Who cares about Sikorski’s Crude Analogies?

This weekend, recordings of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski’s private conversations with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski surfaced in Wprost, a Polish weekly. The big bomb for Sikorski, who has been heralded as one of the brokers of what little stability exists in Ukraine, was that he questioned the Polish-American alliance, comparing Polish kowtowing to the US’s every whim to oral sex.

Yikes.

Enter an explosion of racy clickbait on Twitter and a couple of fierce arguments about the journalistic integrity of publishing such recordings and whether politicians should be judged for their private statements, all of which is very interesting, but besides the point. Because Sikorski is right.

Poland has done the United States a whole bunch of favors, and I don’t mean that it threw President Obama a nice party when he visited Warsaw at the beginning of the month. I mean grandiose gestures. Usually ones that involve people, money, planes, and weapons.

In an attempt to comply with NATO regulations Poland spends a higher percentage of its GDP on its military than many of its much richer neighbors–ironically, many of whom are considered more staunch allies to the United States than Poland itself. (Germany, we’re looking at you.) And it is one of the few countries in Europe increasing its defense expenditures. 

Poland was also one of the first countries to commit troops to the Iraq War. Politics aside, you have to appreciate this gesture. Poland cared enough about relations with the United States to send its army into harm’s way in a war based on spurious reasoning.  And they did a damn good job of it. Of the four zones of control in the country post-invasion, two were under US control, one British, and one Polish.

Oh, and there was also that secret CIA prison in Poland where the US hid purported terrorists from the prying eyes of, well, everyone. Poland is facing a case at the European Court of Human Rights for that particular love letter to its American brothers.

What has Poland gotten in return for its commitment to the Atlantic alliance and the United States? Very little. The ballistic missile shield that was planned (and cancelled, and reinstated) since the Bush administration might eventually come to fruition, particularly if Russia continues raising its hackles. Poles can’t easily work in or visit the US, since it is still waiting for admission to the visa waiver program (it’s the only member of the Schengen Zone without visa free entry to the US).

Given this background, it’s understandable why Sikorski might have expressed his frustration with the US when he saw the writing on the wall and we refused to take decisive action against Russia prior to the annexation of Crimea. His words aren’t the shocking part. How they came to light–almost certainly thanks to a certain neighbor hellbent on keeping Sikorski from succeeding Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief–is another story.

Guide for Journalists Covering the Sochi Olympics

Since The Washington Post ran a slideshow of “shocking” photos of Olympic unpreparedness in Sochi early this week, I’ve been increasingly grumpy. Western reporters landed in Russia’s little slice of paradise on the Black Sea and immediately began complaining about everything around them. Some of their anecdotes and observations were funny- I couldn’t help but smile at poor translations on menus around town, which I myself enjoyed while cavorting around Russia- but others just seemed like they were coming from inexperienced travelers with little knowledge of Russia. …That, or whiny teenagers.

And then the tweets and reports kept coming. Facebook friends who likely cannot find the Black Sea on a map were suddenly experts on Sochi’s construction mismanagement. Others sent me their extremely original discoveries as if to say, “Finally, I have something to talk to you about! Also, you studied this craphole?! Joke’s on  you!”

I, along with many other Russophiles, have reached my breaking point.

In order to help journalists enjoy the rest of their time in Sochi and enjoy successful interactions with other non-Western countries and cultures in the future, I have created a handy guide based on the most common complaints I read from journalists:

