Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Human Rights in Israel

Alon Harel is a prominent Israeli commentator, civil rights activist and renowned legal expert teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His wide ranging career has included being a visiting professor at the Universities of Austin, Toronto, Columbia and Harvard. Given the atmosphere of outrage and allegations surrounding the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, Harel shares his views on war-crimes, human rights, segregation and the future of Zionism.


Judah: What chance is there that the IDF committed war-crimes as defined under international law in the recent Gaza Operation?


Harel: To be frank, this is a question that I’m not going to be able to answer for three reasons. Firstly, I’m not sufficiently well versed in the legal complexity of international law as it currently stands, secondly I don’t as yet know all the facts and primarily the main thing you have to remember about the standards of international law is that they are incredibly vague, ill defined and subject to interpretation. Therefore it’s very difficult to assess for instance what the concept of ‘proportionality,’ meaning how many innocent civilians you are ‘allowed to kill’ as collateral, actually means. It falls under the vague category. Some things however, are emerging quite squarely from my viewpoint as war crimes. What I have in mind is the killing of Hamas policemen, very early on in the recent wave of violence. They had just completed some form of training course and were at a ceremony when they were attacked, and as non-military officials this would contravene international law. Yet the Israeli line would be that the distinction is not sharp enough, another illustration that the norms are far too vague.


Judah: How are actions such as these tolerated by Israeli society and is it taken seriously enough by the political and military elites?


Harel: My stance is that it’s not being taken seriously enough, that is taken only as things that are to be avoided in a strictly lawyerly manner. The thinking is along the lines of “now we’ve done it, how do we get out of it.” My impression is that the political elites view international law as some kind of nuisance, so they get people to help them get out of it. They view it as just a hassle and don’t inculcate and instil the values and norms of into the system, rather treating it something to avoid. They are simply not taking it seriously and for me this is deeply frustrating. Recently in the high-brow Israeli broadsheet Ha’aretz, there was a piece showing how military lawyers co-operate in erasing military acts. There was a lot of discussion on how to prevent Israeli officers from being stopped by foreign authorities as a result of actions recently committed in Gaza. The newspaper claimed that the military lawyers were behaving legalistically, yet only in the sense that they were telling the army how to avoid it. They treated international law in the manner that I don’t think military lawyers should, that is they behaved like a criminal’s advocate might and did not internalise its core principles. And this is disappointing.


Judah: Are the checks on the excesses of war strong enough in Israel?


Harel: The war indicates that they are not. I think that the way the way to do this is to make sure that the press brings the horror of violence to every home in Israel. This could not happen as the Government blocked reporters entering Gaza and this was wrong. The war was rather popular in Israel and the press went along with it, with the possible exception of Ha’aretz, but their stance was not picked up on by the rest of the media. However though there were some annoying limitations on reporting from the conflict-zone itself, anybody could publish anything he wanted in Israel about the violence.


Judah: Are Israelis seduced by war?


Harel: I don’t think that Israelis have a special sympathy for violence – but the long conflict has desensitized many Israelis to the horrors that it generates towards the Palestinians. Of course the rockets do this; the insecurity makes it worse and the whole feeling of living on the edge that pervades modern Israel. None of this is very conducive to ‘peaceful sentiments.’ This has engendered a culture of fear, insecurities and a little bit of paranoia that leads Israelis to view themselves as righteous, as the victims of the whole affair. And this is not desirable in the Israeli context. Yet things can change if you modify this context. The right journalists, thinkers and of course leaders are what you need. What I have said however is completely different what the questions suggest. There is a tendency to ‘psychologise’ modern warfare and especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are a lot of theories, which are very popular in Britain, that the Zionist movement is somehow ‘prone’ or ‘inherently’ violent. I don’t think that is supported by the evidence, much of which is dubious and is all highly disputed, and certainly doesn’t stand up in a comparative analysis with other nationalist or post-nationalist movements. Imposing a psychological paradigm on any complex society and its decision and implementation procedure is flawed, unhelpful methodology. I don’t see how any psychologising of this conflict can be useful.


Judah: The Israeli Government recently announced that it would offer protection to IDF soldiers accused of war-crimes. What is the likelihood of us seeing people in the dock and was this the right decision for the Israeli Government to make?


Harel: I think that if war-crimes were committed then those involved should be prosecuted. If this were done properly at home, then no international body would be needed as Israel herself could be trusted. Some of the alleged war-crimes, and by alleged I am stressing that we need further investigation and fact-gathering from Gaza, were taken by very high-up officials so this is why the Government is unkeen and seeking to offer protection. Israel needs to interrogate these claims, but you should not forget that there is scope for doubt here. This further stresses that it needs to be inculcated that war has become legalised and that this needs to be taken constantly into account when you do things. Israel needs to instil the values, norms and values of international law into the upper ranks or the army and political establishment. That would be the right decision to take. Of course there can be debates and discussions, but behind the complexities and legal sophistication things need to be undertaken in spirit. And this had not occurred.


