Friday, September 04, 2009

Europe view 147--history again



Sticks and stones
Aug 27th 2009

Russia needs to play nice
NAUGHTY and tiresome children like insults (both overt and needling) as well as implausible and elaborate excuses. “He wouldn’t give it to me and it was mine anyway and also I was going to give it back so I hit him”.

As your columnist’s children grow up, the need to untangle their tantrums, feuds and nonsense is becoming pleasingly rare. Sadly, the same can’t be said for some grownups.

Start with the needling. As Paul A. Goble, a foreign-affairs analyst, noted this week, Russia’s president Dmitri Medvedev has pointedly used the preposition “na” [on], favoured during Soviet times, rather than the more recent “v” [in] when referring to Ukraine. That is the sort of thing that children do: habitually mispronounce someone’s name in order to irritate them.

Mr Medvedev’s prepositional condescension came during a scathing personal attack on the Ukrainian president in which he said Russia would not be sending another ambassador to Kiev (or Kyiv, as Ukrainians prefer it spelled). At a childish level, this is badmouthing a classmate and refusing to acknowledge his birthday.

The 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact on August 23rd provided more opportunities for what until recently would have been seen as extraordinary behaviour. The same day, a film called “The Secrets of Confidential Files”, broadcast on Russia’s Vesti national television channel (meaning it had official endorsement), said that the pact was a necessary response to Poland’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1934. That is like a child explaining a playground scrap on the lines of “Bill was friends with Phil so when Phil beat Bill up I joined in too.” Except that in this case the result was not a black eye and scraped knee, but the deaths of many millions of people.

This is not just nonsense, but revoltingly insensitive. It is rather as if German official media were casually blaming Jews for the Holocaust. And it is not a one-off. An article on the Russian defence ministry’s website in June claimed that Poland’s unreasonable behaviour towards Nazi Germany had justified Hitler’s attack.

These and other insults come as Poland is awaiting a visit by Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, to a ceremony in Gdansk on September 1st, marking the anniversary of the Nazi attack. Poland hopes that Mr Putin will at least express mild regret about the Soviet aggression against Poland on September 17th 1939. At events in Prague on the anniversary of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, and in Budapest on the anniversary of the crushing of the 1956 uprising, Mr Putin managed that, soothing his hosts while not engaging in what many Russians would see as unseemly breast-beating.

Poland hopes that the visit will bring some practical movement on what are tactfully known as “difficult issues” (diplo-speak, in this case, for mass murder). The biggest of these is the Katyn massacre. Paying compensation to the relatives of the 20,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war murdered in cold blood in 1940 is probably too much to ask. But it might be possible to reach agreement on, say, a joint documentation centre.

Even a chance of that modest prize comes at a high price. In order not to jeopardise Mr Putin’s visit, Poland has to swallow hard when its history is traduced.

As last week’s column pointed out, no country can look back on its history without shame, and modern Russia does not need to feel perpetually burdened by the crimes of the Soviet Union. But neither must it revel in them. Knowing how to end an argument by saying “sorry” nicely is a sign of a well brought-up child (and of a decent human being).

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