  1. Can’t use the tap water in your hotel room? WELCOME TO MOST COUNTRIES THAT ARE NOT THE UNITED STATES. A lot of the pipes in Russia are pretty old and may have been in dubious shape even when installed during the Soviet era. You should not drink this water or put it near your face. Showering should be fine. On the bright side, you can practice your Russian at the kiosk down the street where you buy your bottled h2o. Protip: grocery stores have 5 gallon jugs. (I realized while I was typing you probably didn’t even try to pick up some basic Russian phrases. Sigh…)
  2. Is there a sign asking you to throw your toilet paper in the trash can, and not in the toilet? Again, pretty normal. See above re: pipes. They can’t handle the massive wads of Charmin Ultrasoft you like to use, let alone how much rough Russian toilet paper you’ll take to compensate. You should really just be thankful that you have “Western-style” toilets, because – gasp! – squat toilets exist in countries outside of the United States, including Russia.
  3. Awwww, your hotel bed’s a single bed? Are you feeling a little claustrophobic, or was your plan to bring a Russian hottie back to your room for some alone time suddenly foiled by reality? Every European hotel I’ve stayed in (except one) has had tiny, single beds. The construction of your hotel probably evicted a bunch of Sochi residents from their lifelong homes, so at least you have a roof over your head.
  4. If you are going to bash Russia, please do it for things it deserves. Maybe because you are against Russia’s treatment of gays, or because you worry about Sochi’s environmental implications. Don’t make fun of an entire country because you have no travel sense or moral standards.
  5. I’m sorry that you can’t easily dry your hair, take a hot shower, connect to the Internet, or use an elevator to get to your room. Consider for a second that perhaps the correct response is not “RUSHA SUCKZ!” but “Hmmm, seems like the IOC made an oops!”
  6. Most importantly, you are at the Olympics, an event that attempts to promote peace and cultural understanding through sport. Try to embody that sentiment, rather than supporting the reputation of “Ugly Americanism.”

I, for one, will treasure my memories of Sochi from my trip there, and I’m totally amped to watch the Opening Ceremonies tonight.

Is the Russian Trade War Ukraine’s Golden Ticket to the EU?

A Creme-Brulee Roshen bar, via flickr user schoko-riegel.

If Russia places an embargo on your country’s most popular edible exports, chances are the Kremlin is none too pleased with you. Moscow’s most recent political collateral is Ukrainian chocolate, banned from the Russian market July 29. This week, Russia stopped importing Ukrainian goods almost entirely.

After claiming to find traces of the carcinogen benzopyrene in the Ukrainian sweets, Russia’s consumer standards agency, Rospotrebnadzor, stopped import of chocolates from Ukraine’s infamous Roshen company, which garners about $40 million in profit from the Russian market per year. The confectioner’s other top markets–Moldova, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus–continued to import the chocolate, however, as they found no evidence of carcinogens.

In the past, Russia’s political disagreements have sparked embargoes on Polish meat (Russian babushki could only dream of Polish kielbasa from 2005-2007), Belarusian dairy, and Georgian wine (happily returning to the Russian market this year).

Ukraine, however, was not lucky enough to escape with only one affected market. Yesterday, Moscow launched what many are describing as a full-on trade war against Kyiv. All Ukrainian goods have been labelled potentially dangerous, and are subject to lengthy inspections before crossing the border into the territory of the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

As Ukraine’s economy is heavily reliant on exports, 23.7% of which go to Russia, this is a serious issue for Kyiv, but not entirely unexpected; Moscow’s seemingly drastic actions are intended to pressure Ukraine into shunning the EU’s offers of Free Trade and Association Agreements in favor of beefing up its ties with Russia and joining the Eurasian Customs Union.

It’s a poorly thought out move on Russia’s part. Though the cessation of Russian exports could be devastating to Ukraine’s economy, Russia’s bullying might finally inspire the EU to decisive action; Ukraine has had a less than stellar reform record and has done little to curry favor with Brussels, so hopes for an association agreement at the Eastern Partnership’s Vilnius Summit this fall were murky at best.

But Russia’s pressure on the Ukrainian economy–not to mention the obvious motivation behind it–has a chance of awakening the EU’s hero gene, which has played a decisive role in the dissipation of regional conflicts in Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine itself in the past ten years. The Russian government’s short-term memory is shockingly bad; its economic strong-arming was one of the major causes of the Orange Revolution. This time around, the EU has the bureaucratic structure (the EaP) and a few well-respected pro-Ukraine cheerleaders (Poland, Sweden) that will look past Ukraine’s failings and use an Association Agreement as a shield against an increasingly aggressive Russia.

