09 Aug 2008

Split-Screen Olympic News Coverage

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Anne Applebaum caught a totalitarian news double-header on television last night.

The rise of China to the status of a major economic power and relative prosperity creates opportunities its regime is only too likely to misuse. Meanwhile, Russia was delivering a lesson on how to misuse power.

For the best possible illustration of why Islamic terrorism may one day be considered the least of our problems, look no farther than the BBC’s split-screen coverage of yesterday’s Olympic opening ceremonies. On one side, fireworks sparkled, and thousands of exotically dressed Chinese dancers bent their bodies into the shape of doves, the cosmos and more. On the other side, gray Russian tanks were shown rolling into South Ossetia, a rebel province of Georgia. The effect was striking: Two of the world’s rising powers were strutting their stuff.

The difference, of course, is that one event has been rehearsed for years, while the other, if not a total surprise, was not actually scheduled to take place this week. That, too, is significant: The Chinese challenge to Western power has been a long time coming, and it is in a certain sense predictable. As a rule, the Chinese do not make sudden moves and do not try to provoke crises.

Russia, by contrast, is an unpredictable power, which makes responding to Moscow more difficult. In fact, Russian politics have become so utterly opaque that it is not easy to say why this particular “frozen” conflict has escalated right now. …

Previous tensions, both in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the other piece of Georgia that has declared sovereignty, have somehow been resolved without a war. Someone, clearly, wanted this one to go further.

Both sides have deeper motives for fighting. The Russians want to prevent Georgia from joining NATO, as Georgia, a Western-oriented democracy — George Bush has called the country a ” beacon of liberty” — has long wanted to do. In this, they will almost certainly succeed: No Western power has any interest in a military ally that is involved in a major military conflict with Russia.

The Georgian leadership, by contrast, had come to believe that the constant pressure of Russian aggression, coupled with the West’s failure to accept Georgia into NATO, compelled them to demonstrate “self-reliance.” President Mikheil Saakashvili has indeed been buying weapons in preparation for this moment. Those who know him say he believed a military conflict was inevitable but could be won if conducted cleverly. As of last night, with Russian soldiers fighting in South Ossetia — only a few dozen miles from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital — it seemed as though he might have miscalculated, badly. Russia has not sent 150 tanks across that border in order to lose.

Svante Cornell believes Russian behavior is all about Georgia’s potential NATO membership.

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