Book Review: The New Cold War by Mark MacKinnon
Review by Michael Averko
The thought of a re-ignited Cold War can send a chill down some people’s spines. “The New Cold War” (Carroll & Graf, New York, 2007) is about a different kind of Cold War. It’s primarily about Western lobbying efforts to establish influence in the former Communist bloc and Russia’s opposition to it. The book’s secondary theme deals with the pipeline politics involving the former Soviet Union and the West. Blended in are some personal accounts by author Mark MacKinnon. His prose is crisp and easy to follow.
The book starts off with a “Dramatis Personae” section, providing a brief description of the involved lead players and organizations. In that segment, issue can be taken with the characterization of Vojislav Kostunica as a “previously anonymous lawyer, who Madeleine Albright convinced the Serbs to rally around” (a point contradicted by Doug Schoen on page 48 of chapter 3). Albright was never in such a position to influence Serb public opinion. Among Serbs, she has been generally viewed as having a bias against them. If anything, Albright championed Zoran Djindjic, who isn’t mentioned in the Dramatis Personae segment. As per my numerous Serb contacts in Serbia and elsewhere, as well as my own research of the man, Kostunica was relatively well known in Serbia before his democratic challenge to Slobodan Milosevic. This prior knowledge of him includes academics outside of Serbia, who study that country. Before Milosevic’s political fall, Kostunica’s accomplishments include his translation of the “Federalist Papers” into Serbian.
On Milosevic’s demise, MacKinnon pays great homage to the role Western (particularly American) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played. He later on (in the book) follows their influence in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. His book emphasizes the Western NGO favorites among Serbs. In Serbia, the George Soros supported Otpor leader Marko Markovic has never come close to matching the popularity of Kostunica or Djindjic. Unlike Djindjic, Markovic is referenced in the Dramatis Personae section. When compared to Kostunica and Djindjic, much attention is spent on the half-Croat/half-Serb Markovic (he’s described as such in the book), who acknowledges (page 46) not being opposed to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, unlike a good number of his Otpor peers and the overwhelming majority of Serbs. Markovic’s popularity with Soros funded NGOs and unpopularity with most Serbs is one of several examples putting into question the enthusiasm of certain Western activity in some areas of the former Communist bloc. For a brief period, the Serbs and Western organizations involved with Serbia had an alliance opposing Milosevic. The post-Milosevic era has seen a decline in that cooperative spirit.
The book’s concentration is on the former USSR and not former Yugoslavia. However, the understanding of smaller nations related to Russia-West relations can be quite pivotal. Getting Kostunica right leads to the contentious Russia-West row over the disputed south Serb province of Kosovo. With a good deal of Serb support, Prime Minister Kostunica and Russia are going against Western efforts to see Kosovo become independent. The issue of Kosovo relates to other disputed former Communist bloc territories. MacKinnon stays off this topic. One which can be very critical when reviewing trouble spots on Russia-West issues.
It’s not easy for an American journalist to do an even handed accounting of the disputed former Communist bloc territories. Make no mistake about how the American mass media establishment prefers Kosovo to be spun. In its reporting and op-ed section, The New York Times (“the paper of record”) makes clear that Kosovo should be independent and that Russia is being hypocritical on the matter of disputed former Communist bloc territories. On this issue, The NYT reflects what most of the leading American foreign policy politicos desire (particularly Democrats, minus Brad Sherman and a few others). The NYT seems to periodically set the tone with how some other American newspapers cover a topic like the disputed former Communist bloc territories.
Canada sees itself as both independent of and a friend of the US. MacKinnon is a Canadian journalist, who writes in his nation’s market. Considering his Canadian standing, I think that he could’ve covered the disputed Communist bloc territories issue in detail. On Kosovo and other former Yugoslav issues, Canada has some progressive souls in journalist Scott Taylor, retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie and former Ambassador James Bissett – a retort to Roger Cohen’s comment about Roy Gutman and Christiane Amanpour. Peter Brock’s book “Media Cleansing: Dirty Reporting” provides great insight on the faulty coverage of former Yugoslavia.
