A chilling anniversary
People in Eastern Europe will feel particularly chilled by the entry of Russian tanks into Georgia in response to its attack on South Ossetia. For 40 years ago today, the Soviet army and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and began the brutal crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968 led by Alexander Dubcek.
A truly poisonous brew of international forces encouraged Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to launch a ferocious assault on South Ossetian separatists on August 8. Israel provided massive arms sales to Tbilisi over the past eight years, 40% originating in the US. NATO leaders agreed in April that Georgia should become a member and Washington was pushing Poland to install a new interceptor missile system near to its border with Russia. Last but not least, Georgia has Senator John McCain's principal foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann on its payroll.
Saakashvili’s military adventure was aimed at bringing America in on his side. He arrogantly stamped on the aspirations of the people of South Ossetia, who had voted by a massive majority in September 2006 for an independent state, which allowed the Russians in turn to prey on their frustrations (Georgia had already killed up to 2,000 civilians when South Ossetians made a bid for independence in 1991-1992).
Surrounding Russia with NATO members and missiles was certain to inflame Russia’s desire to retain influence and control in the Caucasus area. The massive attack on Georgia by Russian armour was the response, as Moscow cocked a snoop at Washington. US secretary of State Condoleeza Rice pronounced self-righteously: “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it." Strange indeed from the woman who travels the world justifying the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the overthrow of governments!
The use of brute force to quell the Prague Spring in 1968 became counter-productive in maintaining control over Eastern Europe. As a veteran of the Prague Spring said in a BBC radio discussion, countering those who denied the possibility of Dubcek’s idea of socialism with freedom and a human face. “Socialism without freedom is not socialism. It is nonsense.” The invasion was a turning point in the unravelling of Stalinist power. Despite Gorbachev’s attempts to introduce a new, democratic constitution, the Soviet Union itself broke up under the weight of its own internal contradictions in 1991.
As in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the inhabitants of smaller nations, especially those in strategically sensitive regions, are paying the heavy price for other people’s power struggles. The people of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia suffered a cruel bombardment by Georgian air power while those living in the areas occupied by Russian troops – up to 31 miles of the Georgian capital – are equally shell-shocked by what the Russian forces have done.
The fact that NATO and Russia cynically seek to exploit these legitimate aspirations to further their own interests in no way means that the people of Ossetia or any other small nation or oppressed minority should not have the right to decide their own future. Indeed, it was the recognition by Lenin and Trotsky of the right to self-determination in the founding years of the Soviet Union which led to the formation of the Terek Soviet Republic in North Ossetia between March 1918 and February 1919. Today’s Ossetian leaders blame Stalin for dividing their country into north and south in 1922. In fact, Putin and his clique are seeking to keep control in a similar way to Stalin, who wanted to hold on to the borders of the Tsarist empire.
20 August 2008