baltic the issue is the 40 per cent of the Estonian population who consider themselves Russian.
There is a similar but not quite so large minority in Latvia, Lithuania and, of course, the big one – Ukraine. There are also significant numbers of Russians in the Muslim republics of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. These are all potential powder kegs, if Moscow chooses to light the flame.
Whether the Kremlin wants to do this is anyone’s guess. However, here in Tallinn it is easy to see how a more expansive Kremlin might go about its business. Among the Estonians there is a tremendous amount of insecurity at the moment.
Many are now questioning the wisdom of last year’s move to tear down a monument of a Soviet soldier, which, for Russians here, symbolised the great Russian sacrifices made to defeat fascism.
For Estonians, the monument represented a triumphalist reminder of the Russian annexation of Estonia after World War II. Last year, the Kremlin expressed its disapproval, but did little else. However, today’s Moscow is a very different beast than it was 12 months ago.
Many years ago, in a bizarre effort to learn Russian, I spent three months living with a Russian family in the outback of Russia. The town — Novi Ruza – was a nondescript hamlet some 80 miles from Moscow. Word went around that there was someone from ‘‘outside’’ living in the village.
On the second morning, as I walked down the street, the babushkas who cleaned the footpaths shouted out to me, ‘‘Eh, Gitler!’’ Russians pronounce H like G, and later the family explained to me that the last foreigners the old people had seen were defeated German soldiers retreating from the Red Army, practically running through the village in the general direction of Berlin.
As far as the old babushkas were concerned, I was simply another foreigner, and given my red hair I must have been a Hitlerite!
Not far from the village – indeed the place’s only claim to fame – was Borodino. In Borodino, Napoleon’s Grande ArmÃ©e was defeated as it slugged its way to Moscow in 1812.On the second week of September each year this glorious Russian victory is celebrated. Back in 1990 when I witnessed this strange spectacle, I also saw, for the first time, a strange bearded group of young men standing under a banner which read ‘Bog s nami’, which means ‘‘God is with us’’.
These were the Russian, not Soviet, nationalists dressed like Orthodox priests. It’s worth remembering that this was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and such displays of religion could lead to a few years in some gulag or other.
Yet they were there, flaunting their beards and their religion in a supposed atheistic state. Quite apart from their religious beliefs, these young men were part of an ancient Russian tradition shared by the great Russian writers Pushkin and, more recently, Solzenhitsyn, which is Orthodox first and European second. This view of the world dates from the 12th century and the Crusades.
The defeat in Constantinople of the great Orthodox Christian patriarch at the hands of our Crusaders constitutes for traditional Russians the beginning of a battle between Russian Orthodoxy and our version of Catholic and, later, Protestant Christianity.
Although it seems strange, particularly in an economics column, to discuss such issues, these divisions are fundamental to understanding how this part of the world operates.
When you stroll down the streets of Tallinn, you are obviously in Europe. But it’s not western Europe. The echoes of all these unfinished battles, these displaced peoples and these scores yet to be settled, are everywhere. This city is Hanseatic. It was built by Danish and, then mainly, German traders.
As the most northern part of the Hanseatic League, it was part of the complex trading arrangement that stretched from Estonia to Bruges in Belgium. This trading arrangement – the forerunner to the free-trade EU – dominated Europe for three centuries.
Its cities were trading outposts that bought and sold goods from the hinterland – the large interior parts of Europe connected by a network of rivers where few foreigners ever ventured. The port cities were the cosmopolitan centres of the old empire, and given the stunning architecture, it’s safe to presume that the people here in Tallinn never thought their great city would ever be anything other than a trading city. It was the gateway to Russia, the axis between Europe and the vast continent. Why would that ever change?
We now know that it did change and it did so violently.
The question Russia’s action in Georgia poses is whether it might happen again. For many Russians there is unfinished business in what they term their ‘‘near abroad’’, which covers the Baltic states, Ukraine and, of course, the Caucasus.
The prospect of any aggressive Russian action is remote because at the moment our interests and Russia’s coincide in trade and a mutual financial conundrum in the face of Asian global competition.
Furthermore, the people in power in Moscow, despite the naive caricatures peddled by the western press, are not idiots. Russia has sent out a signal to everyone – ‘‘don’t mess with us in our own backyard’’. This is enough.
It does not mean the Red Army will not roll again, but it implies that from now on, Europe and America have to deal with Russia as an equal. In the past 18 years, we have dismissed the Russians. This was not healthy. Today, after Georgia, the situation has changed.
Mutual respect will be much less dangerous than western condescension towards Russia. Although it doesn’t seem so at the moment, the people of Tallinn are probably safer to do as they please now than at any time in the past two decades.
The Russians have spoken; the West has listened. The status quo is strengthened and Nadia can feel confident again without being threatening.