Judah: How did the Israeli Supreme Court emerge as such a pro-active force in modern Israel? How this start and what has this achieved?


Harel: the Israeli Supreme Court filled a void and this was partly due to the weakness of both the legislature and the Government, as they both suffered from a critical lack of legitimacy. Key jurists pulled forward the process, engendering great hostility towards the Courts, which became seen as political, sectarian or serving sectional interests. I think the Israeli Supreme Court, when using the powers of judicial review that it has at its disposal has, in fact been highly responsible and professional. Now the Court managed to achieve this position by enjoying great legitimacy at certain chosen periods, when other institutions were tarnished as their leaders had become perceived as self-interested, corrupt and no longer reflective to Israeli society. This was congruent with the energy and dynamism of Justice Barak, and his great convictions about the role of judges in modern societies and especially in Israel. I personally think the claims of the Israeli Court being over-active, yet this is very hard to evaluate. Comparing court activism is such a multi-dimensional and slippery process and I have never seen clear, persuasive evidence that the Court is indeed over-active. Yet, many people challenge and resent its decisions. That’s why there are many people who hate the court.


Judah: Would you qualify Israel as a segregated society?


Harel: First of all voluntary segregation is not necessarily bad, letting people as it does choose to live amongst those that share their values and preferences and to be frank Israel, excluding the West Bank which is not part of the state, is in my opinion not necessarily any more segregated than other Western countries. Take the United States, deeply segregated along line of race, class and faith and of course France. Now, voluntary segregation is not a bad thing as long as it doesn’t become enforced segregation and thus a form of oppression. There is obviously a lot of segregation, on the case of the Israeli-Arabs for example there were restrictions that have been dismantled by the court and any attempts by some political figures to bring elements of them back have been fired down. However segregation is mostly to do with the fact that there is a different language being used, requiring for instance different schools.  Of course a lot of Jews are hostile when Arabs come and live amongst them, but this isn’t a universal. Haifa is famously un-segregated, or less than other places, whilst Jaffa is highly divided. There is willingness on the part of some and not of others and the Israeli-Arabs a not free of blame for the worrying deterioration of in the relationship between the two communities. They have been highly provocative and made challenges to certain basic values and beliefs of the Jewish community. Yet, there is no question however that the relationship has deteriorated in the past fifteen years and that there is economic and unconscious discrimination practised in Israel by the majority in a very similar manner that is practised in Western countries. Given Israel has become less of a social-welfare state - this has hurt the Israeli-Arabs more. Where is this going? That’s hard to know, harder to predict. There is a lot of goodwill, especially amongst the young, lots of groups and, at least in the labour market, a lot of interactions. Personal relationships however are still very segregated. For example I first interacted with Israeli-Arabs when I went to University and even there the Israeli-Arabs tended to stick amongst themselves. Before then I had barely met anyone from that community.


Judah: Could you elaborate on the forms of legal, political and social discrimination that exist in Israel today affecting non-Orthodox Jews and Israeli-Arabs? How are things developing and what can be done?


Harel: Family law is outdated and quite horrible, with many people resenting this. However thanks to the Courts if you live with someone you can now achieve as may rights and benefits as you need or want, but marriage is of course different. Israeli-Arabs face a lot of discrimination but they are not the only ones, Ethiopian Jews do as well. Degrees of intolerance like this are almost inevitable ion highly heterogeneous societies. Socially, we need structures that offer a little more inclusion. We need a new situation and a will to be able to achieve this and overcome existing barriers. There are of course factors that are trying like the Courts, with their insistence of legal authority and groups such as the Association of Civil Rights. Some are trying to work through the Courts to achieve real change, others via public opinion. However there have not been changes for the better in recent years, like there was during the Second Rabin Government, which was highly effective on those issues.


Judah: With the rise of Yisrael Beitanu and the opinion polls suggesting a swing to the Likud, is this coming election a test of human-rights and tolerant pluralism in Israel?


Harel: No the election is not a test for anything. I don’t think the rightward swing is very serious as people vote mostly with hunches, especially in an atmosphere of violence like this. People’s underlying values should not be judged primarily on who they vote for. And to be frank I don’t think there is a major difference between the three main parties. They are all usually unable to solve things and as a result just muddle through the problems. There is not a sharp correlation between voting patterns and respect for human rights in the centre of the spectrum of society and moreover the broad swath of voters. Labour, Likud and Kadima are all parties with some goodwill, talent and even a little bit of vision – yet they all critical lack that certain something that permits a political force to transform things.


Judah: In 2004 you spoke of the need to “separate Zionism from State,” what does that entail and why is this necessary?


Harel: This was an intellectual exercise and what I suggested was that the Israeli political map should include parties that do not define themselves as Zionist, primarily Ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and others. I think it should be recognised that Zionism is a political movement in Israel, a dominant one, but a political one none the less.


