For almost as long as I can remember anyway, the op-ed page of the New York Times has been a fairly reliable forum for some of the laziest and most predictable writing on international affairs, a better example of which could hardly be found than an essay it published this week entitled “Czar Vladimir’s Illusions” by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Reflecting not so much Putin’s illusions but his own, Saakashvili, now a Senior Statesman at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, expends nearly 1200 words in an effort to denigrate Putin and the Sochi Olympics while, with an eye fixed on posterity, attempting to polish up his own rather questionable legacy.
Saakashvili takes the gloves off right away, implying that Russia somehow sanctioned the bloodshed in the streets of Kiev. And while the rest of the world may be sorely tempted to see this as “the hour of triumph for autocrats,” Saakashvili cautions us: not so fast. Russia, though oil rich, is likely facing terminal decline because of rampant corruption; in fact, he notes, Russia’s economy has been growing at a slower rate than Georgia’s for the past nine years.
By way of example, readers are invited to compare and contrast two Black Sea regions adjacent to Sochi: Abkhazia and Adjaria. Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi, which has been under Russian control for the past 5 years, “looks tired and gloomy” compared to the relative paradise of Georgian-controlled Adjaria.
How did Russian control of Abkhazia come about? Well, in his telling, it’s awfully straightforward:
When Russia was bidding to be host of the Olympics, it had enthusiastic Georgian support, as we believed holding the Games in Sochi would enhance chances for peace and improve relations. Instead, several months after the Kremlin won its bid to host the Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia.
And though Russia has invested many billions of dollars to stage the Olympic Games in Sochi, what it all really amounts to is a “Potemkin Village” built with the sole purpose of gratifying the insatiable ego of Czar Putin. And if the Czar thinks a successful Olympic Games will work to shore up his popularity, stave off economic malaise, or bring peace to the turbulent region, he is mistaken because Russia’s “heavy-handed colonial approach can only antagonize and radicalize the population.”
The problem underlying all of this, according to Fletcher’s newly minted Senior Statesman, is that Putin is a man obsessed by the fall of the Soviet Union; indeed it “seems he still fails to grasp why it happened.” And so Saakashvili concludes: as long as Putin persists in his efforts to “restore the past” the Russia’s future prospects will remain dim.
It’s a nice story, and he’s sticking to it; but that doesn’t mean we have to. As regards those “pro-democracy protesters” being gunned down with Russian acquiescence in the streets of Kiev: in his account we get not a word about the protesters who are throwing firebombs at the police; nor of any on the well-documented assaults on off-duty police officers; nor any on the rabidly nationalist and anti-Semitic character the once peaceful movement taken on since January.
With regard to that “Russian invasion”: In 2009 the European Union conclusively determined it was the shelling of Tskhinvali by Georgian forces (using, in violation of international law, cluster bombs responsible for scores of wounded civilians) that ignited the conflagration in August 2008. Saakashvili’s assault on the ethnically Russian province of South Ossetia led to the partitioning of his country and sunk its chances for accession to the EU and NATO. Yet for all the bloodshed, and his track record of fraud, intimidation and abject brutality, he has long been a favorite of the American foreign-policy elite, having been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by John McCain (of course) and Hillary Clinton in 2005.
The point about Sochi simply being a Potemkin village has been repeated ad nauseam by the reflexively anti-Putin American media. Little attention has been given to the fact that—while, yes, there were almost certainly instances of graft during the construction of the site—the oft-remarked upon “billions” were spent to develop Sochi and the surrounding region which was in genuine need of improvements to its infrastructure.
His comments glossing over the real reason for instability in the North Caucasus deserve strong rebuke. While Saakashvili decries the spectacle of Russian security forces taking “saliva specimens from most Muslim women,” he remains oddly silent on the fact that Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya are among the world’s most prolific producers of Islamic suicide bombers. These terrorists have repeatedly struck inside Russia, twice in the run up to the Games, but also in the Moscow Metro (2004, 2010) and at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport (2011). The Boston Marathon bombers also hailed from the region.
That Saakashvili would author such an obvious piece of anti-Russian propaganda is not in the least bit surprising nor, come to think of it, was the decision by the ever-credulous Times to print it.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.