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The Caucasian chalk circle: spin and spin off

15 August 2008

The Georgian attack on South Ossetia last week, and the Russian counter-attack, have produced even more media spin than I expected – the rev counter is now off the clock.

Even though the dust is now beginning to settle, it’s still difficult to know exactly what happened. One of the better summaries is probably Gwynne Dyer’s article Russian triumph as Saakashvili’s gamble fails:

The three-day war in South Ossetia is settled, and the Georgians have lost. There may be some more shooting yet, but it is now clear that Georgia will never regain control of the rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia…

Now Saakashvili is playing on old Cold War stereotypes of the Russian threat in a desperate bid for Western backing: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world. If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.”

Nonsense. It was Georgia that started this war. The chronology tells it all. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian militia were more frequent than usual over the past several months, but on the afternoon of Thursday, August 7, Saakashvili offered the separatist South Ossetian Government “an immediate ceasefire and the immediate beginning of talks,” promising that “full autonomy” was on the table.

The same evening, however, he ordered a general offensive.

But Saakashvili is not the only one indulging in Cold War rhetoric. In both Russia and the USA the media have gone into a frenzy of nationalistic tub-thumping, calculated to drown out the voices of anyone trying to discover what is actually happening. No matter what is happening in Georgia, outside it the media seem to determined to jump-start the Cold War, stalled since 1989, and South Ossetia is the child in the Caucasian chalk circle, being pulled apart by rival “mothers”.

I think Gwynne Dyer may be being over sanguine in concluding:

The Bush Administration’s ambition to extend Nato into the Caucasus mountains is dead, which will please the French, the Germans and other Nato members who always found it bizarre and wilfully provocative.

Russians, who were the target of the provocation, will be quietly pleased with the speed and effectiveness of their Government’s response. There is no great moral issue here. What Georgia tried to do to South Ossetia is precisely what Russia did to Chechnya, but Georgia wasn’t strong enough and South Ossetia had a bigger friend. There is no great strategic issue either: apart from a few pipeline routes, the whole Transcaucasus is of little importance to the rest of the world.

In six months’ time, we probably won’t even remember this foolish adventure.

For people who live far from the Caucasus, it may be easy to forget, though perhaps some may still remember the siege of a school in North Ossetia by armed terrorists a few years ago. But the spin-off of all the media spin may indeed be the re-starting of the Cold War. And the question is then why are the media apparently so hell-bent on fanning the embers of the Cold War into a holocaust?

The actual shooting may be far away in the Caucasus for many of us, but the media spin is in our homes and streets, on the radio and TV, in the newspapers and in the blogosphere.

Samuel Huntington in his book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order described the post-Cold War world as one where there would not be a clash of ideologies, but rather a clash of civilizations. The civilizations are based on religion, rather than ideology. Instead of three worlds, Huntington postulated nine civilizations, though his Western civilisation corresponds roughly to the old First World, while the old Second World is divided between his Orthodox and Sinic civilisations.

The South Ossetia affair doesn’t seem to fit Huntington’s thesis. Georgia, Russia and South Ossetia all belong to his Orthodox civilisation. That is not to say that they are Orthodox countries, but within them Orthodox Christianity is the majority religion.

But when we look at the spin the Western media are putting on the events, we get a somewhat different picture; the Georgia/Russia conflict is being forced into a Cold War frame: :

U.S. corporate media frequently evoked the Cold War as a key to understanding the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. This was certainly true of the media themselves, which generally placed black hats or white hats on the actors involved depending on whether they were allied with Moscow or Washington.

On August 11, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams referred to “what’s being called the Russian blitz of the nation of Georgia, former Soviet republic that split away and is now threatening to split apart from within.” NBC reporter Jim Maceda followed up: “The powerful Russian war machine is moving ever deeper into Georgia, and teaching all of us really a lesson about what makes Russia tick.”

One could go on multiplying examples — “Back in the USSR” is the title of one article in the Boston Globe — but I think the point is clear. And this media propaganda barrage is having its effect. I participate in a couple of Orthodox Christian discussion forums, and in one of them one participant said “the Orthodox need to start remembering who the bad guys are and stop trying to cut them slack”.

He’s right there, but not, I suspect, in the way he thinks he’s right. In Orthodoxy we should indeed remember who the bad guys are, and stop cutting them slack.

To remember who the bad guys are, as an Orthodox Christian one only has to look in a mirror.

Fr Seraphim Rose liked to quote Solzhenitsyn: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties – but right through every human heart – and then through all human hearts.”

My interlocutor replied that “some people are more evil than others”, and that is indeed true, and something that as Orthodox Christians we need to recognise, as we say in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

So if we want to remember who the bad guys are, we need to look in a mirror rather than in the Boston Globe.

The Fathers did not ask us to believe and confess that the Son of God came into the world to damn sinners of whom Vladimir Putin / George Bush is the first (take your pick in a democratic vote).

He came to save sinners, of whom I am the first.

That is not to say that people like Putin and George Bush don’t have bad policies, or that their behaviour is above criticism. We may criticise policies and their implementation. But when it comes to being a bad guy, I must acknowledge that I take the cake.

Most of the political evils and the wars and conflicts in the world today are caused by that very thing: “remembering who the bad guys are”, and trying to assign white hats and black hats to all the actors in a conflict, and then thinking that whoever the guys with black hats are, they are not us. But that is not the Orthodox way.

What is the Orthodox way?

What is the Church doing in all this mess?

Well, here’s one answer:

Appeal by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia

Having learnt about the hostilities in Tshinvali and its outskirts, I call upon the warring parties to cease fire and return to the path of dialogue. Blood is being shed in South Ossetia and people are being killed and this makes my heart to grieve profoundly. Among those who have lifted their hand against each other are Orthodox Christians.

What is more, those who have come into conflict are Orthodox nations who are called by the Lord to live in brotherhood and love. I am aware of the appeal to peace made by His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Iliya of All Georgia. I also make my ardent appeal to those who have gone blind with hatred: stop! Do not let more blood be shed, do not let today’s conflict be expanded many times over! Show common sense and virtue: sit at the negotiation table for talks with respect for the traditions, views and aspirations of both the Georgian and Ossetian peoples. The Russian Church is ready to unite efforts with the Georgian Church and help in achieving peace. May our God, Who `is not a God of disorder but of peace’ (1 Cor. 14:33), be our Helper in this endeavor.

+ ALEXY
Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 August 2008 1:16 am

    Hi Steve,

    I hope your vacation (holiday) gives you rest.

    “I take the cake.” I know where this comes from. It’s right that we self-mortify. “The long night of the soul” is how I was recently reminded it goes. Let me though stand up for you to say, in spite of your humility (earnest I’m sure), you don’t take the cake. If what you are doing takes any cake, all I can say is that would it be that the rest of the world be as wrong then maybe we wouldn’t have all the needless, even wonton, killing and destruction.

    More power to you my friend.

  2. 17 August 2008 8:25 am

    I was right in the middle of writing that I meant “wanton” above, rather than soup (“wonton”), when my old laptop shutdown due to overheating. We’ve been setting heat records here in what is called the Pacific Northwest. I’m in the Seattle-area of the State of Washington, USA. The weather is great much of the time, but there are a few days each summer when air-conditioning sure would be nice.

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