It seems that among its “carcinogenic” chocolate, Ukraine has found its golden ticket to the West.

Missile Defense in Poland a Sticking Point for Relations with Russia and U.S.

This post is part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.

In my last post, I discussed how “Georgia shock” in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War led Poland to finally establish the Eastern Partnership Program by capitalizing on Europe’s sudden realization that Russia maybe, just maybe, could one day pose a threat to the continent.

Feeling threatened by Russia was nothing new for Poland; even after it brought down the communist system in 1989, defending itself against its eastern neighbor was high on its priority list, and rightly so. If you lived in a country that had been partitioned, attacked, and occupied by a neighboring state all in the span of two hundred years, you’d probably feel threatened too. Poland responded to Russia’s aggressive tendencies through a more active use of Western security apparatuses, a decision which has solidified Poland’s position as a major central European power and continually aggravates Polish-Russian relations.

Since 2002, American plans to establish a NATO Missile Defense system in northern Poland have been on the books in some form or another. The Bush Administration announced its deal to place missile interceptors in Poland (in exchange for some fighter jets and America’s thanks) in 2002. Obama quickly rolled back the Bush plan–which had solicited the criticism of most Western European capitals and the ire of Moscow–in 2009, during the age of the short-lived US-Russia Reset. (Unfortunately for his administration, the move was announced on the anniversary of the Soviet WWII invasion of Poland. Oops.) Instead, Obama favored a “phased adaptive approach,” which would deploy interceptors to Poland much later. In March, this plan was further delayed, but Russia continues to demand that the NATO shield in Poland will never be used against it. Unsurprisingly, NATO has refused to give this assurance.

Poland has–understandably–been a little peeved with the US for not delivering on a decade’s worth of promises. As Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council writes, the American track record has caused Poland to think that, for the US, “security relations with Central Europe [are]…a trade-off in the effort to build a partnership with Russia.”

The United States is not only making light of the important Polish-American relationship (Poland was a longtime supporter of American efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan), but missing the important role it could play in either reconciling Poland and Russia (at least in terms of missile defense) or asserting American defense dominance over Putin’s playground.

Rather than attempting to placate Russia by changing plans for the shield and subsequently offending Poland (again), the United States–and NATO–need to make a choice. NATO may have been born in an answer to Cold War-era defense, but the organization has long been searching for its post-Cold War identity. Perhaps this new identity should include regionally-based cooperation on issues like missile defense. It’s a wild and slightly naive notion, particularly since the US and Russia have such a hard time cooperating on less contentious issues (civil society, for instance). The US has floated the idea before, and was met with much feather ruffling in both Warsaw and Moscow. Unfortunately, we haven’t pushed the envelope since then.

If we aren’t willing to take the high road, at the very least we should be willing to publicly admit that a missile defense system in Poland might one day be used in defense of our allies against not just Iran, not just Russia, but any potential aggressor.

Obama Shouldn’t Cancel Meeting with Russia over Snowden

The pressure is on for Obama to cancel an upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin over Russia’s granting of asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Congress, representatives of both parties including Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ) are calling for the White House to pull out of the meeting, at the very least, while others call for more serious repercussions.

Were Obama to concede and cancel the meeting–which he seems to be seriously considering–the move would be nothing short of diplomatic child’s play. Russia, like a bully on the playground, has stolen something we want while we had our backs turned. It won’t share! So now we’re giving it the silent treatment. Ouch.

But the diplomatic silent treatment won’t work here. One of Russia’s foreign policy priorities is to bolster its image as a major world player; Putin doesn’t really care if the US shows up for a meeting at which, most likely, no compromises would have been made and nothing would have gotten accomplished.

And what does it say about the United States that this is the issue we move to “extremes” over? We could have reacted as sharply when Russia unceremoniously booted our USAID mission from the country last fall. Or over concerns about the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics. Or–perhaps most importantly for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and supposed gay rights “champion”–as disturbing trends emerge in the wake of Russia’s anti-gay law.

