Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#10 - JRL 7244
Salt Lake Tribune
June 29, 2003
Russian View: Questions about Iraq war go way beyond Saddam's ouster
By Michael Nakoryakov
Salt Lake Tribune Columnist
Michael Nakoryakov is editor of The Tribune's World Desk. For many years, he was a journalist in Moscow. Send Nakoryakov an e-mail at michaelvn@sltrib.com

In an old, but still much-loved in Russia, TV serial about a heroic Soviet spy posing as a German colonel in wartime Berlin, a mean but oddly likable Nazi general says, "We are losing the war now and will lay low for awhile. But the instant someone somewhere, instead of saying 'good morning,' says 'Heil, someone,' we'll know it's our time again."

A good point. Except, despite all the years since the Nazis lost the big war, there has been no day when that general wouldn't have found a place to feel right at home. In fact, the Soviet agent's own country at that time, with Josef Stalin's personality cult and gulags, would have worked just fine.

Another such place recently was transformed, by the U.S. and British military might, into something different. It's not yet quite clear what, but different. In any case, Saddam Hussein, dead or alive, is not coming back.

But the long-range impact of the Iraq war on world politics, namely on what actions can be considered acceptable to change inhumane regimes, won't be determined in Iraq.

It's U.S. public opinion, and the United States' wobbly allies, and maybe even -- drum roll -- the United Nations, which will have to say OK, we had our reservations, but that may be the way to go if we face a brutal and dangerous regime like Saddam's and nothing else worked. Or not.

Neither has happened yet. Actually, when Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that the Palestinian militant group Hamas is "an enemy of peace," it was kind of confusing. Because it's not any peace Hamas can't live with, just a peace that includes Israel's existence. If the Jewish state were not where it is, there would have been no Hamas or Islamic Jihad. But Israel is there to stay, it's the only true democracy in the region, it's strong and occasionally arrogant. So, no peace?

Many years ago, one of Powell's predecessor at State, Alexander Haig, once muttered, "there are things more important than peace." He meant things like freedom and justice, of course. But at the time, Haig's words pretty much killed him politically. Everybody was furious, and not just the Russians. For a reason -- in those nuclear years, coexistence and deterrence equaled humankind's survival.

That's not necessarily the case anymore.

After the first Gulf War, Iraq was a relatively peaceful place. People were disappearing, they were tortured and killed in prisons, no freedoms were allowed and chemical weapons were developed. But there arguably was more peace at the time than when U.S. bombs started falling on Baghdad in March. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Iraqis died in the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some freedom. From that standpoint, it was President Bush who was an "enemy of peace," not Saddam.

But, at the very least, the toppled Saddam statues and freed political prisoners manifested the end of a Nazi-like era and a glimpse of a hope that just was not there before.

And whatever is going on now in Iraq, hope already is a luxury, a dream, for many people who live not too far away to the east, in the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan. A 30-foot statue of Saddam? How about a 100-foot statue of the dear leader Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashi)? That statue, seen from the international airport (which also is named after Niyazov), is covered with gold, and it revolves 360 degrees every 24 hours so everybody can admire it.

Last year, Turkmenbashi ("father of all Turkmen"), a former Communist leader and member of Mikhail Gorbachev's Politburo and now a lifetime leader of a country the size of California, decided to rename all the months of the year and days of the week after himself, his relatives and his favorite folk heroes. April is expected to be named after his late mother, Gurbansoltan.

Funny as it might sound, it is not. Just listen to Leonid Komarovsky, a Russian journalist who was accused of an alleged "assassination attempt" on Turkmenbashi. Komarovsky managed to get away after five months of torture and beating, primarily because he also happened to have U.S. citizenship. "For others, that meant death," Komarovsky said from Moscow. "Those guys were serious. Most everybody else got life terms, with no proof of their guilt whatsoever."

Unlike its neighbors, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan -- the poorest ex-Soviet republic despite vast natural gas and oil resources -- refused to welcome U.S. troops during the Afghanistan campaign. It did, though, allow U.N. humanitarian shipments through. And it tentatively backed the U.S. assault in Iraq. Maybe the U.S. pledge of a $2 billion investment in a gas pipeline there helped.

There may not be weapons of mass destruction yet in Turkmenistan.

But what if the "great leader," who apparently is not entirely sane, chooses -- for whatever reason -- to attack, say, Iran? Maybe not today, given Iran's vast military superiority. Tomorrow, then?

What exactly would the United States do? Right now, dictatorial as it is, Turkmenistan is among the most stable countries in the region.

There is no simple answer, which might be a good thing. Simple answers and quick fixes are something Turkmenbashi -- and Saddam -- would have liked. But having some contingency plan would not hurt.

Top   Next