Judah: In your work you have touched on the treatment of sexual minorities in Israeli politics and society. Is their dignity or just tolerance in Israel today?


Harel: I think this was the great success of the Israeli human rights movement, changing the situation of Israeli gays. I think now there really is dignity and not just tolerance. In Tel Aviv there is one long chain of success stories, not only legal but only social, fundamental changes in people’s underlying values. It all happened very quickly between 1988 and 1995 in the main hubs of Israeli society, yet on the periphery it’s still bad. Yet now there are even voices in the Orthodox community, the issue is now discussed and finally visible.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Russia is Losing: A Reply to James Schneider

Dear James,

I appreciate you want to move the debate forward. Let’s not get stuck in the mud. However there are a few things I think you should know, not being in Tbilisi. Yesterday some conversations with a senior Georgian politician revealed some vital clues as to why Russia stopped 21 km from Tbilisi. Here is an extract from a fascinating briefing.

“The reason the Russians did not take Tbilisi is clear. They had spoken time and time again about the need for regime change, removing the ‘criminal’ leader Mikheil Saakashvili and demanding his arrest as a pre-condition for a cease-fire. However they did not achieve this objective. The reason was that over 70,000 people mobilised to protest in Freedom Square, from all sides of the political divide, to show they refused to be cowed. Keeping the morale high was crucial, if it had broken, or there had been looting or flight from Tbilisi, the Russians would have entered the capital to ‘restore order.’ The Russians didn’t. What could they have done? Driven their tanks from Igoeti those 21km away and found tens of thousands of protestors waiting for them on the anniversary of the Prague Spring? No. They couldn’t there objectives were stopped. However what were the Russian intentions when they invaded…? We have a clue from their petrol. When their officers arrived in Gori and surrounding areas they made contact with out local authorities. And offered to sell them large amounts of cheap petrol. At first we were unsure and then then soon urged our men to offer and keep asking to buy it. The officers couldn’t sell it as first, ‘we need to know if we are going to drive to Tbilisi on this or if were going back.’ On the fourth day, the corrupt officers sold us the petrol and drove off. We had a celebratory drink with them and they were delighted to have cut the deal. And that’s how we knew they weren’t coming into Tbilisi and we had stopped them.”

Paul Berman argued that the invasion of Georgia signified the death of 1989. I believe this fact shows he is wrong. The very reason that this is not 1968 is that protestors and high morale actually - prevented Russian forces from entering the capital, which they had obviously planned to do given their stated objectives and the amount of petrol they carried with them. The liberal-left, instead of sniffing about Saakashvili’s democratic credentials which are far from perfect (whilst in fact they are mostly angered by his pro Bush stance), should recognise that the mass-protests in Tbilisi are a triumph for democracy and a show that 1989 still breathes. Due to the spread and deepening of the values of the Free World within Russian itself it is no longer acceptable for the Kremlin to send tanks to crush civilian protestors. It wasn’t in Berlin in 1989, nor was is it in Moscow in 1991 and now neither is it in Tbilisi in 2008. In this sense you need to recognise that Russia just lost categorically, and in a sense need to stop feeling threatened by them and sign up to your own first point, a solidarity campaign with Georgia.

The liberal-left, instead of feeling uncomfortable with Saakashvili due to his pro-American stance and thuggery should come and support him – by virtue of all major parties supporting the continuance of his Presidency and democracy in Georgia, he does have an astounding popular mandate. That’s democracy, it’s not always pretty. That’s what we pledged ourselves to defend. Again, I underline my support for your first point.

Moving on. What we urgently need to avoid in Georgia is economic collapse. If the economy nose-dives, the Kremlin will succeed stamping its own agenda on the country in the face of the expressed wishes of the Georgian people to be part of the West. Economic meltdown will lead to the FSB having free reign in Tbilisi and of course over the BTC pipeline. This is what we need to avert. Instead of escalating along your points, I would urge Governments to follow the lead of the United States. I may have spent much of yesterday listening to some horrific accounts of ethnic cleansing, but the amount of people actually permanently driven form their homes is relatively small. There simply were not many Georgians left in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The 1 Billion US$ aid package from America and the 750 Million US$ loan from the IMF are actually way superior in value to the actual amounts of damage done by Russian forces. The delivery of the aid shipments to Poti includes stuff that isn’t really needed (unlike in Bihar). Both of these are symbolic gestures to show that anyone can use Poti and that we are not abandoning Georgia. In a sense the Georgia solidarity campaign we need has already begun, if you want to put out some bunting that’d be great – but they’ve actually cleared away the ‘Stop Russia’ posters here so I don’t think it’d be necessary. What they need is investment to continue and the only wait it can is if the West affirms it guarantees Georgia’s tarnished – but living democratic choice not to be a Russian satellite.

