Stalin's ghost shapes 21st century crises in Europe

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  Aug. 15, 2008 at 1:32 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- Josef Stalin has been dead 55 years, but suddenly he's shaping the 21st century a lot more than Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates or Al Gore.

For the borders the notorious Soviet communist dictator drew in the Caucasus in 1918 and in Central Europe in 1945 have now emerged as some of the most dangerous flash points in the world -- and they aren't going to magically disappear either.

It was Stalin, as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's commissar for nationalities, who made the current conflict and East-West crisis over the former Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus inevitable.

As commissar for nationalities, Stalin specialized in drawing borders that were conflicting, contradictory, deliberately ambiguous and confusing, impossible to maintain and expressly designed to pit neighboring peoples against each other for generations to come. Having studied carefully the ancient Roman principle of "divide and rule," he applied that to the new Soviet state he helped Lenin to construct.

As a result, from the very beginning, the Soviet republic of Georgia in the Caucasus was saddled with two quasi-autonomous internal regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that were encouraged to look to the Soviet capital in Moscow for survival and protection against the local Georgian rulers down in Tbilisi.

In the 16 and a half years since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, successive Russian governments and the Russian army have consistently backed the Abkhazians and the South Ossetians to the hilt, enabling them to maintain their effective independence from Georgia.

But Georgia didn't have a prayer of entering the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization until it could plausibly prove that it wasn't fighting any civil wars or dealing with any secessionist regions on its territory. The long-standing requirements for NATO admission were quite explicit on that account.

From this perspective, it was perfectly understandable for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to respond to Russian-backed South Ossetian artillery fire by unleashing his own army, supposedly strengthened by U.S. and NATO advisers and equipment, to liquidate the South Ossetian enclave. The accepted double-speak for such operations is to call them "surgical."

But neither Saakashvili nor his enthusiastic mentors in the Bush administration who vastly overestimated Georgian military capabilities ever dreamed the Russian army would respond in overwhelming strength, even though the print and broadcast media in Moscow had been signaling clearly, months in advance, that this would happen.

Now the divisions between the South Ossetians and the Georgians are deeper than ever. The South Ossetians and the Russians claim that the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali was heavily bombarded by the Georgian army, killing up to 2,000 people. There is no doubt that the Russian counterattack into Georgia that started on Aug. 10 killed thousands more.

However, as even the far smaller toll of dead and dispossessed refugees created by the August 1969 sectarian riots in Belfast, Northern Ireland, proved, that kind of bitter, small-scale, local ethnic conflict creates hatred, bitterness and mutual suspicion on both sides that take at least 30 years to clear.

That was true in Northern Ireland, even though the British and Irish governments over the past 25 years worked together hard and responsibly to try to bring peace. It will be far harder to heal the wounds in the Caucasus, where the Russians and the Georgians hate each other like poison.

Score one for Stalin.

Now, another border Stalin drew looks like it's becoming an even more dangerous flash point for U.S.-Russian confrontation in the next few years than Georgia. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, warned at a Moscow press conference Friday that Russia would respond to Poland's decision to allow a U.S. ballistic missile defense base to be built on its territory by targeting Poland with its own missiles.

Earlier this year, Russian top officials said their response to a U.S. BMD base built on Polish soil would include deploying short-range ground-to-ground missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast.

Kaliningrad juts into Polish territory like a far from benign tumor. Guess what statesman insisted on drawing its boundaries and reserving it for Russia? It was, of course, Josef Stalin, after conquering the region -- previously German East Prussia -- with his Red Army in the early months of 1945.

Score two for Stalin: His 21st century batting average is already amazingly good. It may get even better.

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