Instead, we’re most concerned about the fate of a twentysomething who caused us some embarrassment on the international stage. Whose image image needs bolstering now?

Commit or Quit: How the EU can assuage Polish-Russian Tensions over the Eastern Partnership

This post is a part of my series on Polish-Russian relations. Read the introduction here.

"Eastern Partnership Summit" family photo, 30 September 2011, Warsaw. via flickr member europeancouncil
“Eastern Partnership Summit” family photo, 30 September 2011, Warsaw. via flickr member europeancouncil

Getting in and getting to work
I’ve spent a good portion of the last six years battling the “three Ps” of Poland: pierogi, piwo (beer), and polka. Those who specialize in Polish studies lament the fact that most Westerners are familiar with only these three facets of Polish culture, and not Poland’s major accomplishments in the past twenty years, including the first democratic elections in the former Communist bloc and a successful capitalist economic policy that has left its economy (nearly) untouched, even in the face of the global economic crisis.

Over the past five years, Poland has attempted to put these experiences to good use, serving as a model and mentor for six “Eastern” countries in need of guidance via the Eastern Partnership Program (EaP).

Aiding its neighbors in their political and economic transitions was always one of Poland’s goals after it “returned to Europe,” becoming an EU member in 2004. But the EU wasn’t quite so gung ho; it was wary of taking on the financial burden of weak Eastern economies, and faced criticism for granting Romania and Bulgaria accession before they reformed fully. Its European Neighborhood Policy, the EaP’s predecessor, which vaguely sought to promote stability in Europe’s widely-defined near-abroad (including North Africa and the Middle East, along with Eastern and Southern Europe), was criticized by post-Communist countries for lacking incentive–in particular, the distant promise of accession–for neighboring countries to reform. It seemed that enlargement fatigue had set in among “Old Europe,” and that Poland would have to wait to change the course of its neighbors’ history.

Georgia Shock gives the EaP a green light
The realization that the EU needed some sort of coherent Eastern policy hit the organization in the form of the August 2008 five-day war between Russia and Georgia. Though the cause of the war was ostensibly mounting tension between the two countries over breakaway republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia, many experts view NATO’s promise of membership for Georgia and Ukraine earlier that year as the true cause of Russia’s provocation.

Regardless of the reasons for the conflict, the popular opinion of Russia in the EU plummeted after the EU-negotiated peace treaty was signed. The Union’s big brother to the East was now seen as belligerent. Speaking in support of Georgia, Polish President Lech Kaczynski worried about Russia’s next move: “Today Georgia, tomorrow Ukraine, the day after tomorrow the Baltic states, and then, perhaps, the time will come for my country, Poland.”*

“Georgia Shock” allowed Poland to gain support for the Eastern Partnership Program, pioneered by Polish Prime Minister Radek Sikorski and his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt, a longtime critic of Russia. When attempting to ascertain exactly what the EaP’s goals are, the curious soul is generally sent into a tailspin of bureaucratic jargon. Put simply: the EU gives monetary and moral support to its six “Eastern Partners” (Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) to aid them on the path to EU accession. More reforms and more “harmonization” with EU policies and standards leads to more monetary support, and somewhere down the road, the signing of Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements (DCFTAs) and Association Agreements with the EU, two steps that are precursors to membership itself.

Russia, of course, did not take too kindly to Foreign Minister Sikorski’s intention to “highlight the empowerment of [EaP] countries by treating them as independent entities and not pawns that are organically linked to Russia.” President Dmitri Medvedev described the program as “a partnership structured against Russia,” while Duma deputy Sergei Markov maintained that it had an “anti-Russian character.”

While none of Russia’s attacks were directed at Poland specifically, the Kremlin was well-aware that Poland acted as the EaP’s champion in Euro politics and, along with Sweden, contributed the lionshare of the $560 million in aid the program doled out. And Russia was not soon to forget Poland’s support of Ukraine’s 2004 anti-Russian Orange Revolution. A Russian acquaintance of mine summed the situation up nicely: “if not for Poland’s meddling, Russia would be prepared to engage in normal, peaceful relations with Poland, as it does with the other countries in the former socialist camp.”

