March 22, 2000

Baiting the Russian Bear

The ominous title of the article said it all. "If it Looks Like the KGB, and Acts Like the KGB..." appeared in the Washington Post the other day. The author was someone named Mark Kramer – described as Director of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies – and his painfully contrived screed was dedicated to the proposition that Stalin was alive and well and residing in the Kremlin. The desperate search to find a reason for NATO’s continued existence goes on. Last year Yugoslavia was smashed to smithereens to demonstrate that only NATO had the wherewithal to inflict so much pointless damage. This year it is the turn of the Russian Bear. Apparently he is back in the woods. So let’s make sure NATO remembers to bring a gun. The media, eager as ever to make themselves useful to the US Government, daily churn out chilling tales of dastardly Russians and fiendish secret policemen. Editorial writers splutter angrily. The Republicans – stupid and opportunistic as ever – seize on an issue they believe they can belabor Al Gore with in the election.

The dishonesty of all of this is patently obvious. Any rational person can see that over the past ten years the Russians have gone out of their way to be as inoffensive as possible – to their own detriment as well as to that of their friends and allies. They gave up an empire, dissolved the Warsaw Pact, cut back on their armed forces and sent the Communists packing. They even embraced the fashionable "market democracy" ideology being peddled by the West. On issue after issue they signed on to NATO’s agenda – for no apparent reason other than weakness or eagerness to please. It is hard to see how much further they could have gone to abase themselves short of inviting NATO in to take over their country. Yet according to the lunatics who run the American imperial metropolis Russia remains as dangerous as ever.

"[T]oday, the KGB’s influence is alive and well. Its main successor, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, seems pleased to assume the KGB’s mantle," writes Kramer. What, the same KGB that carried out Stalin’s mass murders? The same KGB that ran the vast Gulag that housed millions of political prisoners? "The drive to rehabilitate the KGB gained momentum late last year with the rise of Acting President Vladimir Putin," Kramer continues. "Putin was a loyal KGB officer for nearly 17 years. He ran the FSB for just over a year....Putin has spoken fondly about his work in the KGB. In a series of interviews for a book published just last week, he endorsed the agency’s ‘principled’ behavior and claimed that one of his main functions was to spy on NATO." Sounds pretty damning until one applies a little bit of common sense – always in short supply among our foreign policy elite. In the first place, no one even bothers to pretend that Putin was anything more than a standard mid-level KGB officer. Second, in the world in which he grew up – and things are perhaps not so different today – NATO was the enemy. What else would he be doing but spying on NATO? Third, no one ever held it against Boris Yeltsin that he had been a member of the Politburo. If you abjectly toe the Washington line you get to be called a "fighter for democracy." And, finally, in 1988 the United States actually elected as President a man who had once headed the CIA and had therefore overseen innumerable anti-Soviet operations. The rest of the world, not to mention the Russians, might not have looked upon this as benignly as Americans do.

"The effort by Putin and other Russian officials to restore ‘honor’ to the KGB’s historical reputation is deeply troubling," Kramer rumbles on. "Suppose that, after World War II, the West German government had regarded its security forces as proud successors of the Gestapo and SS....One of the salutary consequences of Germany’s defeat... was the Allied occupation of the country. Although it took decades before many Germans fully acknowledged the enormity of Nazi crimes, the system of historical accountability established by the Western occupying powers had a lasting, positive effect. The SS and Gestapo were – and still are – remembered with the opprobrium and revulsion they deserved." That’s nice, comforting official history for you. We are always the good guys insisting on "accountability." But history, as usual, is not that simple. Kramer has either forgotten – or perhaps has never heard of – General Reinhard Gehlen. Gehlen had headed Hitler’s anti-Soviet intelligence operation on the Eastern Front – a by no means junior post. After the War he became head of Germany’s intelligence service, the BND, which he led right up to the late 1960s. Evidently, due to the exigencies of the Cold War, "accountability" had its limits. Gehlen’s knowledge of the Soviet Union could not be allowed to go to waste. In much the same way, Putin’s knowledge of the West is what has helped to catapult him to the top. This is not necessarily to reproach the successive US Governments that worked with Gehlen. There may have been good reasons for hiring him. But let us at least get adult history, not fairy-tales for children. Much of the Nazi bureaucracy went to work quite happily for the Federal Republic. Today, of course, every German you meet will tell you at tedious length how anti-Nazi he is. But anyone can say that now!

"Post-Soviet Russia is not postwar Germany," Kramer sighs. "The Soviet Union came to an end not through war, but through internal collapse. Those in power in Moscow after the collapse (many of whom had loyally served the communist regime) avoided a genuine reckoning with the past." This, of course, is a familiar refrain. The only way out for Russia is to let the West come in and run the show for a few years. And this is really the issue. Democracy is neither here nor there. You do as the United States tells you, otherwise you are not really a democrat. William Safire foams at the mouth when he writes about Russia. Yet, not once does he express concern about repression in Israel’s buddy, Turkey, say. On the contrary, he denounces the Europeans for their "racism" in not allowing Turkey to join the European Union. "Mr. Putin... is far from a clear and committed democrat," fumed the Washington Post recently. "So far his record is defined by the war in Chechnya and the obliteration of its capital, Grozny; by the disappearance of Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who angered Mr. Putin’s government with his fearless war reporting; by his decrees reimposing political commissars in the army and compulsory military education in schools."

Russian repression in Chechnya has certainly been pretty brutal. But since the world, including the United States, does not recognize Chechnya as an independent state, the Russians are within their rights to defeat the secessionists. Turkey’s war against the Kurds, supported and encouraged by the United States, has been at least as brutal as anything the Russians have come up with. Moreover, the repression goes on. Turkey recently arrested and imprisoned three democratically elected Kurdish mayors. The other day it sentenced former President Necmettin Erbakan to a year’s imprisonment for statements he made years ago. Safire said nothing. The Washington Post found it hard to muster too much rage. "[B]ad habits persist, in particular a tendency to jail those who express views at odds with the nation's secularist principles....It is not that Mr. Erbakan is himself a ringing voice for democracy. His Welfare Party... has flirted – always in code – with support for some elements of sharia, or Islamic law, in place of Turkey’s firmly Western constitution." Not the sharia! Wasn’t that what Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic introduced in Bosnia? But those hateful Serbs, of course, had no right to seek to opt out of it. "It is always a challenge for democracies to respond sensibly to forces that threaten democratic values. But harsh restrictions on speech themselves threaten democracy. Turkey needs to ease those restrictions, as much for internal harmony as to satisfy the EU." Imagine if the Russians, let alone Slobodan Milosevic, had been imprisoning people with the cheerful abandon of the Turks. Would the Post be so understanding? Today, as always, selective liberal indignation serves as handmaiden for US power.

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George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for appears every Wednesday.

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