Monday, September 20, 2004


Here's another passage from Jonathan Steele's Sept. 8 piece on the meeting with Putin two days earlier:

If Vladimir Putin was feeling the pressure after possibly his worst week in office, it didn't show. During a rare and wide-ranging interview at his country house outside Moscow, the president enthralled a group of handpicked journalists and academics, giving candid comments that offered surprising insights.

And here's one of those comments, which I don't find too enthralling, candid or surprising - though perhaps you have to be there in one room with Putin to get so charmed. Reading it from afar, I feel nothing but repulsion:

Although Russia would not send troops or join in training the Iraqi army and police, [Putin] said: "We want to do everything to normalise things there. I think Bush has done a lot to normalise the situation. Given all the complexities, he's been able to achieve his aims. We will refrain from anything which might be met negatively by the Iraqi people."

Putin didn't say Bush had actually managed to normalise the situation in Iraq - that could pass as candid, I guess, if it didn't require all that reading between the lines. And if what's happening in Iraq now - the hostages, explosions and all - is close to normal, then Chechnya must be like Sweden, close to perfect.

It all suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Thomas Friedman's book, "From Beirut to Jerusalem." The passage - stuck in the middle of the chapter called "The End of Something" - is about Nabil Tabbara, a Beiruti architect and professor of architecture:

Like many of his generation, Tabbara [...] grew up being taken by his father on trips through the Beirut city center. The smell of the bazaar there, its spices and breads, its colors and sounds, and, most of all, the warmth of people mixing together, would always be part of his identity and his sense of Beirut as home. At the height of the civil war in 1976, it appeared that the graceful stone archways and marketplaces of the old city center were going to be destroyed forever. To keep a personal archive for himself of the Beirut he cherished, Tabbara took a leave from his architectural job and decided in the middle of the civil war that he would try to sketch and photograph what remained of the city center before it vanished.

"I didn't know what would be left of the old Beirut," Tabbara explained when I asked him what motivated this personal adventure, "and I always remembered the people of Warsaw who broke into their municipal archives after the Nazis invaded and hid all the plans and drawings of the Warsaw city center, which they used to rebuild it later."

Armed only with his Nikon camera, pencil, and sketchpads, Tabbara spent a month obtaining passes from all the different Muslim and Christian militias fighting along the Green Line, in order to freely enter the battle zone. Then he headed off to capture the last remnants of his youth.

"I would go down to the Phoenicia Hotel every morning, park my car, and then walk to the Green Line," he recalled. "At first the gunmen would say, 'Look at this fool sitting on the rubble sketching with the rockets and bullets going by.' They thought I was absolutely crazy. But after a while they really got into what I was doing. Some days they would lay down a barrage of machine-gun fire to cover me, so I could run across the dangerous street, or they would break into a building so I could get a particular view from the roof."

This last quote never fails to make me cry and laugh at the same time.

In the first chapter (titled "Would You Like to Eat Now or Wait for the Cease-Fire?"), Friedman writes this about Beirut:

I don't know if Beirut is a perfect Hobbesian state of nature, but it is probably the closest thing to it that exists in the world today.

He quotes from Hobbes, too, in that chapter:

In his classic work Leviathan, the seventeenth-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes described what he called "the state of nature" that would exist if government and society completely broke down and the law of the jungle reigned. In such a condition, wrote Hobbes, "where every man is enemy to every man ... there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodities building; no instruments of moving, and removingm such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Some of it is probably an exaggeration when applied to contemporary Chechnya, but as a metaphor it's as good as any: comparing Chechnya's capital Grozny today to what Beirut was some twenty years ago is as evocative as calling Chechnya "a Hobbesian state" - something that David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, promptly does in his most recent commentary ("Prisoners of the Caucasus," issue of Sept. 20, 2004; posted on the web on Sept. 13, 2004):

Chechnya today is as close to a Hobbesian state as exists on earth. Grozny is a moonscape of gas fires, open sewers, and bombed-out buildings. There is almost no legitimate economy: at least seventy-five per cent of the Chechen workforce is unemployed. Criminal gangs dominate the social order. Politicians are assassinated; journalists and aid workers are abducted, even executed. The Russian Army troops who remain are corrupt, lawless, given to raping, kidnapping, and executing civilians. Whatever funds Moscow sends for rebuilding invariably end up stolen.

Although Remnick does refer in his piece to the Sept. 6 meeting with Putin, he, unlike a few others, doesn't appear charmed or misled in any way - maybe because he didn't attend the meeting and thus has managed to keep his common sense intact:

The note Putin struck most distinctly at the meeting with reporters and scholars was one of paranoia, fear that outside forces—the enemies he knew as a K.G.B. officer--were somehow undermining him. Those who mean to “tear off a big chunk of our country,” he said, are being backed by those who “think that Russia, as one of the greatest nuclear powers of the world, is still a threat, and this threat has to be eliminated.”

And so the Russian people, who live in dread of further violence, find themselves at the mercy of well-trained terrorists in the south and a paranoid President in the Kremlin who refuses the burdens of democratic accountability and the need to reshape a policy that is good for little but more bloodshed. [...]

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