(For a more in-depth discussion of the evolution of the Eastern Partnership, check out my Georgetown University Capstone presentation.)

Vilnius Summit 2013 and Beyond
Luckily for Russia, the Eastern Partnership hasn’t been extremely successful. Poorly funded from the beginning ($560 million from the entire EU is really a paltry amount for countries as troubled as these six), the global economic crisis forced the EaP to the bottom of the EU’s priorities. Faced with economic problems of their own and wavering EU support, countries like Belarus and Ukraine courted further support from Russia. Frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus remain unresolved, while highly corrupt, anti-reform regimes retain their firm grip on national politics. Only little Moldova seems to exude a glimmer of hope for ever achieving EU accession.

This month, Lithuania assumed the EU presidency. As one of the main supporters of the Eastern Partnership with its own transitional experiences to share, Lithuania and other EaP supporters have big plans for this fall’s EaP summit in Vilnius. Poland in particular sees the summit as a defining moment for its flagship program, for the future of Ukraine, and for the future of Polish-Russian relations.

In Foreign Minister Sikorski’s yearly address to the Polish congress this past March, he discussed Ukraine’s “fundamental dilemma…a choice between modernity and democracy on the one hand and a different civilizational model on the other. If Ukraine creates the conditions for the signing of an Association Agreement, Poland will provide the country with a ‘European perspective’ at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.”

Russia’s repeated response has been to present Ukraine with an ultimatum: either Ukraine chooses the European path, or reaps the benefits of open borders and increased trade with Russia and its Customs Union, an argument that President Putin made most recently during a joint Russian-Ukranian celebration of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the ancient state of Kievan Rus. Based on cultural and historical similarities, Putin maintained that Ukraine belongs with Russia, not Europe.

While Ukraine and the other five Eastern partners continue to play the field and reap the benefits of two major powers attempting to maintain their influence and relevance, the Eastern Partnership will remain a bilateral sticking point between Poland and Russia no matter the choices made by EaP countries. The goals of Russian and Polish foreign policy are diametric opposites, and that won’t be reconciled any time soon.

Commit or Quit
However, if the EU made the Eastern Partnership a policy priority, positive changes could occur in regards to both Polish-Russian relations and the EU’s influence in the East. The EU should fund the EaP as seriously as any aid program within its own borders. By adequately funding the Eastern Partnership, the EU would ensure that Russia did not view the EaP as “a partnership structured against Russia,” funded and coordinated by its number one critics. This support would, in turn, reduce the risk of dangerous political and economic developments, troublesome not only for Eastern partners but the EU members with which they share borders and the Union as a whole. Lastly, increased support would send a positive message to Eastern partners, ensuring them that the EU’s promises are not empty, while informing Russia that the EU means business, whether that business is palatable to Russia or not.

The plight of the Eastern partners isn’t only Poland and its post-Communist neighbors’ cross to bear. The EU strives for a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.” If that’s truly the case, it should reaffirm its commitment to the Eastern Partnership at the Vilnius Summit, and perhaps the EaP and Poland’s “meddling” will cease to be a bilateral issue between Poland and Russia. Then they’ll only have history, energy, defense, and conspiracy theories to worry about…

*Lukasz Kulesa, “Poland’s Policy Regarding the Georgian Conflict.” Yearbook of Polish Foreign Policy 01 (2009): 207-22.

An Introduction to Polish-Russian Relations

Polish-Russian relations. The very connotation of the phrase is packed with a millenium of history. It causes journalists to slough off their descriptions of the problem as “complicated,” and has inspired no dearth of poor quips from academics such as “you could write a book or two about that.”

As is the case with most stereotypes, those describing the “unique” Polish-Russian relationship exist because they are rooted in truth. I’ve lived and breathed Polish-Russian relations for the past six years, and I don’t see the topic getting any less interesting or important as Russia maintains its pseudo-imperialist rhetoric and Poland’s influence in Europe continues to grow…though sometimes I suspect I’m the only one that feels that way.