Russia is losing in Georgia. I repeat. Russia is losing in Georgia. For that reason I am going to suggest that whilst many of the points of your scale, ( 1,3,6 and 9 especially) I broadly agree with as possible options to be used if Russian aggression continues into say the the Ukraine or Moldova, I don’t think it’s necessary to apply them just yet. As for some of your other remaining points (4,5 and 10) they raise the general questions of doing business with authoritarian government in general, there cannot be one rule for Russia and one for China – do you not agree? This is an avenue for further discussion. As for 7, I see it as impossible to implement and 8 is totally useless strategically or militarily. It’s simply a waste of money.

For the moment Moscow is losing with our current post-invasion strategy of keeping the competition confined to Georgia and refusing to abandon it by pledging eventual NATO membership and keeping the economy afloat to ensure the FSB do not manipulate bread-riots or unemployment lines into the emergence of a Russian puppet-regime. Capital flight from Russia has already been over 21billion US$ and the Russian stock-market has yet to recover. It’s been a pricey war for a few scrappy villages. One option outlined by a senior CIA regional analyst was that the Muscovite elite might put pressure on the Kremlin to ‘hold back from the brink’ to protect their investments. This is a possibility and we have market forces to rely on. However, visa-bans remain an option. I suggest making an example of one or two individuals to show what will happen if aggression continues things will escalate. Eduard Kokoity perhaps? He’s made some pretty horrific demands for ethnic cleansing recently. It'd be wrong to retaliate in the ways you outlined, let's continue the current policy of denying victory in Georgia whilst continuing normal relations in other spheres unless something further aggression continues. If it does, I'll take another look at them.

Saakashvili and dare I say, the popular momentum to turn Georgia into a modern and western state we can still call the ‘Rose Revolution’ is moving forward. On the diplomatic level, the Federation is looking even more humiliated. Nino Burjanadze, the speaker of Parliament stressed in conversation that the diplomatic offensive had just suffered a historic reversal. Indeed close inspection of what just happened at the Shanghai Co-Operation Council meeting shows this. Did you see that photo of Medvedev looking as if he was about to cry? The reason is that he turned up expecting CSTO countries to rally behind Russia – and for the first time in history China showed leadership and Central Asia hid behind Beijing. Clearly Medvedev needs to chew on this quote by Ivan Kratsev before setting back to work on a post-modern Empire.

“Russia's failure to persuade the world of the legitimacy of its actions in and towards Georgia should force Moscow to rethink its plans for a return to the world stage. Russia is a born-again 19th-century power that acts in the post-20th-century world where arguments of force and capacity cannot any longer be the only way to define the status or conduct of great powers. The absence of "soft power" is particularly dangerous for a would-be revisionist state. For if a state wants today to remake the world order, it must be able both to rely on the existing and emerging constellation of powers and be able to capture the international public's imagination.”

This is the price you pay for installing a managed democracy. The illusion that all editors and reporters are like those of ORT. Indeed there is some good news for Putin to dwell on – Russia now has company in recognising the breakaways. Nicaragua’s Ortega has decided to anger the Americans. Oh, so have Hezbollah and Hamas. Russia has some pretty friends – the people of the Federation urgently need to take stock of this and realise just into what company they are being driven. This takes us into you point C. – I really don’t think we can discuss CSTO and the SCO as if they are alternative structures to NATO, as the events of the past few days have shown they are incredibly weak and have no clear agenda or organisational capacity for the moment.`

Stephen Kotkin once said “the CIS is not a commonwealth but a question mark.” I think the same applies to the SCO and CSTO. If the Kremlin are smart they will take a sharp lesson from this ( I have little reason to believe that are dramatically less wise than Bush’ Whitehouse so it is a possibility.) The discreet empire-building that has actually been working is the behind the scenes Russian take-over of the borders of Armenia, Belarus Tajikistan and aspects of the military in CSTO countries through the use of these organisations. Using them carefully to empower Russia might see new life breathed into the Russia-Belarus State Union or meaning into the CIS. Moscow seeks to build a sphere. This is how I expect, after a period of trial and error – it will proceed to d so using the CIS, State-Union and CSTO. Two of which Georgia has sharply exited and one it had no interest in joining. As for the SCO, I view the mutually exclusive goals of China and Russia to mean it will be unlikely to deeply dramatically in the foreseeable future, whilst their even deeper fear of each others intentions will hold them together.

