Thursday, November 01, 2007

Correspondent's diary Tues-Thurs


In Russia's shadow

The rebels of Red Square

Nov 1st 2007

THE Tallinn military cemetery is home to Estonia’s most controversial statue, the Bronze Soldier. A Soviet-era war memorial, originally in the centre of Tallinn, it replaced one blown up by in 1946 by Aili Jurgenson, then 14, and Ageeda Paavel, 15. Both girls then spent many years in the Gulag. It epitomised the view that the Soviets “liberated” Estonia (Estonians themselves reckon they replaced one occupation with another).

In April, for a mixture of reasons, good and bad, the Estonian authorities decided to move it to the cemetery, prompting rioting by some local Russians in Tallinn and a spectacularly counterproductive temper tantrum by the Kremlin.

Except for the lack of any public information (the Occupation Museum should organise a notice board showing the cemetery’s layout and history) the monument’s new setting is perfect.

The Estonian war memorials and tombstones destroyed by the Soviet occupants have now been rebuilt, and stand next to hundreds of Red Army headstones set in neatly mown grass. Small black slabs mark a score of British casualties in the War of Independence of 1918-1920 (when the Royal Navy helped Estonia fight off both the Germans and the Russians).

After the Soviets had destroyed the British headstones and ordered that the ground be turned over for new graves, the cemetery attendant of the time, the late Linda Soomre, pluckily camouflaged it with piles of swept leaves. The remains, forgotten, stayed undesecrated. Soomre received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and died two years later.

An anonymous Latvian (or Latvians) showed similar spirit, safeguarding the brass nameplate of the prewar British legation in Riga for 50 years. In 1992, when the embassy reopened, someone walked in off the street, left it with a receptionist, but gave no name. A warm thank you is waiting if they get in touch.

A tasteful cemetery alone will not save Estonia. The current approach of smug passivity is a recipe for disaster. Policy towards Russia and local Russians needs pepping up, urgently. One new idea is to raise money to restore the cemetery in the Russian town of Ivangorod, a town that was part of Estonia in the prewar era. It is thus the only big cemetery in the Russian Federation that was not part of the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. It contains the graves of some distinguished White Russian émigrés, who wanted to be buried as close to their homeland as possible. Many are in shameful disrepair.

A wider plan—suggested by Anne Applebaum—is to highlight positive aspects of Russian history that the Kremlin ignores, such as the fact that it was Russian dissidents in the 1960s who invented the modern human-rights movement. A good place to start would be proper commemoration of the heroic but largely forgotten handful who demonstrated against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Just for the record (and for the 40th anniversary next year): on August 25th 1968 Tatyana Baeva, Konstantin Babtsky, Larisa Bogoraz, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremluga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Pavel Litvinov assembled in Red Square with a Czechoslovak flag and banners reading “For your freedom and ours” and “Glory to free and independent Czechoslovakia”.

They were arrested within minutes. Bogoraz was sentenced to four years in Siberia and became chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1989. She died in 2004. Delaunay was sentenced to two years in a labour camp. He emigrated to France in 1975 and died in 1983. Mr Litvinov was sentenced to five years exile in Chita. He emigrated to America in 1973 and still lives there. Viktor Fainberg was pronounced insane and spent five years in psychiatric hospital. It is nice that Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” is dedicated to him. But a more comprehensive memorial would be well-deserved.

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AT A conference session in Tallinn, chaired by your diarist, the big donors who support good causes in eastern Europe were puzzling over the question of whether it was better to train lawyers and journalists, to hand out grants to charities and campaigns, or to promote “democracy” explicitly.

Given that President Vladimir Putin calls himself a pure democrat (comparing himself in all seriousness to Mahatma Gandhi), it is clear that the word risks losing its meaning. Some might think that happened some years back. The Soviet-occupied zone of eastern Germany declared itself to be the “German Democratic Republic”. The monsters in Pyongyang call their slave-state the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Democracy also has specific (and largely negative) connotations in Russia. The myth assiduously stoked by the Kremlin is that the anarchy of the Yeltsin era proved that Western-style “democracy” (meaning a multi-party parliamentary system) did not work in Russia. Indeed, Russians sometimes use the punning term “dermokratiya” (shitocracy) to express their distaste for the looting and weakness that those years have come to epitomise. Worse, the costly failure in Iraq has discredited, in many eyes at least, the whole idea of “democracy promotion”. Pushing that hard in Russia risks backfiring.

So maybe it would be better to use other terms: the rule of law, political freedoms, environmental awareness, public spiritedness (or in the jargon term, “civil society”). It is, after all, not what happens at elections that counts, but what goes on in-between them. Elections can only be rigged successfully when public and private institutions are too weak to object. “Democracy” alone does not prevent mob rule, winner-takes-all sectarian rivalries, and the rewarding of campaign contributions from the political pork barrel.

The discussion ended, appropriately, with a vote. But this being Estonia, home of e-government, it was no mere show of hands. Linnar Viik, Estonia’s internet guru, coached the donors in how to use handheld black gadgets that he described as “Estonian comfort pillows: small and hard”. These allow the moderator to pose impromptu questions and get instant feedback from the audience. The result, projected on a big screen: democracy won, but only just.