My interest in Poland and its troubled ties with its Eastern neighbor are embedded in my very person. I am a Polish-American; my grandfather found himself in the United States in 1952 after being deported from Eastern Poland (now Ukraine) by the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, living several years in a work camp in northern Russia, traveling the Former Soviet Union and Middle East with the Anders Army, and finally, marrying in England before emigrating to the US. Understandably, my first childhood associations with Russia were none too kind. As a college student, I decided to pursue a Slavic language and since Polish wasn’t offered at my university, I took up Russian, falling in love with the language, culture, and people.

A few years later, as a student in Russia, I was surprised that my Polishness often helped me connect with native Russians. They referred to me as their “Slavic sister,” or even “svoi chelovek”–one of ours. I was both honored and befuddled. Where was the animosity I expected?

Oddly enough, the Smolensk plane crash, in which Polish President Kaczynski and nearly 100 other Polish dignitaries were killed on their way to a Katyn Massacre commemoration ceremony, furthered my sense that there might yet be hope for Polish-Russian reconciliation. In Saint Petersburg, my teachers and friends offered me their condolences after the tragedy. At the leadership level, the two nations seemed to be acting diplomatically or even civilly toward each other for the first time in recent memory. And this progress was squandered to feed the propaganda monster that still rages in both post-communist countries today.

As I see it, the antagonism between the two nations is fueled by four categories of disagreement: Poland’s attempts to bring countries like Ukraine and Belarus into the European fold through the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, Poland’s plans to allow a NATO missile shield on its soil, economic disagreements, particularly as related to energy politics in region, and lastly, the years of history and bad blood propagandized by both countries whenever a new disagreement flares up.

On Wednesdays over the next few weeks, Wiczipedia will be offering a primer on current Polish-Russian relations. Unlike the Russian and Polish media, which rarely offer unbiased accounts of relations, and the American media, which oversimplifies the issues surrounding them, I will provide the unique understanding of a Polish-American student of Russia and its environs. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!

Sochi Winter Olympics 2014: A Primer

On Thursday, June 27, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a discussion on the security concerns surrounding the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics with Sergei Markedonov, a visiting fellow with CSIS’s Russia and Eurasia Program. Markedonov presented his main concerns regarding the security of the Sochi Games, launching in just seven months.

I was lucky enough to spend a week in Sochi in 2010, as Russia began its preparations for the Games. The gorgeous mountains, seaside, and Olympic propaganda plastered on every billboard revealed little of the region’s precarious geopolitical position and fraught ethnic history. Of course, I dug deeper, both during my trip in interactions with locals and as a graduate student. What follows–I hope–is a digestible primer on the issues surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, based on my own knowledge and views presented by Markedonov.

A view from a mountain near Sochi, looking down on the town and sea below.
A view from a mountain near Sochi, looking down on the town and sea below.

Sochi is located between the Black Sea and the famed North Caucasus mountains (the range where the Ancient Greeks thought Prometheus was chained to his famed rock). Sochi was enveloped by the Russian empire in the late 19th century after the Caucasian War, and since then, it has developed the reputation of Russia’s “Summer Capital,” where good Russian and Soviet citizens–the last Tsars, Stalin*, and Putin among them–flock to get their fill of sea air and sunbathing.

That’s what you’d find on the back of a postcard, anyway. Markedonov has a different view of regional geography: he finds Sochi’s proximity to instability paramount. The city is situated just 200 kilometers from the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, which Markedonov cited as the third most active terrorist zone in Russia. While terrorist activity in the North Caucasus region has declined in recent years, a Dagestani militant group has openly threatened the 2014 Games.