This takes us to NATO reform. My knowledge-set has information for how NATO can improve as a fighting force, though institutionally I feel there is little more we can do for the moment apart from increasingly interoperability and avoiding duplication . I subscribe to the notion of NATO as the defence force of the Western democracies and have long argued that non-whites are more than welcome. Georgia without the enclaves, Israel without the territories are two invites I would hope to write, whilst Japan and Brazil can be constructively engaged with and hopefully associated with at the very least. You mentioned in one of your previous notes the need for ‘new’ organisations – let NATO evolve, that is if you believe the democracies need a common army. As for engaging with Russia within a framework or even China, I don’t see the need for creating new offices and mechanisms. When I suggested such a concept to Giovanni Grevi at the EUISS in Paris, he retorted, “there are loads of organisations, some practically defunct that can be used to engage with Russia, which if it desired could easily empower the OSCE for example." As for China, there is a lack of mechanism, what do you suggest? However I am deeply suspicious about founding a new global security-pact between what is essentially just ‘Permanent 5’ states, when almost everything the great power can agree on could and should be done through the UN Security Council. Maybe we should focus out attention on UN reform and seek a new global-pact as part of the next United Nations.

Yours truly,


Friday, 5 September 2008

Quote of the Day

I recommend reading these short opinion pieces by leading Russian experts. They include two I have discussed in the past, the impressive Stephen Kotkin and the Economist's Ed Lucas. This quote sums up some thoughts I've been having today.

"Russia's history is not only about authoritarianism and imperialism. It is also the story of astonishingly brave men and women who struggled for freedom, like the eight protesters who went to Red Square in August 1968 to denounce the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Like countless others in past decades, their slogan was: "For your freedom and ours."

"The best way that the outside world can help Russia now is by example. The West has squandered the moral authority it had at the end of the cold war. Dick Cheney's America and Silvio Berlusconi's Italy don't look much different from Putin's Russia, at least when viewed from Moscow. We have to practice what we preach before we can expect anyone else to believe it."

- Ed Lucas, Economist Central Europe Correspondent and author the 'New Cold War'

Response to James Schneider II

Dear James,

You are out of date and articulating a position similar to the French and German attitudes to Russia at the Bucharest Summit in December 2007 in your reply to my recent Henry Jackson Society policy proposal . Anatol Lieven, in an interview in July explained to me that France’s new NATO stance was based on “one enormous condition: which is that Russia does not once again become an enemy.” He explained that was why the “French approach calls for selective co-operation with the US, supporting the mission in Afghanistan but opposing US calls for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.” Berlin and Paris were backing exactly the proposals you outline. That we do not offer Georgia and the Ukraine MAPs to the Western Alliance as it would constitute an aggressive and bellicose act towards Russia and risked igniting a phase of ‘acute competition,’ what you could call a ‘new Cold War.’ The French and the Germans publicly opposed US plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, I hope you remember Jacques Chirac’s attitude to the project and I also hope you have taken on board Gerhard Schroeder’s attempts to co-operate, open-dialogue and derive mutually enriching wealth from his post inside Gazprom. This was a fair and sound policy until the Russian invasion of Georgia.

You argue, just as the previous French and German positions were, that there are alternatives and a passive, non-reactive policy towards Moscow is necessary. You talk a lot about ‘co-option’ and ‘mutual-beneficent’ strategies we could have with Russia. However we are not dealing with the Russian people, but a criminal-gang at the helm of the state. The Putin-Medvedev tandem has already shown it is not interested in your policy, that of Sarkozy and Merkel before the war. If it had been interested in a deliberate act of Western respect for a zone of neutrality it would not have prepared to invade Georgia since December 2007. This is how Moscow responded to that path James, let’s not make the same mistake twice.

In my response I decided to address your fears of things spiralling out of control, by calling for a summit where Moscow could be offered either a neutral Georgia with internationalised South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where once refugees had returned their homes we could hold free and fair referendums on their futures. The alternative is to accept partition, recognise these breakaways and make Moscow aware that because it forcibly changed borders by force we are now going to guarantee Georgia independence and right to join any international organisation it meets the criteria for. You suggest the US can guarantee Georgian independence, as it does of the State of Israel. I posit that comes down to the same thing as NATO membership, just with the EU free-loading off America’s defences, as usual. If you believe that one of the goals of European foreign policy is to solidify and strengthen democracy abroad, why are you suggesting the US enter into a pact with Tbilisi, and the UK just smile and wave?

You didn’t address the fact that in creating ‘neutral-ground’ in the Caucasus and over Russia the proposals I outlined, this matches with both Moscow’s stated agenda and as far as I judge – our own. You chose to divert attention away from this and focus on what I suggest we do if Russia refuses to accept such a deal, thereby fully owning up to its desires not protect itself from encroachment – but to build a sphere of exclusive political influence, one over which it wields a veto on who rules. A post-modern Empire if you like to rival America’s. I personally do not believe that any of the parties are ready for such a bold attempt to tie up the loose ends of the Cold War.

