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Archive for August, 2008

In case you missed it, Vladimir “don’t call me Guerrero” Putin blamed the United States for the conflict in Georgia (the one in the Caucasus, not the one next door to Florida).

“The suspicion would arise that someone in the United States created this conflict on purpose to stir up the situation and to create an advantage for one of the candidates in the competitive race for the presidency in the United States,” Mr. Putin said in an interview with CNN.

He added, “They needed a small victorious war.”

Hmm, that wouldn’t be a military adventure to support the candidacy of John McCain, would it?

In Washington, the White House spokeswoman, Dana M. Perino, dismissed Mr. Putin’s remarks. “To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate just sounds not rational,” she said.

Well, in fairness, it’d be the Bush Administration orchestrating the little escapade. And we’d never dream the Bush Administration could do something to benefit their cronies and pals. Never.

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Another interesting article I saw on the Beeb addresses the ongoing struggles for Roma children to gain equal access to education, focusing on the challenges Czech Roma have faced in getting their children into regular schools.

For decades or more, Roma in the former Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe have often been placed in “special schools” for the disabled, allegedly because they suffer from learning disorders. Many Czechs have claimed and still claim that Roma merely suffer from a higher incidence of such disabilities, but most observers recognize that it’s simply a way of segregating Roma children from the non-Roma (i.e., Czech) school population.

There has been progress on this front, but it remains slow — the Czech government abolished the special schools two years ago, but from at least some appearances, it just means a cosmetic change with no real substance.

A big part of the problem, as the story mentions, is that teachers still believe the stereotypes about Roma being lazy, blaming the parents of Roma children for not doing more to educate them at home in order to prepare them for school. As a consequence, many educators claim they have to spend a lot of time on remedial instruction, which means many Roma children finish their education (however far they advance) with no practical job skills, leaving them qualified only for menial, manual labor … assuming workplace discrimination doesn’t shut them out of those jobs as well.

The Czech Education Minister, Ondrej Liska, says changing attitudes is his greatest challenge.

“We can’t say to those who teach like this: you have to go. That would lead to a collapse of the school system.”

“I want to see in two years that teachers in schools with a high percentage of Roma children have appropriate training and I want to see a major shift in these schools – but I can’t say: tomorrow you have to change the philosophy you’ve been teaching with for 20 years.”

It’s sad, but true. There seem to be few social stigmas about voicing such attitudes openly. I still recall our first week in Bratislava last summer, when we went to eat with our landlord, and he warned me as we got on the tram about “Gypsies,” since they “organize in groups and steal.” A lot of Czechs and Slovaks, educated or not, express similar views.

For instance, Petr Bokuvka, a Czech journalist, seems to echo these views in a recent blog post about Czech Roma seeking asylum in Canada.

The Roma are making a huge mistake and I am afraid the majority society will develop even stronger negative attitude towards them: Czechs who decide to change their lives and live abroad NORMALLY find a job there and THEN they move. Or they just go there and offer their knowledge and experience, or just anything they have to offer.

Nope, many Czech Roma just go to Canada BECAUSE THEY KNOW how much the welfare benefits are. Ten years ago Canada introduced visa, by which its government said Roma had in fact been abusing the system. And now it’s back…

It sounds quite similar to various Americans (generally of a more conservative political persuasion) uttering similar pronouncements about “[insert name of immigrant group] being too lazy and not working.”

And it reminds me of something I encountered in an anonymous letter sent to a Slovak Communist official in 1960, complaining about the Slovak rights of self-rule the Czech leader Antonín Novotný “stole like a Gypsy.”

Since I profess no real expertise on Roma issues, I recommend learning more from the European Roma Rights Centre.

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The Beeb has an interesting story about the high points of Cold War themes in popular culture, from books to films and TV, as well as some of the ways in which Cold War-based franchises and creators — Do you expect Bond to die off? No, I expect him to adapt. — coped with the geopolitical changes that deprived them of their former fodder and resonance.

This retrospective follows from fears of a new Cold War in light of the Russo-Georgian War, and whether we might see a shift back toward Cold War tropes. (In my opinion, anything that leads to fewer products demonizing Arabs and Muslims while raising the specter of terrorism is probably a good thing. Of course, it’d be nice if we got a more nuanced view of Russians for a change, but at least the stereotypes of Russians I grew up with weren’t the sort of thing that led people to discriminate against them openly and instinctively.)