The causes of these protracted conflicts are varied and impossible to pinpoint, yet all have at least a shade of nationalism at their core. The Caucasian War, which brought more than 50 indigenous ethnic groups into the Russian Empire largely against their will, fomented these nationalist feelings. The end of the war was sealed with the forcible expulsion and eradication of one of the ethnic groups–the Circassians–from the region, referred to by many academics, human rights activists, and anti-Russian governments as the Circassian Genocide. The Circassian Congress claims 400,000 ethnic Circassians were killed, while 497,000 were forced to migrate to Turkey, leaving only 80,000 ethnic Circassians in their native lands at the end of the Caucasian war.

The snowy peaks of the North Caucasus, taken near Krasnaya Polyana, Putin's favorite resort, where some Olympic events will be held.
The snowy peaks of the North Caucasus, taken near Krasnaya Polyana, Putin’s favorite resort, where some Olympic events will be held.

On top of terrorism and genocide, Sochi is also in close proximity to the international conflict between Russia and neighboring Georgia, which resulted in armed conflict in August 2008. Since the Five Day War, the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which fall within Georgia’s borders, have become de facto Russian republics, cut off from Georgia and its government. Russian-Georgian reconciliation has been essentially non-existent; until Bidzina Ivanishvili was elected as Prime Minister last fall, the Georgian government threatened to boycott the 2014 Games. And who can blame them, with threat of terrorism, the ghost of genocide, and ongoing international disputes surrounding the host city?

With seven months before the opening of the Games, Russia has some scrambling to do to improve Sochi 2014’s image at home and abroad. Markedonov posited that with “creativity in public relations” and “a high standard of security service and inter-ethnic understanding,” the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics might just get off the ground without incident. Russia, of course, cannot afford “incidents.” The Games are of symbolic importance to the country; being the first held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, Markedonov believes they represent Russia’s return to the “major leagues” of international policy.

I have no doubts regarding Russia’s ability to create a physically secure environment for Sochi 2014. They’ll just send in rows of OMON–riot police–like they have for years. Add a few security checkpoints, no doubt ethnically targeted, and the event will be secure in Russia’s eyes. But public relations and inter-ethnic understanding have never been Russia’s strong suit, and the very security precautions taken in 2014 may simply provide new fodder for old conflicts.

A statue of Neptune overlooking the Sochi boardwalk.
A statue of Neptune overlooking the Sochi boardwalk.

*Interesting fact: Stalin had a summer house in Sochi, complete with bunker and underground tunnel to the shore. You can visit it when you’re in town for the Olympics.

Russia: A State Without Identity

Russian friends and acquaintances often tell me, “Nina, you have a Russian soul. That’s why you get along with us so well.” I’m not certain what components of my personality contribute to the Russian part of my soul, though. Does my love of the arts play a role? My interest in history or literature? What about my undying devotion to sour cream?

Russians balk at defining the elusive concept, simply branding me as “one of theirs (svoi chelovek).” Their hesitation is understandable; how can they define the Russian characteristics in me without first defining their own national identity?

The enigma of Russian identity dominated a discussion on Russian and American national identity in the modern world, sponsored by the Valdai Discussion Club and Georgetown University.

The comparison of two societies which viewed each other as the ultimate foe for the better part of a century may be unexpected, but some major similarities between the states exist.  They are both multi-ethnic (Russia boasts of over 100 different nationalities). To varying degrees, they are both multi-confessional. And they are both geographically large. Yet thanks to historical narratives, the paths to national identity in the United States and Russia have very different end points; while Russia faces a “crisis of identity,” belief in American exceptionalism persists even in the face of crisis.

Discussants described Russia as a state “without identity,” focused more on the effects of history on its identity than actively shaping its identity for the future. While the main components of Russian identity are understood as its state, territorial, ideological, and religious identities, none of these components are universally understood by the population. The lack of consistent historical narrative over the past 100 years has befuddled Russia’s place and purpose. Whether the Russian Federation a successor state to the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, whether the RF is Orthodox or multi-confessional in practice as well as in rhetoric, and whether the country has a system of governance similar to a western-style democracy or an energy superpower has caused Russians to throw up their hands and construct no coherent identity for the Russian state in the 21st century.