The European liberal-left are continuing to believe that the Franco-German strategy of halting NATO expansion and congratulating Medvedev on his ‘election victory,’ will show results. It’s failed. The European ‘tough-men’ are shouting and doing nothing when they should be silent and doing everything. The US is in election-mode and lead by those who have shown themselves rather un-adept at foreign policy. Georgia itself would probably without (the highly unlikely) massive Western push to accept new borders in exchange for a guarantee they will never alter again is sinking into national-narratives of betrayal, incapacity and failure. And the Russians are aiming at building a new sphere, thinking on a different wave-length to Brussels about the use of force, empire and nation. So we are headed for the worst of all worlds. Georgia is a paralysed country under Russian-veto, Ukraine is heading for a similar dock, the US and a few European countries are incompetently trying to live out Reagan fantasies whilst others turn a blind eye to Moscow. This is not a new Cold War. It’s something far dirtier, messier and it’s already begun. Faded ‘90s proposals won’t work anymore – we need to offer Russia a deal that updates Reykjavik or be ready for more thrusts as an unstable criminal group of spies try and keep their people drugged to ‘glory.’

These are the harsh realities of the 21st century and this is why if you believe the Russians are not willing to update Reykjavik and accept a neutral Georgia, it is our duty to work for a total pull out of Russian forces, accept partition and fast-track Tbilisi onto the MAP into the Western Alliance. Accepting Georgia as in the Russian sphere legitimizes the Putin Doctrine, of 'Once Russian, Always Russian.'

The fact you are willing to repeat the mistakes Europe just made, I hope you are ready for deeper consequences, demonstrates that liberals are stuck in yesterday’s tomorrow. You need a time machine James, but then again so does the world.

Yours truly,


P.S You made a lot of factual errors. I presume because you were tired. For instance I did not suggest a NATO Georgia would be neutral, I suggested it as the only alternative to a Russian rejection of neutrality. And there were others, mostly minor.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A Response to James Schneider

Dear Schneider,

I apologise for not having been able to write back to your reply to my recent Henry Jackson Society policy proposal soon. I spoke to Tulman today on the telephone. She was very nervous and asked for me not to print her surname. She lives in Karaleti, a village over the line I visited under Russian escort just after the fighting had stopped. “They haven’t gone…”

“They have dug in a earth-fortress and started getting things ready, for the winter, we’ll that’s what some of us say. They make the Ossetians who burnt our homes stay away now. But it makes me to sick to watch them there. They allowed it. They participated. We heard them shouting when we were hiding in the cellars.”

Most of Karaleti isn’t there anymore. Neither is a lot of Tskhinvali, but what Tulman is living in the reality of the new Georgia. It is a country that has been partitioned, had its infrastructure pulverised, large swathes of its countryside raided, its people displaced and its future turned from a promise - into a question mark. Georgia is occupied by Russian forces. True, this is not Ramallah, but the choice of placing troopers from the Federation at strategic locations way outside the enclaves is the Kremlin’s way of having a veto on tomorrow. Russian forces in Poti, just like those in Kerateli are there to say – we can come to Tbilisi any time we want. Is this against the terms of the cease-fire? Of course, but that’s another matter. Is this an occupation? To these the phraseology, ‘it’s light foot-print.’ But even just a few platoons means Moscow has the final say.

I am not interested in discussing how the war began, leave that to the historians, but in how it is ending. This is what is being written now. By moving inside Georgia-‘proper’ Moscow established the Putin Doctrine. In 1968 a frail Brezhnev, deeply confused and under pressure from his coterie to act, decided to implement his doctrine. It was simple. ‘Once Socialist, Always Socialist.’ Forty years later Putin is telling us, ‘One Russian, always Russian.’ In one fell-swoop the Kremlin forces every former Soviet, indeed ‘Socialist’ country to re-evaluate its relationship with Russia. You are right to point out that the war did not ‘create a new reality,’ by which I presume you alter the balance of power. The shift had been coming for years, TIME had even nominated Putin as man of the year (remember those photos of the throne?), but Georgia did change something. It showed Moscow was going to use guns to get what it wanted. Now, that was unexpected. And frightening.

I had initially favoured your position on conflict-resolution. That we should avoid the partition of Georgia and aim for a non-combatative ‘internationalisation’ of the conflict. I had discussed with senior French diplomats how such a plan might look, EU and OSCE observers, return of refugees, reconstruction and maybe even referendums at some unspecified date. The Kremlin chose not only to ignore such options, but to spit a them – by handing recognition (along with Nicaragua) to the breakaways. This shattered my already slim hope we had a negotiating partner in the Kremlin. The news today about Moscow, pushing for ‘peace’ in Moldova sharpened my conclusions. We have a bully who shows no respect for national autonomy and does not hesitate to play foul. Or with polonium.

You think you can co-opt these people? I’m suggesting you be a little more hesitant before inviting the boys who blasted Grozny to design a new ‘security architecture with you.’ These are dangerous, criminal people. That’s before we even get to the (albeit it pretty short) KGB careers of the top-brass. And I urge you to think about what we are trying to secure.

We had an argument a while back, at the pub in Oxford. I remember precisely thirty seconds of what I presume was several hours we spent there. I am saying, “I don’t care about Georgia. It’s a small country far-away about which I know nothing. We can’t secure it, it’s a waste of time.” I think with all eloquence, I then said something like - “Fuck it.”