Bonus points to the story for referencing the underrated but deeply pleading and topical “Russians.”

But negative points for leaving out the original “Delta Force” film, which managed bizarrely to portray as bad guys an evidently Arab/Muslim terrorist group that was also Marxist. It was almost as if they had amalgamated the rival sides in the whole Soviet-Afghan conflict, instead of appreciating a certain, you know, mutual animosity. But, hey, at least it featured Chuck Norris delivering a classic movie line in French, acknowledging that, oui, he was from the “CBC du Canada.” (As opposed to the CBC du America, you know.)

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Pantsed

From the funny file:

A man who chose “Lloyds is pants” as his telephone banking password said he found it had been changed by a member of staff to “no it’s not”.

Steve Jetley, from Shrewsbury, said he chose the password after falling out with Lloyds TSB over insurance that came free with an account.

He said he was then banned from changing it back or to another password of “Barclays is better”.

This reminds me of a story I read when whatever telecom rebranded itself as Verizon. With the name change, the company hoped to prevent negative publicity by registering some absurd number of domain names like verizonsucks.com, verizonblows.com, etc. Of course, the zeal for positive image branding didn’t necessarily outmaneuver the ingenuity of Verizon’s foes, since the company couldn’t possibly dream up all the possible permutations, like verizonreallysucks.com, or something like that, so I once read.

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Evidently the “Redeem Team” is showing they have a heart of gold as well, writes ESPN’s Chris Sheridan.

LeBron James gave a pair of sneakers to a 12-year-old girl at a practice, spotting her in the stands with her mother and motioning her down to meet the team and get a unique souvenir. OK, nice little touch, even if the Nikes cost him nothing (and the laborers — perhaps from a local sweatshop, even! — were probably paid next to nothing for producing them).

But the evidence of Kobe Bryant’s common touch? He shook hands with a volunteer, who burst into tears of joy, and he noticed her reaction. Evidently Kobe earns good-guy points for taking notice when someone reminds him of just how big and famous he is. Uh, yeah.

Or how about Kobe Bryant, Mr. All-America, for obliterating a U.S. men’s water polo player in a “friendly” game of “PIG.” Way to connect with another Olympian (albeit one without a lucrative sneaker contract), but starting your shootout with a dunk.

Then there’s Dwyane Wade’s moment of decency, when he was shocked to see his own mug hawking bottles of Gatorade and a souvenir stand by the Great Wall.

“Once I get down from my long journey, like a 45-minute walk, now I’m thirsty. So I’m looking for something to drink, and lo and behold I see a Gatorade. And I’m like: ‘Can I get a Gatorade?’ and they asked for some crazy amount of money, like 3,000 [yuan], and I looked at it and I saw my picture, and I looked at them and said, ‘This is me,’ and she was like, ‘No, no. Money!’ So I have to come up with the money. I had to buy three or four of them because of how thirsty I was, and I didn’t even haggle her down. The kid in me came out. I was shocked to see my face on it. I’ve been with Gatorade [as an endorser] a couple years, but it just shocked me at that moment that I was there, on the bottle. So I invested into Gatorade as well.”

First off, 3,000 yuan is almost $440, and no matter how much vendors like to gouge tourists, I really, really doubt any hawker is going to try to get hundreds of dollars for a bottle of Gatorade (unless they were just being savvy and figuring Wade might pay through the nose for a unique souvenir bearing his own likeness). But I also like how Wade makes it sound like he thought he should get the Gatorade for free just because his face adorned it. Um, yeah. You’re dealing with people who are probably pretty poor, albeit in a rapidly developing country, and you expect them to offer you a gift?

Team USA, full of guys who try to let others bask in their reflected glory every once in a while.

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It feels a bit gratifying to have one of the presidential nominees taking the time to address the historical epoch of my dissertation.

On the other hand, I have to take issue with his characterization of events (mostly the assertion that Czechoslovakia went Communist and joined the Warsaw Pact not by choice, but because Soviet tanks occupied the country at the end of the Cold War). At best it’s an oversimplification, but at worst it shows how much politicians, analysts and others — to say nothing of the general public — seem to lack a more nuanced understanding of things. I hope this isn’t indicative of anyone’s grasp on current world events, but I fear it is.

