Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thinking about the USSR

In Zaqatala, it won’t take you long until you hear about the nut factory. Nuts, as we know, grow on trees. The factory processed those nuts. So, people call it the nut factory.

The nuts to which they refer are what English-speaking people call hazelnuts or filberts. Very tasty. The bush-like trees grow well here. Sometimes it seems like they grow wild.

In the days of the Soviet Union, Zaqatala was home to one of two “nut factories” in Europe. I think the other one is in the Czech Republic. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did the business of the nut factory.

This is just one of countless examples around the former Soviet Union. You will find these examples all over. The factory that used to produce machine parts, but the orders stopped coming after the Soviet Union collapsed. The large farm that grew cotton, but then the demand for the cotton plummeted after the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s difficult for Westerners who have not traveled in this region and really thought about it to understand the depth of the impact caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, when the Western politicians crow about the West “winning” the Cold War, it’s hard to feel very good about this when this means that the West’s “victory” means mass unemployment and despair for your town.

In Zaqatala, some Turkish investors have recently built a new nut factory, but it’s much more modest in scope than the old Soviet plant. It comes nowhere near to meeting the economic needs of the community.

I’ve been thinking even more about the collapse of the Soviet Union lately because I’m about half-way through “The New Cold War,” by Edward Lucas. It’s a timely book, although I’m sure it strikes many people as a fear-mongering and alarmist work. I’m not sure it’s unduly alarmist. I’m thinking about my recent conversations with Russian friends. And thinking about conversations with people who have traveled in Russia very recently. One friend recently remarked that she was alarmed at how nationalist her friends had become.

In many ways, this nationalism is entirely predictable. I lived in Russia during the Yeltsin years. I remember very well the crash of the ruble, the final economic crisis that was the beginning of the end for Yeltsin and his administration. It is easy to understand how those are shameful memories for Russians – and how Russians would be happy to support a nationalistic administration that appears to have brought order and pride back to Russia.

Many people will argue, of course, that nationalism - whatever the nation - isn’t a bad thing. Pride in one’s country or village or family is natural and good. But I am opposed to nationalism – whatever that nation – if it is an excuse to neglect self-criticism. If we love our country, then we should be brutally honest about its shortcomings. If we are not honest about these faults, we cannot improve them. So, I am quite frank in my discussions with foreigners and other Americans about the aspects of the United States that I consider shameful – its health care system, its materialism, its foreign policy, its economic inequality, its violence, its racism, its religious intolerance, its poor education system. But I am an American, and as such, I have am responsible to some extent for this large and powerful country. I cannot make excuses for it.

And I cannot make excuses for the foreign policy of the United States, that in some ways made the rise of Putin possible. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the politicians and businesses in the West badly managed the situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it’s equally hard to expect that they could have managed it well. Following a policy that might have avoided the current dangerous situation would have required much greater wisdom than could be expected from elected leaders and businesses. Politicians revel in triumphalism. And in a capitalist system, entrepreneurs will always seek quick profits.

I would summarize the mistake of the Western powers as a failure to consider Russia a real negotiating partner. In negotiation, we must exercise our imagination in order to consider as fully as possible the perspective of our negotiating partner. We must attempt to view the world through that partner’s eyes. To understand his fears, his desires, his motivations. Because the West - particularly the United States – considered that it had “won” the Cold War, it failed to treat Russia as a negotiating partner. The Soviet Union, after all, had been defeated. The perspective of its former rulers was not relevant.

And now, we are shocked to learn that the Russians are not embracing the democracy of the West. Many Russians consider that they tried democracy. It brought them economic chaos and few concessions from the West. Better for Russia to apply a more familiar authoritarian model of government and rely on its own natural resources to command the respect of the West. I think this is an entirely understandable position.

Of course, this will not help in the long-term economic development of Russia. The country’s reliance on its energy resources means that broad economic restructuring can be avoided. And Russian foreign policy informed by resurgent nationalism already has made the region more dangerous, as the Georgians recently discovered. But the response of the Russian leadership – and of the Russian people who support those leaders - is completely understandable.

And in Zaqatala, perhaps the Turkish investors will be successful. Perhaps the country will remain at peace, despite the Russian troops a few hundred kilometers away. And perhaps a nut factory will again employ many of the population here. Inshala.


Edward Lucas said...

thanks for mentioning the book. I am most interested in how Azerbaijan is reacting to the events in Georgia. Nice blog

Edward Lucas

Eric said...

Hello Mr. Lucas -
Glad you like the blog. Your book is very thought provoking. I was just reading the chapter regarding Russia's military posturing - and I must say you called the events of this summer accurately. I think your analysis deserves serious attention by Western leaders.

In Azerbaijan, my impression is that the leadership is extremely wary of Russia - and hence tries to keep relations cordial. Just an impression - but the tone might be more cordial since the ascendancy of Medvedev. He recently visited the country, and the press devoted a fair amount of ink to negotiations between the two presidents.

I am just back from Georgia today, a brief foray over the border to visit Signagi. If anything, I was surprised at how little the subject came up. The taxi driver who talked the most about it was also confident that everything would be OK.

It's a nice thought.

Ani said...

I’m putting Mr. Lucas’s book on my Amazon Wish List (which seems only to grow, not shrink!). Another essential book, if you haven’t read it, is Charles King’s “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus.” I think you’ll agree that this sentence has a familiar ring to it: “Targeted assassinations, kidnappings, the killing of entire families, and the use of disproportionate force in response to small-scale raids were to become central to Russian operations [in the Caucasus] in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.” (p. 48)

Some things don’t change….

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