I changed my mind in Tbilisi. The Georgians do not deserve to be bullied into a Russian sphere. They are not a satellite, but a feeling, aspiring people. Those I have met, even the peasants, do not want to be run by spies and oil-barons. They want to live with democratic standards, wi-fi and free. Georgians are not some rebellious tribe in a far away mountain range led by a US puppet. This is a rich and complex nation, that has been trying to leave the Kremlin’s cage since the 1880s. If there is any historical parallel here, it is to Georgians own European road to socialism undertaken before the Russian invasion after World War One. Lenin took out Tbilisi first. Because he knew, as a cosmopolitan city and a symbol, it mattered.

The West failed Georgia. We made them promises, of EU and NATO membership that led to run, rush straight into a Russian trap. Any future Georgian leader will be wary of our siren-call. It can dash more than a career. You say that Saakashvili is an unreliable partner, I suggest we gave the Georgians an flawed map Westward. So what are we to do?

If we let Russia block Georgian entering NATO and the EU, and thereby choosing not to cowed by force, by blackmail into being a servant of Moscow – we send a signal. In the 21st century you can build an Empire, stamp of the wishes of millions of people and deny freedom, and we won’t stop you. We send a signal. In the 21st century the EU and the US will not defend you from invasion. The EU and the US will watch your (fragile, flickering, but living) democracy be crushed. This is why I believe Georgia can join NATO and the EU if it wants to. I believe there has never been a more urgent time to stress this and to made this a foreign policy priority.

You say we must not antagonise Moscow. I have stressed myself we should not fall into their trap of starting the Second Cold War. Having laid out my principles, let me list my proposals. It is crucial we deny Moscow the right to determine Georgia’s future. So let us call Putin’s bluff. Six-weeks ago over Kosovo, he insisted that territorial-integrity mattered above anything else. He’s changed his mind, but let us make one things very clear to him. If Abkhazia and South Ossetia are like Kosovo, let’s do it like Kosovo. If there is a return of refugees, observers and a referendum – we will recognise their right to leave Georgia and join any international organisation or federation they desire. But the same rule applies to Georgia. If Putin and Medvedev desire that in five years Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are in the Russian Federation, Tbilisi and Senaki will be in NATO. Or they can take another option.

Georgia and the Ukraine can become neutral-ground. The disputed enclaves in Georgia can be internationalised, with peace-keepers from all countries and open borders. This would be ideal for states bound to both sides. But it is not going to happen. Get Real. Moscow just partitioned Georgia and showed it had no interest in such a solution. We have to ask ourselves are we going to let them ‘liberate’ South Ossetia and Abkhazia alone, or are we going to let them build a ‘sphere’ within which countries cannot freely who they elect or where they tread in the world?

Let’s make this offer to Moscow. Let’s invite them to a grand bargain. It’s one or the other. I would ideally wish to see an EU-US-RF gathering in which the following issues could be addressed. The Allies could offer full Russian minority-rights in EU member-states, solutions could be worked on with three-way efficacy in the frozen battlefields of Moldova and the Caucasus and we could pledge that NATO would only expand if validated by popular referendum. That would rule out the Ukraine’s membership as polls have consistently shown a strong majority against such a move. It would be a gesture of respect that would be both principled and wise. On Georgia we outline the either/or I outlined above. And on the broader security-architecture of Europe we propose a deep set of arms reductions, troop limitation and transparency agreements. Is Moscow scared of US nuclear warheads in Europe? They can go – if Russia’s go behind the Urals too. Such a summit would give the Russian people what they desire, a sense of respect, of being a great nation with a special destiny – and a way for the Kremlin to accept concessions without losing face.

If Mr Medvedev says his country does not want to start a new Cold War and warns us not to fire the first shots, let’s give him the summit he wants. I just don’t believe a word he says. Putin his clique are thieves, criminals and killers who have shown no respect for law, borders of decency. Two more journalists were shot today in Ingushetia, as I’m sure you know. How many more do you think we’ll see by the end of the year?

There are fragmentary, but my earliest memories are off Lenin being torn down in Sofia, to be sent back to Russia. There is a small toy Red Army tank on my bookshelf, given to me as a four year old in Bucharest. The Romanian neighbour jokes ‘it’s the only one the kid’s gonna see.’ I have grown up in the carcass of an Empire, and I fell in love with Russia. With an sensibility, a culture, a way of thinking. But I fell in love with a country that was opening. A country that would never have invaded Georgia. A country that was trying to build a democracy. A country that deserved dignity and respect. Partly by Western errors Russia is closing. We need to show the Russian people that we respect them and the strength they hold so dear by offering them a conference to a avert a new Cold War. And if their criminal leadership refuse?

