Freitag, 23. Dezember 2011

Cry Me a River, Transnistria!

Courtesy of the US Army on flickr

Now, to readers of this blog (and there must be some, or so my provider keeps telling me) it will not come as a total surprise that Russian foreign policy is something I can go on about for hours (I've did so here and here). I've recently started preparing a lecture for my second trip to the Caucasus and started to dive into Russian foreign policy (and what a dive it is). In any event, I've already commented on the insane fuss about NATO missile defence and the failure of the CFE treaty due to Russian stubbornness and foreign policy blunders. But Russia (i.e. Putin) is resurrecting a foreign policy that to the historian looks more like the heyday of Brezhnev than détente. And though its hardly being covered in German media outlets, its not that the Russian government is trying to be too opaque. Far from it, the de facto termination of the CFE treaty was only the latest in a whole series of setbacks for Western-Russian relations. For years Russia has had what it calls peacekeeping forces in places like Georgia and Transnistria. At least the more educated know how intensely Russia has been working around both the CFE treaty and the CIS mandate to turn its peacekeeping troops into de facto occupying forces in the run-up to the 2008 Georgian war. And there have long been fears that it might do the same with its peacekeeping forces in Transnistria. Igor Smirnov, the self-proclaimed president of Transnistria, has recently lost an election there (though as of now, it is not clear what is to become of him or the elections), but previously had time to sit down with the nice people of the highly readable and new New Eastern Europe. In this interview the gloves came off (sort of). Transnistria, he proclaimed, has never left the Soviet Union and therefore is part of Russia (to the rest of the international community its actually part of Moldova, but you know, who is Smirnov to care, since he can't travel to Europe anyway). So, Transnistria is one of the lovely places that theoretically do not even exist but will in all likelihood be a hot button issue between NATO and Russia and one of the frozen conflicts to watch out for next year. And yes, I know its only a couple of minutes to christmas, so I've got this off my chest.  

Donnerstag, 22. Dezember 2011

Freitag, 16. Dezember 2011

An Obituary for Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens once said that you do not become an atheist. You just discover that you always have been. As on so many other issues, he has been absolutely right. And in honour of the giant, I relate my own experience, if I may. I was born in Northern Germany where people usually are no longer being baptised. But when I turned seven, my parents moved to Freiburg where I had to enter a public primary school, which, as is common in the Catholic parts of Southern Germany, still taught religion as a compulsory subject. I was then also ill with neurodermatitis, which is a skin disease that leaves an itching pain on virtually all the limbs. Worse still, it doesn't leave you until you grow up, if it leaves you at all. As an non-baptised child I was sent to the protestant class, which to this day I find telling. I was hence subjected to religious classes, in which a priest from a local parish would instruct us in the bible and Christianity. Being ill—and admittedly knowing nothing about the children starving in North Korea or Somalia—and being the social outfit of my class—children can be cruel to one another—I once challenged the priest. Asking him, why god had so apparently treated me differently from all the other children, I was told that it would turn out fine in the end, he would make it just in the end. I was startled and asked how it could ever turn out to be just, when it is not now. I was then further instructed by the priest that god certainly had a plan and that his ways of doing justice were beyond my or his grasp, in fact that the ways of his justice were incomprehensible. I was eight years old and something about the answer did not quite satisfy me, though I could not point my finger at it. Today I know that what was related to me disguised as justice was the very definition of injustice. Once the ways of how justice are being delivered are incomprehensible, there no longer is any justice of any sort. Equality, transparency are missing in god's justice just as much as they were missing and are being missed in places such as North Korea, where, as Hitchens pointed out, people live in exactly that: a theocracy—that is if the trinity of father, son and the holy spirit, in fact, ring a bell.

I was interested in history and politics long before I came across Hitchens' work. As a matter of fact, I have been an atheist my entire life, I came to develop a strong interest in foreign policy and defended the Iraq invasion long before I ever read a book authored by the Hitch. I had a fascination with Marxist historical thought ever since university and found all forms of totalitarianism disgusting. I despised the left for its willingness to abandon its anti-totalitarian legacy in favour of an awkward, ill-defined so called anti-imperialism. And out of the blue, two years ago, I came across a Christopher Hitchens interview on Uncommon Knowledge and found a voice who's been there all along and more importantly long before I had developed any interest in these sort of things. And a voice, who would articulate the thoughts I harboured and expressed so much better than I could ever hope to. I spent the last two years catching up on Hitchens' extended writings and found him the greatest source of inspiration I have come across in recent years. Christopher Hitchens died today, aged 62. And though I am sad that he lost the races against clock and cancer, I remember him saying once that even though Shakespeare is dead, one could always meet him in his writings. Since there Shakespeare would be immortal. Hitchens is immortal in his writings, but he has a greater legacy than that. In the face of totalitarian aggression, Hitch stated that one simply needs to take a stand. Well, he did that.

Mittwoch, 7. Dezember 2011

Bringing out the Bear – Russia Is Getting Testy

Photo courtesy US Army on Flickr
Its always been the greatest nonsense issue around in international security politics. The fuss about NATO's missile defence project. Nobody with any clue on such matters seriously argues that the shield is or could be directed against Russia, but the Putin/Medvedev government likes to play the great fear card to help its citizens rally around the Russian flag whilst ignoring the incompetence, corruption and dismal record of its leaders. So today, SPIEGEL reported that Russia is moving air defence missiles to its border with NATO to maintain a strategic balance, whatever sort of balance they are referring to I do not know, since NATO countries all cut their defence budgets while Russia is actually increasing its own but, you know, anyway. This latest move, however, is not an isolated step toward escalation. In fact, two developments have spurred the escalation in recent months. What most papers, the SPIEGEL included, completely failed to report is that after years of restraint, Russia has again started to refer to the Baltic states as having entered the Soviet Union voluntarily, which obviously these nations take issue with. Dimitrij Rogosin, the Russian ambassador to NATO and among the leading candidates to become the next Russian defence minister, has also made comments in that direction. Interestingly enough, this time the Baltic states refrained from turning it into a larger issue and responded relatively low-key to this sort of falsification of history. The second development is perhaps even more important. Russia has suspended the CFE-treaty in 2007 (that is the Conventional Forces Europe treaty). The treaty originally stipulated a Russian withdrawal from Moldova and Georgia, which Russia of course always declined to do. For years, NATO harboured hopes that Russia would return to the CFE, but after four years NATO, Georgia and Azerbaijan all suspended the CFE as well during the past two weeks. Fact is that the relations between Russia and NATO have hit a new low and for the moment Russia has largely domestic motives for keeping them there.