I also find it a bit weird how, in the video, Obama keeps mentioning the Czech Republic (along with countries such as Ukraine, Estonia and Bulgaria), but never mentions Slovakia. To his credit, he does make a point of speaking of “Czechs and Slovaks,” as opposed to “Czechoslovaks” or just “Czechs,” but it’s a little weird, and I kept wondering if he was deliberately slighting Slovakia, or if he’s just like McCain and forgets Czechoslovakia went out of business in 1993.

But, yeah, it’s nice to have my brief moment of relevance, even if no one will remember it tomorrow.

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Passive resistance in the face of overwhelming Soviet force on the streets of Bratislava

Passive resistance in the face of overwhelming Soviet force on the streets of Bratislava

 

 

It was forty years ago today,

The Russians decided to invade.

Another country made to toe the line,

Something else for the world to malign.

Let me remind you once again,

Of events long forgotten from your head.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

(Apologies to the Beatles)

Shortly before midnight on 20 August 1968, troops from five Warsaw Pact nations (the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria) began to breach the borders of Czechoslovakia to crush a process of reform and liberalization in the ruling Communist Party and Czechoslovak society known colloquially as the Prague Spring.

This year’s fortieth anniversary has seen a lot of retrospectives in the (Slovak and Czech) media and the academic world, mainly because it’s a nice round number (and perhaps in part because the ranks of surviving principals and others who experienced it are dwindling). Why did it happen? Well, short of writing a lengthy treatise on the subject (read my book when it comes out in several years!), the abbreviated explanation focuses on a fear, not wholly unjustified, that the willingness of the reformist Communist leadership in Prague was too reticent to clamp down on the reform process, too unwilling to reimpose censorship and put the genie back in the bottle, that the Kremlin and many other Communist regimes feared not only the loss of Moscow’s hegemony, but also the prospect of the Czechoslovak contagion infecting other countries. The five countries that invaded did so after their escalating pressure on Alexander Dubček and the reform-minded leadership in Czechoslovakia failed to persuade the Prague regime to rein in the (so far) limited democratization, so they took matters into their own hands and intervened militarily.

Of course, the whole business has gained an unexpected and unfortunate note of symmetry with the Russian invasion of Georgia. C has asked me if there are parallels, and perhaps others reminded of this anniversary wonder the same thing, so I’ll ruminate briefly on the question.

On the surface, the parallels might seem weak. The justifications for the two invasions are quite different. Today Russia accuses Georgia of ethnic cleansing directed against the Russian population in South Ossetia. In 1968, the Kremlin said the Czechoslovak Communist leadership had failed to quell threats to socialism.

But probe matters in a bit more depth, and perhaps there are certain similarities. I don’t purport to be an expert in current Russian foreign policy or Caucasian affairs, but I feel like I have enough of a grasp on the current situation to assess the speculation bandied about by talking heads and others commenting on the crisis.

Conventional thinking, at least in the West, interprets the Russo-Georgian War as an attempt on the part of a resurgent Russia to squash a pest in its own backyard and send a message to other post-Communist and -Soviet states. Russia hasn’t thought too highly of overtures from former Soviet republics (whether the three Baltic republics, Ukraine or Georgia) to pursue a line of greater international independence from Moscow in conjunction with closer alliance with various Western institutions like NATO or the European Union. Georgia in particular has irked Russia, since it recently experienced its own “Rose Revolution” that pushed the country toward greater democracy and closer alliance with the West. Georgia has made a play to join NATO, and it’s made a show of its closer ties with the United States, including what was, at least until the Russian incursion into the country, the third-largest contingent of forces in Iraq. And the Kremlin thought none too highly of George W. Bush’s very prominent visit to Tbilisi back in 2005. All of this is intolerable to Moscow, which fears the drift of erstwhile allies and satellites into the U.S./Western camp will encourage other post-Communist states (in the same way Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was seen as encouraging the Georgians a few months later). So, Moscow needed to send a message, and the disputed status of South Ossetia (and, later, Abkhazia) presented a pretext, with the Georgian incursion into the region offering up a handy pretext. If you don’t believe me, just read Gorby’s thoughts in an op-ed in the New York Times:

Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.

