Watching Georgia, Seeing Hungary
Watching coverage of the Russian invasion of Georgia over alleged Georgian mistreatment of the citizens of South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) has brought to my mind another Russian–that is Soviet at the time–action 52 years ago, the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Rebellion. While there have been no images as dramatic as those of Hungarian students confronting Soviet tanks, the symbolism is there none the same.
What motivated the Kemlin in 1956 seems to be at work today. Hungary, of course, was not a part of the Soviet Union per se, but had instead been occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II. The Soviets, in their typical kindness, had helped the Hungarians adopt a communist government of the Soviets’ liking and had peddled the idea of a Warsaw Pact to oppose the West. Hungary was to be a charter member.
Then the Hungarians balked, An unauthorized (by the Soviets) communist government came to power under Imre Nagy, and it had the temerity to suggest it might not join the Pact and instead might follow the lead of Austria in 1955 and become a neutral. That was more than the Soviets could stomach, and so they invaded, crushed the Nagy government, and replaced it with a regime that took orders better.
The Hungarians, of course, responded by going into the streets to oppose the Soviet invasion that carried out their actions. They were buoyed by expressions of sympathy from the United States, which they mistakenly expected to be followed by more active forms of support for their cause. In proper geopolitical reasoning–Hungary was an acknowledged member of the Soviet “sphere of interest”–the United States stood by, and the rebellion was crushed. For all appearances, it was a brutal but effective demonstration to any other member of the communist bloc about the price of heterodoxy. Nobody tried again until the Czechs did so in 1968.
Is the Georgian case similar. On the surface, not particularly, but the underlying dynamics are certainly reminiscent of 1956. The Georgians and Russians have been at odds since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and Georgia has become the poster child for the beneficial effects of westernization, democratization, and close relations with the United States. Along with Ukraine, Georgia has been in the queue for possible NATO membership. Was that too much for the Russians to bear? If the Georgians could ignore Russian interests, would others follow, just as the Russians feared in 1956? Was part of the motive to demonstrate that American support for Georgia was about as deep as it was for Hungary a half-century ago? The answers in both cases are probably yes!
What lessons are there in the comparison? I would suggest two. One is that old-fashioned power politics is not as dead as some would have it. Russia, the dominant player in Eurasia, neither appreciated minor powers like Georgia resisting its will nor appreciated the United States mucking around in its back yard, and it acted to reassert what it views as its prerogative and to remind the world that Russia is still a major power with which the world has to reckon. The United States has limited itself to hand-wringing, as it did in 1956, which is also probably appropriate. In fact, a sub-lesson may be to avoid extending NATO into Georgia, a place NATO could hardly defend and really lacks the interests to defend. John McCain has it wrong here. He said “NATO’s decision to withhold a membership action plan (the precursor to actual membership) might have been viewed as a green light by Russia. I urge NATO to revisit the decision.” Had Georgia been a member, Article 5 of the NATO charter requires members to take action (admittedly unspecified) to aid an attacked member. Would we really have wanted that?
The second lesson may come more directly from Hungary. The initial reaction to the episode was that it had been an effective application of Russia’s mailed fist that would squelch similar occurrences, but the longer term effect was actually to weaken the Soviet hold over its vassal states. Why? Because the Soviets, who had been advertising themselves as the peace-loving half of the Cold War duo were exposed for what they were, and because of that, they had to tread more lightly afterward. The dynamics of anti-communism in Eastern Europe were sown in that atmosphere. Today, the Russians hardly look like democratic liberators (despite their claims they were coming to the rescue of the South Ossetians). Will they pay an international price that will make them more, rather than less, likely to try a reprise. Hungary suggests they will. We’ll see.