Pages 2-3 of the Prologue describe a series of apartment bombings as the pretext for the launching of the second Chechen war of the last decade. No mention is made of Chechen separatist incursions into Dagestan (a Russian republic bordering Chechnya). Incidents which were evident in the lead up to the second Chechen war.
In chapter 1, there’s the briefly stated view that Russian media has become restricted during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. This issue has seen its share of debate with several valid points: Russians continue to have a wide range of access to different political views, Russian media during Yeltsin’s presidency wasn’t perfect, Anglo-American mass media is far from perfect.
In the same chapter, the reference to symbols seems to suggest a Soviet like turn in Russia. Mention is made of some issued non-currency commemorative coins honoring Joseph Stalin, the return of the Red Star and Soviet era anthem. For clarity sake, it would’ve been nice to see further elaboration on these references. There’s no great effort to rehabilitate Stalin in Russia. Russian society has become far removed from Stalin’s totalitarian mindset. Adulation for Stalin isn’t widely evident at the annual May 9, Victory Day holiday, commemorating the defeat of Nazism. American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged this after attending the 65th anniversary of the event in 2005. In the present, Benito Mussolini has a following in Italy. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a great concern of Italy returning to Fascism and there’s no valid reason for fearing a Soviet relapse in Russia. A Russian friend forwarded to me a news clip with this note on October 25: “The Memorial Foundation is conducting a vigil on October 29th, at the Lubyanka Square (where the old KGB was located) in Moscow to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s repression. About 2.6 million names will be read by volunteers. Today, there’re over 500 memorials in Russia to honor the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror.” There’re other examples which contradict the belief of a relatively popular Russian affection of Stalin. Anti-Stalin/pro-Putin advocates include Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nikita Mikhalkov, the dearly departed Mstislav Rostropovich and Paul Klebnikov. Legendary Soviet ice hockey men’s coach Viktor Tikhonov flopped when he returned to coach the post-Soviet Russian national team. It’s no secret that his totalitarian manner was rebuffed by the current generation of Russian ice hockey players. Russia’s recently crowned European men’s championship basketball team was coached by American-Israeli David Blatt. A Stalinist return to Russia isn’t on the horizon. Albeit limited, admiration for Stalin can be found in his native Georgia. Noting any popularity of Stalin in Georgia is problematical in some circles because Georgia is supposedly ahead of Russia in democratic development (more on this in a bit). During Putin’s presidency, the pre-revolutionary Russian Two Headed Eagle has become more utilized. In comparison, the Red Star’s return is considerably limited and its definition has been changed to a non-Communist one. The return of the Soviet anthem is greatly influenced by its stirring appeal over the comparatively drab Yeltsin era Russian anthem. Note that the re-instituted Soviet anthem has words praising pre-revolutionary Russian symbols. Post-Soviet Russia is seeking to establish its present and future by merging the positive aspects from its Imperial and Soviet eras.
When describing Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s poor command of the Belarusian language (page 62 of chapter 4), it’s not mentioned that this is true of many Belarusians, who willingly converse in Russian and identify with the Russian Orthodox Church. This contrasts with Ukraine, where there’re many Ukrainian speakers and a good sized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of the Russian Orthodox Church (keeping in mind that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate remains the largest church in Ukraine). When comparing Ukraine and Belarus, the lack of popularity for the Belarusian language and an independent Belarusian Orthodox Church corresponds to why Wales is less nationalistic than Scotland. Somewhat different histories play a key role.
MacKinnon does a good job presenting the politics and history of Ukraine. One can dispute his description of why Viktor Yushchenko was sacked as prime minister by then President Leonid Kuchma (page 81 of chapter 5). MacKinnon portrays it as the work of Moscow, which (as stated by MacKinnon) didn’t like Yushchenko’s blocking “a series of takeovers of Ukrainian companies by Russian firms.” In the lead up to Yushchenko’s firing, then Deputy Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Yushchenko sparred with influential leaders in the Ukrainian (not Russian) mining and gas sectors. The dispute came to a head in a 2001 no confidence vote by the Rada (parliament). The vote passed 263 to 69, resulting in Yushchenko’s removal from office. At the time, firing Yushchenko served as good public relations for Kuchma. Since the Soviet breakup, Ukrainian politics has seen shifting geopolitical moods among the leading Ukrainian politicians of this short lived period. Yushchenko is no exception. As prime minister, he approved a number of Russian business acquisitions. This point was stated by some pro-Yushchenko supporters in an effort to win the “Russian vote” during the 2004 presidential election.
