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    Our Take: Politkovskaia Murder, or the Concert of Nations

January 2007

Volume XXVII, No. 1

The October 2006 murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkowskaia generated a tone of subdued indignation in the American and European media. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Le Monde gave it a few sideshow articles that soon disappeared from their homepages. The Moscow online <> removed mentions of Politkovskaia the very day following her funeral. Our own media reported President Bush’s appeal for investigation, answered by President Putin’s chilling assertion that an “objective” investigation would be forthcoming.

Why so little indignation and attention spent on Politkovskaia in Russia and abroad? Whence the restrained tone with which the Western media and politicians condemned the murder? In the post-Soviet and terrorist-ridden world, the superpowers seem to be looking backward to the nineteenth century when great empires ruled the world and the rest of humanity acquiesced after countless failed uprisings.

After the First World War there came an era of democracy broken by the rise of Nazism. After the Second World War, apart from the communist menace that made first-world countries uncomfortable (not to speak of the plight of Eastern and Central Europe under Soviet military domination), democracy surged forward with more and more rights gained by more and more minorites in the noncommunist world. The twentieth century granted suffrage to women. It gave American blacks a taste of real equality, and it liberated many Asian and Latin American countries from dictatorial regimes. After the fall of communism Eastern and Central Europe gained an opportunity, in Boris Yeltsin’s words, to “grab as much freedom as they could.” All of them did-except, as Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment and Politkovskaia‘s murder have illustrated, the Russian Federation.The fact that the Russians took the path of make-believe democracy says a great deal about the Russian political culture, but it may also be an indication of Russian political brilliance exemplified by President Vladimir Putin. Putin’s evil brilliance lies in the understanding that powerful countries are once again poised to rule the world. The Russo-German alliance on energy defies the spirit of the European Union, whose founders envisaged a united European front on major political and economic problems arising within the Union. Now Russia wants Germany to be its energy distributor and watchdog in the EU. This puts the EU out of whack, as countries such as Poland are left out of the planned gas pipeline to run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Have the world leaders forgotten that it is crucial to the equilibrium of Europe to guarantee stability and liberty in non-Germanic Central Europe? The answer may be yes.

The United Nations has been sidelined on too many occasions, its resolutions ignored by the powerful and enforced only when the powerful want to see them enforced. Winston Churchill’s infamous division of the world into “giants” and “pygmies” seems to be falling in place again.

To be sure, the great powers today are not the same as a hundred years ago. The rise of the Asian giants, and the assertive voices of some of the mid-size powers like Brazil, Korea, or Japan change the picture somewhat. But it is the trend backward rather than forward that accounts for the relatively scant attention paid to Politkovskaia’s murder. Like nineteenth-century revolutionaries, she was an inconvenience to be crushed. The great powers do not blame the Russian government because they are getting ready-or indeed have been more than ready-to engage in liberty-reducing actions within their own borders. They therefore studiously avoid blaming Russia for its brutality, for Russia is poised to join the concert of nations from which its own excesses dislodged it in the early postcommunist era.

While these weighty developments proceed apace, the leaders of Poland seem engrossed in their petty personal fights and starry-eyed visions of EU’s and NATO’s permanence. On 12 October 2006, Rzeczpospolita quoted President Lech Kaczyński as saying that it is inconceivable for Germany to defy the European Union through its policies; it must eventually toe the EU line. Inconceivable? Wake up, President Kaczyński. In the same paper, Polish Trade Minister Piotr Woźniak was quoted as saying that Germany cannot unilaterally sign an agreement with Russia concerning energy. Cannot? Wake up, Mr. Trade Minister. Donald Tusk, head of the opposition party, keeps raising personal issues concerning his opponents rather than focusing on Poland’s interests. Wake up, Mr. Tusk. Poland would do well to observe carefully the behavior of the Czech Republic that has excelled in the practice of national egoism, mindful of the fact that neither Russia nor Germany are play partners in a kindergarten game where everyone is treated fair and square.

Portions of this article were published in Houston Chronicle on 21 October 2006

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