Admit what remains of Georgia into NATO and recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia, albeit it grudgingly. Turn off the rhetoric. Build up our defences, on the net and on the ground, give Russian minorities the rights they deserve, fix frozen conflicts, avoid confrontation and the political minefield of the Ukraine and turn up the volume on Radio Free Europe.

Yours truly,


Monday, 1 September 2008

News Round Up

James Schneider has launched a debate based on his excellent critique of my latest piece for the Henry Jackson Society. I will be posting my extended response once I reach Tbilisi again tomorrow evening. In the meantime, here's for something completely different. I read this marvelous piece of art criticism today in the Guardian and urge you all to do the same. It's an exploration of the life of Rothko and the meaning of his Chapel in Houston. Here's an extract:

Rothko planned it this way. His chapel is one of the most overwhelming syntheses of art and architecture in the world. It is as compelling as the great Italian religious interiors he admired, yet as terrifying as Munch's Scream. It is a tragic theatre of emptiness, death's antechamber, the self-expression of a suicide. As such, the Rothko Chapel was destined to be misunderstood. Had it been understood, it would not have been built.

Letters from Nagorno Karabakh

In the breakaway Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan there is a feeling of short-term security and long-term dread.

Read Original Here

By Ben Judah in Stepanakert for ISN Security Watch

Outside the Defense Ministry in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, a dozen teenage conscripts, some barely over 17, are waiting for orders. Laughing and trying to sneak coffee or cigarettes into the base without being caught, they readily confess how lucky they feel.

Intensely wary, like everyone I spoke to in the enclave, they asked for their names to be changed. Sergei knows he's lucky. "We are spending our days guarding the HQ; however, our friends are down at the frontlines. There is shooting everyday down there…you know…the volume goes up and down on the killing."

Sergei translates for some of the other boys. One claims to have seen an Azeri troop build-up through his binoculars; others stress that the enemy is scared of their troops and is wary about attacking.

I ask Sergei how many of the conscripts think there will be war within the next year. Of the group of 12 or so, two shake their heads. When I ask is if war will come "eventually," they all seem in agreement. Sergei tries to explain: "They cannot allow us to live on our land. When that happens what else can you do but fight?"

Across the road from the Defense Ministry, a small building barely bigger than a large post office houses the Foreign Ministry. A senior official who refused to disclose his name gave me a curt briefing on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He sits before a map of the Caucasus showing six carefully drawn out states. Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh are all displayed in this cartography as sovereign and equal alongside Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

He begins, "We have been working with the OSCE group since 1994 and are committed to a solution. The other side, however, is still refusing to acknowledge and therefore there can be no movement. What makes this conflict so intractable is that they are Muslims, we are Christian. They are violent by nature."

The conversation turns to recent events in the Caucasus and the official gestures to the map: "We are not like South Ossetia or Abkhazia - we are not a Russian puppet. We are more independent than them. However, this is a tough situation. These are uncertain and serious times."

And then he hisses, "just remember before you start accusing Russia that your country is doing whatever it can to help the Muslims swallow us."

My encounter in the Foreign Ministry brought me face-to-face with what Caucasian expert and historian Tom de Waal has termed the deepening of the "hate-narratives" that simplify and distort the conflict into easily digestible and mutually exclusive world-views.

Most of the other people I encountered in Stepanakert, having lived through the bitter war that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union held this world view close to heart. When I asked a taxi driver what his feelings were toward Azerbaijan, he laughed and asked: "What are your feelings towards cockroaches? They breed fast and you want them out of your house!"

In the same way that the frozen conflict in Georgia began to heat up slowly in 2007 with sporadic shootings and a cranking up of rhetoric that eventually led to war, there have been disturbing signs of a thaw in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In March, during the Armenian election crisis, a small group of Azeri troops tried to pierce the lines near Stepanakert and the resulting fire-fight - the most intense since the unofficial cease-fire came into effect in 1994 - caused deep concern for stability in the region.

Azeri rhetoric continued to rise with calls from Baku that it may be "forced to re-take the region by military means."

However, since the war broke out in Georgia, things have frozen over once more; yet they are far from being resolved. Nothing is certain in this great power game, and this has left the inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh on edge.

In the village of Shushi, 5 kilometers from Stepanakert, local businessman Nelson Ketchurian shared his fears with me.

"I have been trying to make a living here since the Azeris withdrew from Shushi. They used this town as a position to bomb Stepanakert and almost destroyed it. How do I know that will not happen again?

"Right now I think they are scared of us and they will not attack. We don't want war. We are peaceful people. But I think they do - and sooner or later, war will be coming back. Right now we just can't say - and it's hard living like this, never knowing."

In Stepanakert, the streets are tidy and clean and the massive investment made by the Armenian Diaspora has returned economic vitality to the town. But in the midst of an atmosphere of calm and short-term security, almost banality, recent events in the Caucasus have triggered a sense of long-term dread for those living on the fault-lines of this frozen conflict.