In chapter 9, MacKinnon notes how Russian support for Viktor Yanukovych came after American NGOs started backing Yushchenko. That chapter ends with a discussion between MacKinnon and Russian political adviser Vyacheslav Nikhonov on who would win the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election. MacKinnon cites Nikonov saying that Yushchenko wouldn’t win despite polls claiming differently.
Chapters 10 and 11 have among the fairest of North American mass media commentary to be found about the so called “Orange Revolution.” Western pro-Yushchenko and Russian pro-Yanukovych election observers each had biases clouding their respective claims. A Yanukovych aide expresses the view (page 170) that the advice of Russian “spin doctors” like Gleb Pavlovsky was counterproductive to Yanukovych’s presidential bid. In turn, the Russian spinsters are quoted (page 175) for believing that Yanukovych’s prison record made him a tough sell. Mackinnon sympathizes with this view and references hyperbolic anti-Orange remarks made by Yanukovych’s wife. On the other hand, Yanukovych’s prison record could be marketed as an example of someone resurrecting himself. The book doesn’t mention the negative past of Yushchenko and his wife. As prime minister, Yushchenko signed a statement calling protestors of beheaded Georgian-Ukrainian journalist Georgiy Gongadze “Fascists.” Yushchenko’s wife made insensitive remarks when she belonged to an anti-Russian organization. Two contributing factors relate to Yanukovych’s political comeback after the so called “Orange Revolution”: he’s not so negative as some make him out to be and the Orange side has its own shortcomings. MacKinnon correctly views Western support for Yushchenko as being more effectively implemented to the Russian assistance given to Yanukovych.
MacKinnon’s chapters on Ukraine end in the early part of 2005. Yanukovych’s 2006 political comeback to the role of prime minister came after he hired an American public relations firm. As MacKinnon suggests (page 176), the Russian spin doctors’ role during the so called “Orange Revolution” left something to be desired. I recall one of them providing commentary for a News World International (NWI) feature on Ukraine, shortly after Yushchenko’s presidential inauguration (now defunct, NWI was a Canadian Broadcasting Company television affiliate). When asked why the Orange government was counterproductive, Sergei Markov said that its Russia unfriendly elements served to provoke a nationalist backlash in Russia. From a Russian vantage point, this wasn’t good public relations, in addition to not offering the most accurate of thoughts on the subject. Markov’s emphasis on Russia conjures up the image of a Russian not concerned with how Ukraine feels and provides fodder for the faulty notion of Russia being collectively ripe with overly aggressive nationalists. The better answer to the NWI question would note that the newly inaugurated (at the time) Orange government’s not so Russia friendly members are an anathema to many in Ukraine, who don’t view Russia with hostility. This in turn could create instability within Ukraine, which in the long run wouldn’t benefit anyone. In any event, present day Ukraine is politically murky, with Russia and the West now taking a more hands off approach on that former Soviet republic.
The chapter 6 commentary about Georgia highlights the differences between Moscow and Tbilisi, without noting the examples of willing togetherness. In 1801, Georgia sought to become part of the Russian Empire. Russia has its share of prominent Russian citizens with Georgian surnames. On page 109, MacKinnon uncritically quotes Eduard Shevardnadze’s otherwise dubious belief that Georgia “enjoyed a more dynamic democracy than Putin’s Russia.” This is supported with an uncritically referenced cite from the politicized Freedom House. There’re examples showing that if anything, the reverse is true: Russia appears more democratic than Georgia. The first post-Soviet Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia was an authoritarian nationalist. How was he more democratic than Russia’s first post-Soviet president Boris Yeltsin? Shevardnadze, the second post-Soviet Georgian president fell out of favor for being associated with an undemocratically run corrupt environment. In 2003, the current Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili won an election with a Soviet like 96% tally. His governance has exhibited instances showing a less than democratically inclined state. This past September, former Saakashvili ally Irakli Okruashvili was arrested by the Georgian government. Okruashvili is no angel and his less than angelic demeanor was evident when he was allied to Saakashvili. In comparison, there’s outrage when the Russian government arrests a dubious figure of high standing. Of recent note, are the high profile protests against Saakashvili in Georgia. This has been interpreted as Georgia having an open society. There’s also the view that Russia under Putin has been comparatively more stable than Georgia.