Across the corridor Anne Applebaum, the author of “Gulag”, was in full swing. Her Estonian publishers had not bothered to sell copies at her talk; everyone has read it already, they say. That may be true: “Gulag” has been a big hit in the Baltic states. Afterwards, Ms Applebaum and your diarist (who were both Economist stringers in eastern Europe in the late 1980s) headed to the Occupation Museum. On the site of what used to be the Soviet military headquarters in Tallinn, this is a model of its kind, and all the more powerful for the restraint it shows. Visitors are not bombarded with tales of suffering and heroism, but left to infer them from the images and artifacts on display. A dozen cabinets, each with a trilingual video display, tell the story of what seemed to be inevitable national extinction.

“It was the West’s failure to support the Hungarian uprising in 1956 that really broke morale. People realised that the white ships were not coming”. Mart Laar, an historian by training before he ran governments that introduced Estonia (and the world) to flat tax and e-government, has arrived. He and Ms Applebaum have long admired each other from afar: face to face for the first time, they got on famously. This was most gratifying to your diarist, who arranged the meeting. Before taking us to lunch, Mr Laar pointed out tiny, fabric patches in faded blue, black and white fabric: banned Estonian flags, made by Gulag inmates and kept as talismans even at the risk of hellish punishment if caught.

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FIVE years ago London was no place to be a Russia specialist. These days the meetings and cabals are so plentiful that, if you are an anti-Kremlin voice, you get unlimited coffee and biscuits; if you are pro, you get caviar and champagne.

The subject of the morning seminar at which your diarist spoke recently was, “What should the West do about a resurgent Russia?” The likely answer is “nothing”. But old cold-war hawks are finding that their beaks and talons, once dismissed as anachronistic, are back in fashion. Ideas that would have seemed outlandish only a couple of years ago are discussed seriously: suspend Russia from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), ban “Kremlin Inc” from Western capital markets, end the farce of the G-8 meetings, crack down on visas, and so on.

A senior Conservative foreign-policy figure at the meeting took another line, floating the idea of a grand bargain. The West should give Russia a guaranteed say in the future of Ukraine and Georgia (along the lines of post-war Austrian neutrality) in return for co-operation on Iran. He did not, quite, use the word appeasement.

“Are British Conservative politicians working for the Kremlin, or are they just stupid?” A few hours later the discussion was over a lively liquid late-evening seminar in Tallinn with a bunch of worried Russia-watchers. It is damaging enough that the British Conservatives have such neurotic hangups about the European Union, explained a gloomy top official. But now they are going to put in a former KGB man as head of PACE.

PACE is a misleading moniker. The assembly should really be called DRAG. It is a talking-shop even less relevant to the continent’s future than the European Parliament. But it sounds important, and having the top spot will be a most useful pulpit for the Kremlin to denounce Europe for its hypocrisy, arrogance, weakness, Atlanticism, greed, malevolence and general failure to follow the constructive, reasonable and disinterested policies of the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

The reason for this bizarre behaviour by the British Tories is chiefly their phobia about co-operation with the continental Christian Democrats (dangerous federalists to a man). In the European Parliament the Tories are joined with the Christian Democrats in a loveless marriage called the European People’s Party. The chief reason for the Tories staying in is the perks they would lose if they went off on their own.

If one is being charitable, another reason may be the embarrassment some of them might feel by sitting alongside the nutters and deadbeats of the parliament’s right-wing fringe. But in PACE they have more options. There the Tories are in another grouping of right-wing parties, the European Democrats, of which the biggest member is the United Russia. That party’s list of candidates for the December parliamentary elections is headed by Vladimir Putin.

The PACE presidency is usually allocated on the basis of rotation between the parties (yes, honestly). Now it is the European Democrats’ turn. That is excellent news for Mikhail Margelov, the grouping’s candidate. A former KGB language instructor, highly articulate in both English and Arabic, he is a formidable representative for the Kremlin in any international forum. His likely victory is less good news for the Baltic states and Georgia, which already feel that they are on the sharp end of Russian propaganda attacks (and more besides).

The gloom of a Tallinn winter evening deepened over the assembled Swedes, Finns, Balts and exiled Russians as they heard news of the morning seminar in London. “Would a British Conservative government support our NATO application if the Russians objected?” asked a plaintive voice from a neutral country. Once you start making grand bargains, they may become a habit. Conversation then became detailed and revealing on the similarities between the Saudi and Russian approach to subsidising allies and neutralising critics. Names were named, but English libel laws do not permit their publication.


antyx said...

Excellent story, sir. Is there any sort of schedule/more information about these sessions, and are they open to the public?

Giustino said...

I wrote up some responses to this excellent post over at my blog ...

Priidik said...

How wonderful it is that such a man as Edward Lucas exists and takes the matters of Eastern Europe into the heart? Especially against the background of bargaining and downright gutlessness towards Russia that is so evident in western Europe? Well, at least Schröder, Chirac and Berlusconi have been replaced so there might be some light at the end of a tunnel. As Mr. Lucas admits, the mood seem to be turning, at least in London.

P.S. I wonder how long does it take this time for internet komissars to appear and start bashing Mr. Lucas for lack of understanding of Russia's "special" democracy and accusing "russophobe" Baltic states? Does anybody have a stopwatch ? :)

So? said...

Given that President Vladimir Putin calls himself a pure democrat (comparing himself in all seriousness to Mahatma Gandhi), it is clear that the word risks losing its meaning.

It was a joke. That's his morose sense of humour. You either have none or (more likely) conveniently overlooked this little fact. Which I guess is not so bad. At least you didn't accuse him of being a paedophile or masterminding 911 and Nashi sex camps.