Thursday, July 20, 2006

Captive nations

Why 'Captive Nations Week' still matters

By Edward Lucas

Few people have heard of it now, though the White House proclaims it each year, as it has done since 1959. During the Cold War the third full week in July was a chance for victims of the evil empire to highlight their plight.

After chanting "Nyet-Nyet-Soviet!" outside the embassy for a bit, a gaggle of Poles, Balts, Czechs and Ukrainians, and their British hangers-on like me, would go to a pub and engage in slightly stilted conversation about the evils of communism (easy) and the unique merits of our own country (trickier).
Now the week and even the phrase "captive nations" have fallen deeply out of fashion. If you search hard on the internet you can still find faint traces of the once-mighty architecture of organised anti-communism. The World Anti-Communist League has renamed itself and retreated to Taiwan. The Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations, the European Freedom Organisation and others have wound up completely.
For the most part, that's good. Some of these outfits were distinctly odd, or worse, with links to the Moonies, ex-Nazis, and Latin American and Asian dictators. And though you still find communists here and there, without superpower backing they are no more influential than flat-earthers.
But the principle of commemorating the captive nations (including those now uncaptive) is a good one. For a start, it is a useful reminder that the Soviet Union was not just a failed economic system; it was an empire. The Cold War gets remarkably blurred in hindsight. This puts it back in stark focus.
It is also useful because not all the captive nations are free. Turkestan (in China); Ide-Ural (now Tatarstan and Bashkiria); Chechens and Ingush, Karelians and the Mari are all still under what any fairminded outsider would call colonial rule.
Other countries are free but in pieces: Georgia and Moldova both have Kremlin-backed illegal statelets on their territory, which are fast integrating into Putinland. The Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, told me last weekend that when he goes to his country house north of Tbilisi, his mobile phone picks up a signal from the breakaway 'republic' of South Ossetia and shows a message saying "Welcome to Russia".
The once-captive nations will only be truly free when they are both whole and safe. That means, above all, joining NATO. It is remarkable how the Baltic states' membership of the alliance, though accompanied by so much teeth-sucking and clucking when it happened, has proved to be a huge success. Without NATO, the Balts would now be in a grey zone, where Russia would be demanding that its 'interests' be accommodated. As NATO members, though there are constant pinpricks of mischief-making, the Balts are firmly out of the game.
Ex-captive nations, like ex-kidnap victims, deserve a special ration of sympathy and support. That is not always forthcoming from the rich, timid and lazy countries of 'old Europe'. Saakashvili told me of a letter to Woodrow Wilson he had discovered written from Georgian freedom fighters around the time that their country's brief post-1917 statehood was being crushed by the Soviet Union. "If you don't help us, no one will," the signatories had written. The letter never reached the White House and all those involved were jailed; most never saw freedom again.
It is to George W. Bush's credit that he wants to keep expanding NATO, first to the western Balkans, and then to Georgia and (if it survives) Ukraine. It would be nice if that enthusiasm were echoed more loudly in the lucky half of Europe that was spared communist captivity.

  • Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.

  • © Copyright 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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