Russia vs Georgia: a war of perceptions

29 08 2007

Donald Rayfield in Open Democracy

This was followed on the night of 21 August by the entry of a Russian military jet which seems to have discharged a missile which fell on a cornfield (and also did not ignite) in the vicinity of Georgia’s border with the disputed territory of South Ossetia.

Both incidents have been given the full diplomatic treatment – official statements, condemnations, appeals to scientific evidence, calls for solidarity from allies and the international community (including the United Nations). The west’s anxiety about becoming embroiled in further confrontation with Russia mean that Georgia’s attempts to bring its grievance over Russian behaviour to the attention of the Security Council will probably be as ineffective as the missile itself. There is a recent precedent: the Russia-originated cyber-attack on Estonia in April-May 2007 which targeted the government’s computer system – in apparent revenge for Estonia’s moving of a city-centre statue commemorating the country’s “liberation” by the Red Army in 1944 – has not met with any effective protest or sanctions.

But if Georgia will find it difficult to persuade the world to take the incidents seriously enough, the violation of its territory is part of a pattern that reveals much about the mindset currently animating Russian policy. A key aspect of this is the deep xenophobia that pervades Russian politics and public opinion directed at Americans, western Europeans, and Chinese but, above all, at the people of nations which have secured their independence since the fall of the Soviet Union. In this sense the Georgians are only one target of a wider “blame culture” in Moscow (as the Estonia example confirms). But it is also the case that the bitterness directed against them (and reciprocated in full) reflects the illusions of a Russia that thinks it “knows” and understands Georgia – and has not yet understood that, in fact, it no longer does.

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