Instead, Russians profess that though they understand themselves poorly, they are certain that Russia is a unique state that must define its own future without advice or influence from abroad. Russian elites view the country an independent, influential, highly developed, multinational state (in which ethnic Russians play an important and irreplaceable role), with strong central rule, rule of law, and social justice. In light of its splintered national identity, whether the Russian Federation will ever achieve this image of itself remains to be seen.

Notably lacking from Russia’s conception of its identity are views on the importance of balance of power, representation in democratic bodies, the importance of an opposition, and human rights, all of which figure prominently into the United States’ perception of its identity. According to a variety of sources, Americans understand their country’s success primarily as a result of its institutions and the freedoms they protect.

The importance of a single historical narrative cannot be underestimated in the American case. Though the United States is a young nation, its identity was conceived in 1776 and maintained and bolstered in the years to come. As discussants pointed out, simply because we often question whether government continues to uphold the principles that contribute to our identity does not make our American identity any less true.

While the American narrative has shaped and solidified our identity, a century of institutional changes, each heralding the opposite of what came before it, has left Russia asking “What is the Russian identity?” Though as participants agreed, that question is as central to Russian identity as Russia itself.

What We Can Learn from Boston

It’s been over a week since the Boston Marathon Bombings and everyone- the Post-Soviet world especially- is up in arms and glued to the news. I had my own reasoning for refreshing Twitter obsessively; as a recreational runner, the tragedy shook me to my core. As a student of Russia and its many problematic relationships, the bombers’ connection to Chechnya certainly piqued my interest.

Like many others, I was ashamed at our nation’s collective ignorance of geography and world history, not to mention our complete lack of cultural sensitivity. “I can’t believe this is how Americans think,” I found myself repeating. But I quickly retreated from those feelings. After all, you can’t lambaste someone for stereotyping when you yourself engage in it.

It’s hard to stop myself, though, particularly since everyone’s doling out their fair share of stereotyping lately. Caucasus experts are parsing the media’s every work for hints of racism and an obvious (and forgivable) lack of in-depth knowledge. Human rights activists are searching for the one tiny proverbial needle of “typical cop behavior” in the haystack of bravery and service displayed by law enforcement agencies. Anti-government crazies of all types are uncovering conspiracy theories demonstrating — you guessed it — the American government’s stereotypical behavior. And the media machine feeds it all, spinning and speculating.

Rather than reeling from these fictitious hurts which distract from the very real damage inflicted during the attack- not to mention the other tragedies that have occurred in the interim, such as explosions in West, Texas, the use of chemical warfare in Syria, and daily IED explosions in the Middle East- I suggest that we use the tragedy to learn some fairly simple lessons. They’re not lessons on the governmental scale, but they are small changes we can each make to ensure our response to the next tragic event is more informed.

1. Make it our personal mission to be better informed about geography. I’m not expecting everyone to know the details of the Chechen conflict. But in the age of the internet, the least we can do is google “Chechnya” to find that it is not, in fact, the same as Czechoslovakia (which, by the way, has not existed since 1993). Pass this information on. Inform your fellow citizens. Don’t rely on the hastily-reported facts in the news.

2. Trust in the American justice system. The information age has made us so hungry for details as soon as they become uncovered that we have more information about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev now than we might have before a trial ten or even five years ago. Investigations such as this take time, even though the investigative methods available to us have advanced. There is no need to pressure law enforcement officials to release all relevant details to the press immediately. And there is certainly no need to listen to police scanners to the degree that the public was during the hunt for Tsarnaev; how easily might the information found on the scanner have been disseminated to Tsarnaev himself as he attempted to outrun police?

3. Don’t feed the media machine. While everyone is slamming the media for inaccurate and hasty reporting, all they are really doing is feeding a demand that we created. As I’ve already admitted, I am guilty of obsessively refreshing to feed my news needs as well, but this only encourages the very behavior we have loudly protested.

These small corrections to our own individual behavior might serve us in the long run; with a responsive, accountable, and careful news media and a smarter American public, perhaps in the future a time of national mourning won’t be forfeit for embarrassment on a global scale.