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Russian rhetoric and grand narratives… August 13, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, Russia.

Perhaps a few small cheers for the EU and Sarkozy in particular for avoiding the superheated rhetoric from Washington and being ready to move in (granted when Russia was willing to deal) and broker the ceasefire. Although perhaps a few less if one considers a basic question posed in the New York Times:

Who will enforce a cease-fire — the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which currently monitors South Ossetia; the United Nations, which monitors Abkhazia; or some other organization, like the European Union?

Anyhow, we know – or ought to know – that diplomats, leaders, whatever are as human as the rest of us. But to hear on Channel 4 News last night the President of Russia call his Georgian opposite number ‘scum’ has a certain… chilling effect. Granted this was transmuted to the rather less pointed ‘lunatic’ in the Guardian. But…

It’s not that emotion is uncalled for (although one might reasonably ask of someone linked to a government that has carried out a raft of actions in Chechnya whether there is a certain lack of perspective at work here), the last week or so has seen deaths on both sides. Nor is a depth of bitterness at the collapse of the Soviets, not so much as an ideological structure as a governing structure with all that that entailed for Russia itself, and the outworkings of that collapse difficult to understand. Neither is it impossible to see how a centre, any centre, would find the provocations, or even – let’s be frank – the (from their viewpoint) entirely reasonable actions of Georgia in its bid to shore up its own territorial sovereignty, irritating in the extreme.

But when this emotion is articulated not in the smooth language of international diplomacy but in a blunt and deliberate fashion then it is most likely a deliberate ploy, one calculated to send a message to the Georgian government and to Russias friends and foes.

Medvedev is a clever individual, one doesn’t reach even the nominal apex of Russian power in this decade without being clever. And beyond that he is an intelligent and thoughtful man, perhaps more thoughtful than his predecessor. But there is no magnanimity in this victory – and it is a victory. This is his war, as much as the second Chechen war was that of his nominal predecessor. Putin, not unwisely, made sure that he was visible on the ground. But it is Medvedev who meets Sarkozy, who becomes the face of Russia to the rest of the world. And perhaps that tells us something interesting about how power is being dispersed very slightly within Russia today.

(Of course there may be greater calculation at work here. No harm for Medvedev to go forward into the glare of the international media and if things turn particularly sour he can be blamed as the man who let it all go wrong. But I don’t think that’s what is playing out here).

But let’s pull back from that a moment. Because it’s quite a world we live in when one of the three or four remaining superpowers uses language this harsh, this indifferent to tone. And I think this is important, not least because rhetoric in international affairs is often as important as substance. It also points to something that we keep hearing from various sources. Russia has no guiding ideology distinct from say the United States or any given European power. It’s just another capitalist power. Unlike the United States it has few pretensions, rhetorical or otherwise, to clothe itself in the trappings of an activist and expansionist democracy. And so, in a sense, what is left? It is placed in a curious position. Unlike say Germany which, while much smaller a country is not entirely dissimilar in terms of power and scope, was able in the post-War period to lock itself into the European project as a national narrative there is no grand narrative for Russia. Other that is than itself and it’s satellites and allies. And although one might – at a push – argue that its rhetoric on Serbia played to a pan-Slavic nationalist feeling, however inchoate and however unfulfilled in practice, that is hardly a substitute for the Soviet narrative.

And it is this loss, not merely of empire but of purpose, which I suspect fuels much of the bitterness of the rhetoric. Saakashvili is “scum” (and who knows? His actions in going into South Ossetia were lunatic, whatever previous provocations and however much he too is a prisoner of history), but somehow the language merely points up the limitations of Russian power. Surrounded by the ‘near abroad’, a near abroad which it dominates through proximity, in certain instances shared cultural values and ties and retained or increasing military or financial and economic power. Medvedev and Putin cannot, however much they might like to, appeal to Russia’s neighbours through the form of some new grand narrative, or at least not one that is clearly seen at this point. Russia does capitalism pretty well, but it will always lose out to the United States in the short to medium term in terms of putting an attractive face on that capitalism. And this is remarkably constraining. The great game is limited because the US still has something, however tattered and tarnished, to offer that makes it globally attractive (and globally reviled). China? Not so much, but its cleverly using soft power to make its case – the implicit case of all global or aspirant global powers – for it. Which leaves Russia, hemmed in by history, by its previous conquests and by its present conflicts.

[Speaking of the great game… I was intrigued to see the idea that we live in a multi-polar world bandied about again. That’s hardly news to anyone who reads the Guardian opinion pages, let alone Prospect, or Foreign Affairs. And it has been the situation certainly since remarkably soon after the demise of the Soviet Union. While Russia was down, if not out, China snuck in, as has India in a lower key way… and South America and Africa are producing their own local hegemons…]

What is frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The past five years had seen a more cautious and considered approach emerge under Putin. One that while far from the sweeping excesses and curious grandeur of the Soviet era, or the chaotic turns of the 1990s, allowed it to reshape itself as a sensible voice arguing for stability. Not exactly earth shattering, or even world changing, but something that might see it gain a certain respect. The most recent events may have set that back by years, perhaps even a decade or more. Or maybe all this will be forgotten and forgiven. Nothing is utterly intractable or inevitable. Long-time foes can become close partners, we merely have to look at the EEC/EU and the way that not-entirely-grand narrative has functioned across half a century to see that.

There are ways forward, some suggested by comments on here. One would be a serious effort by the EU and Russia to work more proactively jointly to stabilise security and cooperation in remaining areas of conflict, (thereby in some ways answering the question posed by the NYT – and for those who question why poachers should turn gamekeepers, well, isn’t that precisely what the EU has been about from day one?) an effort which would avoid the sort of zero sum approaches we have seen in Kosovo and now in South Ossetia. It’s not much of a grand narrative, but it might actually do some good on the ground away from the lofty and, as we’ve seen, not so lofty rhetoric of power politics.


1. skidmarx - August 13, 2008

“Russia has no guiding ideology distinct from say the United States or any given European power.”

Generally true, though the Orthodox Christianity of many of its leaders does distinguish a particular commitment to Russia and other Orthodox countries.

“Perhaps a few small cheers for the EU and Sarkozy in particular for avoiding the superheated rhetoric from Washington”

If Russia does proceed to annihilate Georgia as an independent nation, will there be loud cries that the West should have intervened before it was too late?

I note that I’m not the first to spot that Medvedev and Nigel Farage of UKIP are one and the same.


2. splinteredsunrise - August 13, 2008

What’s more likely is that a useless pro-American government will be replaced with a useless pro-Russian government… you never know, since most of Georgia’s trade is with Russia it might even be slightly less useless. And then the Americans will start planning another colour revolution…

Unless perhaps someone can tempt Shevy out of the retirement home?


3. Moving - August 13, 2008

It’s very useful.

You’ve done a good job

Many thanks

moving overseas


4. WorldbyStorm - August 13, 2008

Hmmm splintered, that’s a cynical prognosis… 😦

Mind you, looking at the way nationalist sentiment tends to work I’d be surprised if the current govt is gone anytime soon short of the Russians marching into Tbilisi, which given this evenings reports is marginally more likely than it seemed yesterday.

Skidmarx, I missed that, and you’re right. Although, I can’t help feeling that that religious glue operates in a not dissimilar way to that of Irish Catholicism in the 1950s where common feeling with other Catholics tended to the hyperbolic (as in the expressions of anger at the mistreatment of Catholics behind the Iron Curtain…).


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