The book’s take on Georgia matches the way it portrays George Soros, the billionaire involved with neo-liberal and neo-conservative political activity in the former Communist bloc (on former Communist bloc issues, the neo-conservatives and neo-liberals like Soros tend to agree with each other). Laura Silber, a Soros employed advocate offers the view of a caring philanthropist favoring the little guy (page 111). Soros’ detractors (whose views of him aren’t really mentioned in the book) stress the image of a wealthy billionaire seeking to get into markets (like Russia) where his views aren’t so welcome. Georgia and the Kosovo Albanians serve as a kind of base for Soros. A point that doesn’t appear so disagreeable with many pro and anti-Soros observers. Therein lies the reason why Soros is unsympathetic to patriotically mainstream Serb views, but sympathetic to the anti-Serb nationalism evident among a good number of Albanians and Bosnian Muslims. This matches how he unsympathetically treats patriotically mainstream Russian views versus his comparatively kid gloves approach to the Russia unfriendly nationalism exhibited in parts of the former Communist bloc. Is Soros more democratically inclined than Putin? The latter has won two multi-party presidential elections and is highly regarded by his nation’s population. The former prefers the Kosovo Albanian leaders over a noticeably more democratic and multi-ethnic tolerant Serb leadership. On several issues, Soros funded organizations like the Open Society Institute and International Crisis Group are very one sided in their utilization of sources.
On the book jacket, Lawrence Martin says that MacKinnon’s book is a wakeup call to an ongoing Russia-West squabble. There’re reasons for not being so alarmist. Post-Soviet Russia has been tame. It waited at least a couple of years from when it had a reasonable basis (as far as reasons for waging war go) to wage its first war in Chechnya. The vulgar aspects of the two post-Soviet Chechen wars stem from Russia having a weakened and not always so well disciplined armed forces, combined with the brutish manner of some of the Chechen insurgents. Russia’s need to have a relatively strong conventional armed forces has been acknowledged by some Western analysts. Russia is situated in problematical neighborhoods. It’s way too simplistic to portray Russia as the bully. Tatarstan, a predominately Muslim Russian republic enjoys a good deal of autonomy. Russia’s somewhat clumsy involvement with the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election was in reply to the intervention undertaken by Western NGOs. As for the accusation of Russia using its economy as a political tool: the US has a decades long embargo against Cuba and the European Union (EU) hints that Serb membership in the EU is linked to Serbia giving up Kosovo. Big powers carry on in this manner. There’s nothing particularly special about Russia’s purported use of using its economy for political reasons. The West and Russia have curtailed political competition in Ukraine. A pro-Russian business lobby exists with some Western corporations eager to embrace the Russian market. Former American National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski sees Russia eventually moving to the West out of a future fear of China. Another school of thought sees the significant peace time global interrelationship among the current major powers as a deterrent against a World War III/Cold War type setting.
I recommend “The New Cold War” with a few thoughts in mind. It’s a good exercise for all of us to actively engage views we find disagreeable. This shouldn’t be confused with talking over those views in a way that doesn’t fully address them. While bucking some of the conventional English language mass media stances, the book generally expresses how many influential non-Russian observers view the former Communist bloc. Like it or not, that’s a reality which should be addressed; along with how North American mass media at large doesn’t always practice what it preaches in its critiques of Russian media.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic. His commentary has appeared in the Action Ukraine Report, Eurasian Home, Intelligent.ru, Johnson’s Russia List, Reuters, Russia Blog, Serbianna, The New York Times and The Tiraspol Times.