Andrew Osborn








Russia digests its Georgian victory

30th August 2008 16:32

The front page of Russia’s best-selling tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda said it all: “Take that!” it bellowed. Above the headline was a picture of a clenched fist with a protruding thumb – the Russian equivalent of raising your middle finger to let someone know what you think of them. In this case, the offensive gesture was aimed at the United States and the West. It summed up Russia’s prevailing mood perfectly. Inside, the newspaper’s scribes staunchly defended Kremlin policy while scathingly mocking the West’s weakness, naivety, and alleged Russophobia. Moscow’s newspaper sellers did brisk business that day. 

 As the dust on Russia’s short sharp victorious war in Georgia settles, Russians are convinced of one thing: their army and government did the right thing. Kremlin-sponsored polls show that more than two thirds of the population support President Dmitry Medvedev’s decision to send the tanks into South Ossetia to repel a Georgian offensive. The same polls also show that a sizeable number of Russians believe Georgia should have been “punished” even more severely for its “invasion” of South Ossetia. Many respondents said they were disappointed that the Kremlin decided not to storm Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, a gesture that would have delighted ultra-nationalists whose views are becoming increasingly main stream here. That disappointment is all the more keenly felt since even the Georgians admit they could not have repelled a Russian offensive on Tbilisi. It was the Kremlin’s for the taking.          

By contrast, few Russians understand why anyone -- bar Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili who is a hate figure in Moscow -- would think that they were the “aggressor.” Kremlin officials have poured scorn on Western media coverage of the war, accusing cable TV networks and leading newspapers of appalling bias and censorship, a line that has been gleefully picked up by Russian media. The Kremlin says its side of the story has largely been ignored by a Western world intent on casting the war as a David and Goliath struggle with Georgia as the plucky underdog. The reality, they say, is that Georgia was the aggressor. “A big Russian bear attacked a small, peaceful Georgia,” Sergei Ivanov, a deputy prime minister, told CNN sarcastically. “In fact, the situation is and was vice versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway republic of South Ossetia.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s theory that Georgia, a loyal U.S. ally, started the war to boost the electoral fortunes of Senator John McCain has gained common currency on political talk shows. Few agree with Whitehouse spokeswoman Dana Perino’s rebuttal that the theory is “patently false.” For Russians, a people who thrive on conspiracy theories and who believe that Washington is constantly trying to thwart their ambitions, it makes perfect sense.

"If my guesses are confirmed…somebody in the United States purposefully created this conflict with the aim of aggravating the situation and creating an advantage ... for one of the candidates in the battle for the post of U.S. president," Mr. Putin said, not naming McCain.

The same claim was made in an article in the government-friendly Izvestia newspaper penned by Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin MP and analyst. "Some may read this article and call it a conspiracy theory," he wrote. "Yes, there is a conspiracy. It's a conspiracy by the neocons with the aim of retaining their control over the world's leading country and carrying out their plan to establish global hegemony." Opinion polls show about half the Russian population believes Washington had a direct hand in the war. Kremlin spin doctors have encouraged that view, showing off captured US-made M4 rifles used by Georgian soldiers along with US army ration packs and other paraphernalia.

Meanwhile, the Russian media have been having a field day at the expense of Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili whom they depict as some kind of latter-day Adolf Hitler. State TV has repeatedly aired footage of him nervously chewing his tie or running for cover when he thinks he is under attack. The footage has been accompanied by “expert opinions” from psychologists who have declared the Georgian president “psychologically inadequate” fuelling a widely-held view in Russia that he is in genuinely mentally ill. His comb-over is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s, TV anchors openly say.         

 In fact, though the Russian stock market has taken a nose dive, the mood in Moscow is self-congratulatory, playful and even carnival-like. Only a few lone dissenting voices can be heard -- the majority view is that Russia has finally got one over on Washington after the bleak and poverty-stricken 1990s when Russians felt humiliated and abandoned by the West. Russia is back as a great imperial power that can hold its own against the countries that have traditionally tried to keep it down, goes the mantra. The TV anchors don’t spell it out in as many words but the subtext is clear: We are so rich and have so much oil that we can now afford to act unilaterally. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

That mood was palpable in a carefully stage-managed concert given by Russian conductor Valery Gergiev in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s war-scarred capital. As the haunting strains of Dmitry Shostakovich’s seventh Leningrad symphony rose into the night air, Russian soldiers and grateful locals waved the Russian flag atop armored personnel carriers. There was a sense of relief mixed with triumphalism. Ostensibly, the concert was for the long-suffering people of Tskhinvali. The real target audience though was in Russia proper where millions tuned in on state TV to watch the concert live. The message was unmistakable: Russia’s great power ambitions have moved from rhetoric to deeds. 