Jump back to 1968, and similar thought processes appeared to be at work among the Soviet leadership. Changes in Czechoslovakia in the spring and summer of 1968 — the end of censorship, the proliferation of unsanctioned political organizations and proto-parties, the push for greater democratization and even a multiparty political system — all seemed heretical in light of Communist (read: Soviet) orthodoxy. There was a palpable fear in Moscow (but also among embattled leaders like Władysław Gomułka in Warsaw and Walter Ulbricht in Berlin) that the reform disease could spread beyond Czechoslovakia’s borders and infect other socialist countries. (East Germany took the extreme step of cutting off even the limited travel formerly permissible to Czechoslovakia for its citizens, hoping to nip the problem in the bud.)

Tied to this, Communist leaders around the bloc worried that the drift from Communist orthodoxy would ultimately lead Czechoslovakia out of the Soviet orbit and into the waiting arms of the West. Again, there was some reason to fear this. A key precedent that played a considerable factor in Soviet thinking was the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956, which saw the reformist leader Imre Nagy throw his lot in with the people, effectively renouncing communism, but more importantly, declaring that Hungary had withdrawn from the Warsaw Pact and was appealing to the United Nations for protection against the Soviet invasion. Soviet leaders drew a lot of lessons from Hungary in 1956 that they applied to Czechoslovakia in 1968 (as an aside, Yuri Andropov, who briefly succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as Soviet general secretary in the early 1980s, had been the Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and was head of the KGB in 1968, so I’ve long wondered what role he played in the two crises, but I’ve never seen this noted in the English-language literature).

One such lesson was the importance of having both prior justification and international support. So, the Soviet leaders rallied other bloc countries to help turn the screws on Dubček and Co., and to pledge support for a military action so it wouldn’t appear to simply be a Soviet (read: Russian) invasion of another, nominally sovereign country. (Of course, this genius strategy also meant the multinational force that intervened had Germans invading the Czech Lands and Magyars invading Slovakia, which was not a good formula for winning over the occupied population.) But they also held summits and meetings with the Czechoslovak leaders and tried to secure agreements pledging the Communists in Prague to reimpose orthodoxy on their own (or provide justification for “fraternal assistance” in the absence of such efforts). The agreement signed in Bratislava in early August, for example, later became a key point of justification Moscow cited, though the passages in question were fairly ambiguous (though less flimsy than the WMD claims used to justify the invasion of Iraq). There were also ominous warnings of Western imperialists plotting to destabilize Czechoslovakia to take it out of the Soviet orbit, though these were probably more rhetorical bluster than anything seriously believed, since there was never any indication the United States, NATO or any Western power intended to offer anything more than moral support and symbolic solidarity with the reform movement in Czechoslovakia (another partial contrast to Hungary in 1956, where the Magyar émigrés operating the Magyar-language service of Radio Free Europe made unsubstantiated claims such support would be forthcoming in the final hours before the Soviet invasion). Essentially, Cold War Realpolitik ensured that Washington would let Moscow do whatever it wanted in its own sphere of influence, no matter how distasteful it seemed. (It didn’t help matters that Vietnam was becoming a great big quagmire in 1968.)

To reiterate, there were some parallels at work in the decision-making process in Moscow during the two crises (at least insofar as we can speculate on what’s currently occurring in the Kremlin). And while it might seem like there are crucial geopolitical changes over the past forty years (the end of communism, expansion of NATO and overtures toward greater Western-Russian “partnership”), it remains unclear whether these differences have enough substance. Will the U.S. and/or NATO stand up to Russia? Can they impose sanctions with any real teeth? It’s doubtful. And I think now, as during the Cold War, there isn’t the will to get into a shooting war with Russia. The dénouement in this crisis might well turn out differently — for one thing, I’d be surprised if Russian troops end up occupying Georgia (outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, of course).

Anyway, my main point is to try to draw attention for the day to the anniversary of the invasion, since it’s kind of a big deal to Slovaks and Czechs, and to my dissertation.

Some invasion-related links for further readings:

Ondřej Neff, a journalist with Czechoslovak Radio then and now, remembers the invasion.

The Slovak daily Sme has been posting scanned copies of its previous incarnation as Sme from August 1968. (In Slovak)

A video of a Soviet tank being put in front of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square as part of a new exhibition. (In Czech)

Reader photographs from August 1968.

The Slovak Spectator’s look back on the invasion.

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