Although the Cold War has receded in the rear-view mirror, there remain significant lessons learned then, that at times need repeating, over and over. One Cold War practice, started in Washington back in 1959, which still has considerable merit and importance is in publicly stating solidarity for captive nations.
The third week of July has for the last 47 years seen the White House proclaim "Captive Nations Week". It was during this week that Balts and Eastern Europeans, among others, were able to remind the West forcefully and without fear of retribution that their nations, once free, were captive. In our case, captured by the Soviet Union, either as SSRs or as Warsaw Pact countries enchained behind the Iron Curtain.
Today, with our countries now once again free, safe in the bosom of NATO as well as having membership in most if not all of the international alphabet organizations that matter, some Estonians and Latvians, Lithuanians perhaps give little thought to captive nations week. They should, because as The Economist's central and eastern Europe correspondent Edward Lucas wrote last week, the Cold War gets remarkably blurred in hindsight. The principle of commemorating the captive nations — including those now un-captive — is, as Lucas writes, still quite important. For starters, it reminds the family of free countries that the Soviet Union was "not just a failed economic system; it was an empire".
That reminder puts many of today's world events back into stark focus. Consider that not all of the captive nations of 1959 days are free. Some new ones have even been added to the list of captives. And while Soviet-style communism has been twisted into a market-driven system in China and perverted even further by a delusional megalomaniac in North Korea, Russia has been quietly transformed into what Lucas terms Putinland.
Lucas lists a number of captive nations that are still under what "any fairminded outsider would call colonial rule". Turkestan (under Chinese control) is perhaps the most obvious; less so are the captive Chechens, Ingush, the Karelians and the Mari. When well meaning but ignorant westerners dismiss, say the Ingush, by stating that they have never known statehood by, say, the European standard, then the importance of captive nations week becomes that much more clear. Colonial rule in this day and age cannot be justified by any means.
Then there are other countries which are indeed free, but are disintegrating, once again thanks to Moscow. Lucas underlines how "Kremlin-backed illegal statelets" in Georgia and Moldova are contributing to insecurity in the region and, yes, re-integration into Putinland.
Here Lucas notes the importance of NATO membership for the Baltic nations. They might very well be in the grey zone of places - similar to Georgia and Moldova - where Russia demands that its interest be accommodated if it were not for NATO. As non-captive free nations and NATO members - "though there are constant pinpricks of mischief-making", the Baltic republics are "firmly out of the game".
The fact that marking "Captive Nations Week" no longer captures the attention of our community to the degree that it did before Ronald Reagan forcefully told Mihkail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall is perhaps a good thing. We can dedicate attention to the positive aspects of state building and keeping a democratic polity informed. But on the other hand, it should not lead to any complacency.
The last two paragraphs of Edward Lucas' article emphasize this eloquently, and are reproduced below in full.
"Ex-captive nations, like ex-kidnap victims, deserve a special ration of sympathy and support. That is not always forthcoming from the rich, timid and lazy countries of 'old Europe'. [Mikheil] Saakashvili told me of a letter to Woodrow Wilson he had discovered written from Georgian freedom fighters around the time that their country's brief post-1917 statehood was being crushed by the Soviet Union. "If you don't help us, no one will," the signatories had written. The letter never reached the White House and all those involved were jailed; most never saw freedom again.
It is to George W. Bush's credit that he wants to keep expanding NATO, first to the western Balkans, and then to Georgia and (if it survives) Ukraine. It would be nice if that enthusiasm were echoed more loudly in the lucky half of Europe that was spared communist captivity."
Thanks, Mr Lucas, for reminding a large and significant audience why "Captive Nations Week" still matters.
Captive nations in focus