And if patriotic fervour was reaching fever pitch before the war, now it has smashed through the sound barrier. Encouraged and cultivated by patriotic blockbusters, one-sided Soviet-style newscasts, stage-managed displays of Russian military might and sporting triumphs, loving the motherland post-Georgia has become mandatory and deeply fashionable. The feeling, bordering on jingoism, has given the country renewed direction and purpose after a period when it had seemed as if President Medvedev was trying to steer Russia in a more Westerly direction. The former corporate lawyer had spoken of establishing Moscow as a global financial centre, of clamping down on corruption, of wooing foreign investors, and had said that freedom was better than non-freedom. That had raised hopes at home and abroad that he might be a relative liberal – at least in the Russian context -- who would relax the hard line policies pushed by his patron, Mr. Putin. “An atmosphere of thaw was being created - in relations with the West, in the domestic political environment, and in relations with business alike,” says Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the Moscow-based Political Technologies Centre. “The war in Georgia demolished all that.” Other analysts agree -- the idea that Mr. Medvedev is a liberal is now dead and buried. It was, they say, swept away with the fleeing Georgian army as Russian tanks pressed their advantage into undisputed Georgian territory. The widely-held belief that it is Mr. Putin and not Mr. Medvedev who is really in charge was also reinforced -- Mr. Putin was the first to speak publicly about the war before President Medvedev had even had the chance to address the nation.             

At the same time, Russia’s traditional distrust of all things Western has deepened, pushing it to try and strengthen its strategic ties to the East at the expense of its ties with the West. Popular mistrust and hostility towards the West was widespread before the war. Now it has become main stream with state media airing the views of ultra-nationalist figures such as Alexander Dugin who believes Russia’s destiny is to lead an anti-Western power bloc. "We are at war," he proclaimed. “The time of patriots is coming: the time for revenge for all the humiliation from these people that we have been suffering for years." That echoes a common Kremlin theme that portrays the 1990s as a time when the West did not reward Russia for the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union but instead stood and watched it suffer. 

For all the Kremlin’s rhetoric about the need to protect the South Ossetians (most of whom were given Russian passports in recent years) popular attitudes towards them are more complex. Ironically, many ordinary Russians have little time for them as a people. The Caucasus has always been a frontline battlefield for Russians’ imperial ambitions with Russians willing to divide and rule local ethnic groups to promote Moscow’s wider geopolitical interests. But Caucasians who visit Moscow or other big Russian cities find they are treated like outsiders. They are sometimes targeted by neo-Nazi skinhead groups or shunned by locals who regard them as “cherny jopy” (black asses). So while Russians may be enthusiastic about soon expanding their landmass, already the largest of any country in the world, their joy will be more geopolitical than fraternal.

It is also a joy borne of a sense of invulnerability. Senior Kremlin officials believe Europe is too dependant on Russian gas and oil to a lesser extent to go ahead and impose meaningful sanctions. Moscow, they say, could retaliate by just turning off the gas taps. Equally, the same Kremlin hawks believe Washington needs Moscow’s help too much in Afghanistan and Iran to get really tough. In fact, the only weak point, according to Georgian president Mr. Saakashvili, is Russian money and assets in the West. Large swaths of Russia’s elite own property and bank in the West and even educate their children there. Introducing targeted visa bans or freezing Russian assets and bank accounts would be an effective counter-measure, Mr. Saakashvili believes. Few in Europe at least have so far shown any appetite for such measures.         

Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya believes the Georgia conflict has ushered in a new phase in Russia’s development that will in any case now see it turn away from the West.  “The Kremlin is not now bound by the same constraints,” she says. “We can now allow ourselves a totally new view of the development of Russian statehood that will be supremely dissimilar to the standards of Western democracy.”