Foggy at the bottom
Arvamus 29 Sep 2010  EWR
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E.L. (Edward Lucas) | LONDON, Eastern Approaches,, Sept. 29

PETER HITCHENS is a forceful, tenacious, eloquent and brave journalist. Readers with long memories may remember his extraordinary coverage of the revolution in Romania in 1989, or more recently his intrepid travels to places such as North Korea. He lambasts woolly thinking and crooked behaviour at home and abroad.

But one of his weaknesses is a soft spot for big countries, and a blind spot for smaller ones. His recent piece about Ukraine (or more accurately about why Ukraine should belong to Russia) is a dismaying lapse. The main thrust is that Ukraine's language law is absurd and that Crimea is historically Russian. This latter point may come as a surprise to the Crimean Tartars who were deported en masse in 1944. That great crime, and the Tartars' attempts to regain some status in their ancestral homeland, receive not a single mention in Hitchens's piece. It is true that Ukraine's post-independence borders are a mish-mash (much of what he says applies to Odessa too). But his wider and wilder swipes are startlingly wrong.

An example:

Now the creation of a fanciful new country called Ukraine, less than 20 years ago, is running into trouble as many of its inhabitants prefer to be Russian.

It would be nice to see some polling data to support that. (None exists). But it gets worse.

We insisted on humiliating the Kremlin, when Mikhail Gorbachev had kindly dismantled the communist machine. We sponsored annoying mini-states next door to Russia.

Just read that again. First it is insulting to the millions of people who through their own bravery and vision helped overthrow the evil empire. Mr Gorbachev, ducking, weaving and waffling at the top, played a part. But only a part.

Then comes the zinger: "annoying mini-states". That must mean among other countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who remerged from communist captivity in 1991 (with, it should be said, the heartfelt and generous support of the then Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin). Mr Hitchens appears to be arguing that they should have stayed inside Russia, volens nolens, and that the West should not have lifted a finger to help them. I wonder if he has given much thought to what that would mean for the people concerned, now safely inside the EU and NATO (they like it there, even if Mr Hitchens detests the EU and disparages NATO).

If he really wants to experience the iciest form of Estonian politeness (which is pretty scary) he should go to Tallinn and present his advice in public.

It is tempting to give the piece a thorough fisking. But that might be to give it undue weight. The blogger Democratist gives it a bucket of bile. Among his milder comments he calls it:

a badly written, willfully misleading, dangerous apologia for the advancing specter of revanchist Russian imperialism
He also suggests that it is part of a wider PR effort to sanitise Russia's image.

That is unfair to Mr Hitchens. Just because he is wrong on this does not mean that he is anybody's poodle. But it is true that foreign coverage of countries close to Russia has had some other notable lapses of late. At Estonia's new English-language news portal, Scott Diel has a fine piece unpicking two recent reports about Estonia's language law, one from NPR, the other from the New York Times.

The common thread here is wishful thinking. Given the mess created by Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, no policy in 1991 was going to be completely fair to everyone. Giving Crimea to Russia would have created one set of problems. Keeping it Ukraine meant another. Similarly with language and citizenship laws: a "zero-option" in which all residents of the Estonian and Latvian Soviet Socialist Republics automatically became citizens of the restored independent states would have looked tidy on paper but been messy in practice—not least in stoking ill-feeling among ethnic Estonians and Latvians, who would have felt hugely hard done-by much greater need to fight linguistic and demographic russification. The roads taken have indeed been bumpy. But Mr Hitchens's alternative is both insulting and impractical.

The original with all the interesting click-on links is available here:
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