Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Russian Shadow

(Originally on 9 October, 2012.)

On Sunday, I met with Russian colleagues and also with a famous writer, who nowadays works for a large Western newspaper. I didn't know he, too, has ended up here in Afghanistan. Of course I mentioned I had read and greatly appreciated his best-known book, which is about certain events of 1979, the rise and fall of a messianic movement. A reader of good memory can deduce who it was, because I have in the past written about that very book in this blog.

While eating traditional Russian snacks and raising toasts, it came to my mind that the current young generation of Finns is the first one that generally speaking shares a neutral attitude at Russia, considering it like any big country. The generation of my great-grandparents hated the Russkies. The generation of my grandparents feared Russia, and the threat of an occupation was still present in their subconscious. The generation of my parents, in turn, tried to paint a rosy picture of Russia, creating a false reality known as Finlandization, which a part of that generation even believed.

My generation is a case on the fence, since we have some vague memories of our childhood when the Soviet Union still existed, but we mainly grew up with the Russia of the nineties. Therefore the past images of chaos, mafia and the wars in the Balkans and the Caucasus were imprinted in our young minds. On the other hand, those younger than me, who grew up in the 2000s, have never come to personally experience the fact that the Soviet Union once existed. For them it's a joke of some kind, in no way to be taken seriously. They neither hate nor idealize Russia; they feel neither fear nor humility at it. For them Russia, to the extend it exists for them, is little more than a neutrally perceived funny "other", and countries like Estonia and Georgia have no legitimate reason to be worried about it.

Speaking of Georgia, they had elections and the opposition party Georgian Dream, led by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, won. The blue flags of the Georgian Dream were flying all over Tbilisi when we visited Georgia late this summer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement, conceded their electoral defeat with no further complaint, and the new government has already been formed. This should make it clear that genuine democracy has taken root in Georgia and the country would be ready to join the Baltic countries and Moldova in the club of those former Soviet republics who graduated from the transition school of democracy, were it not that Russia continues to persecute Georgia and occupies two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ukraine already visited the club for several years but after the defeat of the Orange coalition it fell back to authoritarianism, as the Russian-leaning oligarchs wrestled power back to the old regime, politruks and security services. One has to hope this doesn't happen in Georgia, but instead, Ivanishvili makes true of his promises by maintaining democracy, open society and Western integration. Saakashvili will probably continue as incumbent president till the end of his term, when it's time for the presidential elections to test the popular trust for each party again.

People have laughed a lot at Saakashvili's flamboyant style, as well as at his imaginative ideas such as distributing bottles of wine to tourists, erecting Hellenistic statues at city squares, and building police stations of glass to symbolically highlight transparency (and the battle against corruption). Despite laughter, it's a fact that Saakashvili remains in history as one of the relatively most important reformists in the region, who in less than a decade managed to eradicate low level corruption, to open up a society used to strongmen at genuine democracy, and to make Georgia an internationally attractive tourist destination.

It is understandable that like all democratic leaders, also Saakashvili had his time, after which it is wisest for him to step aside, also for the best of his own legacy. It is an essential part of pluralistic democracy that leaders change, while irreplaceable leaders are not a part of pluralistic democracy. Only when both people and leaders get used to the idea that leaders every now and then change in normal elections, democracy begins to be ripe. Even then it isn't guaranteed. It depends on both Ivanishvili and his allies and supporters whether his party can continue to protect Georgia's endangered democracy, or if Georgia will regress to the Ukrainian path. One thing is certain: Russia will not consent to leave Georgia alone; it will keep employing various ways to weaken the sovereignty of its small neighbour.

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