Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 7

By Andrei Piontkovsky

Let us start with a short test for advanced readers. To which politician can the following text be ascribed?

“If any nation is held by force within the borders of a given state, if, in the face of its express wish–whether this wish is expressed in print, in national assemblies, in party decisions, or in rebellions or uprisings against the national oppression–it is not granted the right by free vote, with a full withdrawal of troops by the stronger nation, to decide without the slightest constraint the question of the forms of state existence of this nation, then it is being held by coercion and force.”

Is this a speech by Ibrahim Rugova in Rambouillet or an address by the U.S. president to Congress, justifying the use of force in Kosovo?

Neither. The text was written by Vladimir Ulyanov, otherwise known as Lenin (Decree on Peace, 26 October 1917). I am certainly not planning to cite Lenin’s opinion as the ultimate truth. I shall leave that to the real Leninists, the followers of Comrade Zyuganov. I would simply like to stress that the problem which preoccupied the most important Russian politician of the beginning of the century, and which the international community is facing at the end of the twentieth century, is not a new one. It is one of the eternal questions of world politics. This conflict between two principles of international law–the right of a nation to self-determination and the principle of territorial integrity–has no universal solution. Every conflict is unhappy in its own way. There is but one tragic rule: If the conflict gets out of control and leads to bloodshed it may result in such a wall of hatred and such a moat of spilt blood between the two peoples that they will never again be able to live peacefully in one state.

Then the stronger nation has only one way of preserving its “territorial integrity”–either to destroy the “separatists” or to banish them. Russia failed to win the Chechen war and pulled out, not because the army “could not win,” but because after two years of senseless butchery it realized and was horrified by what “victory” could entail.

Slobodan Milosevic’s regime is prepared to achieve such a “victory.” His troops are methodically burning down Albanian villages, “cleansing” them and transforming tens of thousands of people into refugees.

Where the Balkan conflict is concerned, Russia is living in a virtual world in which the Albanians with their burning villages and their murdered civilians simply do not exist. In this world the village of Rocaki never existed. For the millions of Russians who never watch CNN or listen to the BBC World Service there is only proud and independent little Yugoslavia, upon which the armada of the world’s only superpower and its allies has suddenly been unleashed. The spontaneous indignation of these millions is entirely natural and justified. They simply cannot understand why all the European powers have gone mad, why only China and Namibia supported Russia in the Security Council. The thousands who form Russia’s political class and are well informed as to what is going on in Yugoslavia prefer to delude themselves and others for the sake of their own trumped up geopolitical conceptions, “Orthodox brotherhood,” the strategic position of Russia in the Balkans and so on.

I recall the television pictures from 1994, when the last trucks carrying civilians left Srebrenica, besieged and bombarded by Bosnian Serbs, for Tuzla. The trucks were carrying terrified women with Slavic peasant features, who spoke a language very similar to Russian.

The political correctness prevailing in Moscow for some reason demanded that sympathy should lie not with these Bosnian women but with those who were shooting at them. A few months later similar trucks and carts stretched across the whole of Bosnia, carrying similar women who had been banished by the Croats from Krajina. But this time they were Serbian women.

Traditionally all the peoples of Yugoslavia were friendly towards Russia. Russia would gain a great deal if it were to side not with the Serbs, the Croats or the Bosnians, but with the victims, the civilians being killed and driven from their homes in this Yugoslav tragedy which has been going on for nearly eight years now.

There is justified universal indignation at the fact that civilians are being killed by the NATO bombing raids. But why is our indignation so selective? Why did nobody speak out during the three years civilians were dying in Sarajevo, under fire from Serb artillery in the surrounding hills? Is it that artillery shells kill in a different way from aerial ones? Why have we never been able to find a word of sympathy for the Bosnians or the Albanians? Is it because they are Moslems, and therefore by extension Islamists and extremists? The only words [Russian] foreign minister [Igor] Ivanov could find for the Albanians was the exclamation “Surely the European nations don’t want a hotbed of Islamic extremism on their continent?” The anti-Islamic zeal of our “new Orthodoxy” is a dangerous tendency in a country where 18 percent of the population are Moslems.

Enough has been said about the West’s double standards. Let us not turn a blind eye to our own double standards. In calling for an end to the bombing, we should also be seeking to protect the Albanian population which is currently being subjected to even greater repression. The NATO operation, which was supposed to avert a humanitarian disaster, has thus far only succeeded in aggravating it. The B-52 and F-117 bombers cannot protect every Albanian village and stop the flow of refugees expelled by Serb troops. But the NATO governments are totally unprepared to send in ground troops. They are mindful of the “Mogadishu Criterion,” which states that no democratic country can permit the loss of more than 20 of its soldiers in military action. After this, public indignation becomes so acute that the action is terminated and the troops return home.

The Albanians, whose hopes for protection from repression sprang from the statements of Western politicians, will have been betrayed. Something similar happened in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. For many months American propaganda urged the Kurds and Shiites to “rise up against tyranny.” But when the uprising came, the Americans did not intervene; Saddam’s guard ruthlessly crushed it.

The situation in Kosovo is now extremely serious. NATO apparently has no clear plan for solving it. Russian diplomacy has an opportunity to demonstrate not only its political skill, but also–as President Yeltsin likes to put it these days–its moral superiority (though it would be better were he not to touch on such matters.)

For this, however, it is essential to reject the unilateral support for Milosevic and to stop viewing the Albanians exclusively in terms of a “hotbed of Islamic extremism in Europe.” Russian diplomacy should concentrate on solving the dual task of stopping the bombing and protecting the Albanian population.

If we manage to succeed in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe where the United States and NATO have failed, it will fundamentally change the political map of the world for decades to come, massively enhancing Russia’s authority and role.

Unfortunately, the priorities of the extremely influential and rising political forces in Russia lie on a completely different plane. They are not really interested in either the Albanians or the Serbs, and not even in Milosevic, who is close to them in social terms. Yes, they are prepared to send Russian soldiers to die for Milosevic’s sacred right to burn Albanian villages. But their main aim lies elsewhere. They want to take advantage of the growing anti-Western feeling and of the understandable disgust people feel for the bandit capitalism which has developed in Russia, in order to build Russia again as they see fit.

They want to transform Primakov’s U-turn into a U-turn for Russia towards isolation from the outside world; towards a union with rogue states; towards supplying them with state-of-the-art military technology; towards a siege mentality.

As far as the political economy is concerned, their cult slogan is the “mobilization economy,” that is, turning the state into a huge oligarchy, sharply increasing military spending, getting rid of people like Berezovsky and Potanin and handing over their system-building functions to ideologically sound people like Maslyukov and Kulik.

I respect these people’s right to sincerely believe that such a model is for the good of Russia. For now they also allow for our right to disagree with them. But we had a clear reminder of the future in the story behind the “Kommersant” article “15,000,000,000 dollars,” which was sharply critical of Yevgeny Primakov.

I was not very impressed with the style of the article, but was even less enamored with the style of the letter of apology to Primakov from the paper’s editor which appeared just a few hours later. I could not work out immediately what this letter so painfully reminded me of. But then it came to me: the confessions of the enemies of the people at the show trails in 1937. They scourged themselves equally selflessly for the monstrous crimes they had committed, and finished by expressing their great feelings of love and devotion to Joseph Stalin. Historians then spent ages wondering what had driven them to make such confessions.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.