Thursday, February 24, 2005

And how the cracks begin to show

This is not particularly heartening: PRESIDENT BUSH extracted a pledge from President Putin last night that Russia would never return to totalitarianism. However, Mr Putin’s commitment to democracy was hedged with caveats. He said he would not allow democratic reforms to threaten the collapse of the Russian state. He also cautioned Mr Bush that pressing him further on issues such as press and political freedoms would jeopardise Russian-American relations. “I don’t think this has to be pushed to the foreground. I don’t think we should jeopardise our relationship,” he said. After being made painfully aware, during the Ukrainian elections, that Putin's Russia is as possessive of what's always been called the "Near Abroad" as that of any point since the end of the Muscovite state, I chose to write my term paper for Russia in Transition on a similar circumstance. It's been happening more or less under international radar for the past fifteen years, just as in Georgia and Belarus; the difference is that it's tiny. (And since I've spent all day reviewing the sources for this, let's see if I can recycle part of my rough draft in blog form.) The Republic of Transnistria (AKA the Trans-Dniestr Republic) is a tiny slice of Moldova on the east bank of the Dniestr, bordering Southern Ukraine. During the fall of communism, it was a stronghold of the most repressive sort of Soviet government (going so far as to declare itself wholeheartedly in favour of the August Coup of 1991, where reactionary Politburo types temporarily displaced the moderately-reforming Gorbachev); in the wake of Moldovan trends towards autonomous social policy during the perestroika era, it declared itself a sovereign Soviet Republic. It really says something, in that at the very moment the rest of the USSR was becoming more free and representative, there were still enough dead-enders to keep up the Stalinist dystopia. It's a hellhole of a desperately poor, miserable dictatorship no less than the DPRK or Cuba. What's significant about Transnistria is that it's mostly ethnically Russian, and mostly former CPSU party hacks, imported to build and operate what would become a large segment of Moldovan heavy industry. Sovereignty, such as it is (recognized by almost no one, even amongst the other pariah states of the world) is guaranteed only by the Russian 14th Army, which has been in place since 1956. The commanding general, Aleksandr Lebed (now deceased) unsurprisingly was a part of the Transnistrian government for a time. In a way, the Russian Empire is suffering in the same manner as the late Roman or British Empires; there are still cultural outposts across the sea - be it literal or figurative - separated by increasingly independent former subordinates, with no real way of re-establishing a solid logistical connection, or even undertaking a salvage-and-evacuate strategy. The 14th Army is now largely made up of local recruits; they'd be the de facto army of the region while off-duty, in any event. Russia has promised they'd leave every year since 1991; as might be imagined, it hasn't happened yet. (Where's the howling from Euroweenies and the deluded left about an exit strategy for them, hmm?) Worse, after initially looking to the west, Moldova too elected (likely, it seems, through the same thug tactics as failed in Ukraine) a communist government in 2001. But though slavishly pro-Moscow, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin hasn't given Putin what he wants: weak federal government that effectively makes Transnistria legally as well as practically independent. Watch for Voronin to fall to whoever Putin's new, more easily puppeteered favourite turns out to be, in the Moldovan elections ten days hence. Putin isn't our ally. He shouldn't be treated as such. While Western Europe may be largely hostile to American positions, at least their diplomats have the tact and dignity to express it - paradoxically - merely rudely, rather than with veiled threats. There's a latent Russian Empire - the same empire that was crushed beneath the heels of Catherine the Great no less so than Joseph Stalin - being rebuilt while the west hasn't been watching. Was support for Ukraine a fluke, or the start of a new trend?


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