The new Stalinism

August 17, 2008

By CHARLES BIERBAUER
Guest Columnist – The State

With one exception, Russians have never much liked Georgians. Perhaps they didn’t like Joseph Stalin, either, but they certainly feared him and, in a perverse way, admired how the Soviet leader flexed Russian muscle. Stalin, born Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili at the end of the 19th century, grew up in Gori, the Georgian town we’ve been seeing crumbling under Russian shelling.

Gori, when I visited in the late 1970s, was one of the few places in the Soviet Union that still boasted a statue of Stalin. Nikita Khrushchev, a successor as head of the Soviet Communist Party, had condemned Stalin’s rule by brutality. Elsewhere, Stalin’s likeness disappeared. Mostly. I have not seen Stalin’s statue in video from embattled Gori. Perhaps you have. Online photos show it was still there last year.

Instead, the rubble in Gori and other Georgian towns is the monument to Stalin’s contemporary Kremlin inheritors. They still know how to flex Russian muscle.

Vladimir Putin, today’s strongman operating under the title of prime minister, claims the Russian offensive was provoked by Georgia. Putin has an arguable point.

Georgia and Russia have been in heated and sporadically violent dispute over South Ossetia, the breakaway province of Georgia that has sought to reunite with Russia. In the most recent eruption, Georgian troops had improvidently struck first in their attempt to regain control of South Ossetia.

On the other hand, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Georgia became a sovereign state. The Georgians have an arguable point that the Russian troops are invaders.

History and geography in this part of the world are complicated. The Cold War was relatively simple. East vs. West. The Soviet Union vs. the United States. Black hats vs. white hats, if you will, from an American perspective.

The post-Cold War world is blurred, murky and treacherous. In 1991, George H. W. Bush, emboldened by the collapse of communism in Europe and a Persian Gulf War victory, declared a “new world order.” On September 11, 2001, a new world disorder erupted.

Putinism — a revival of Russian expansionist dreams as old as Ivan the Terrible — has spread roots in the fallow field left untended as the United States struggled with its own devils in Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia’s resurgence might have come about without a 9/11. But Washington’s distraction and the windfall riches of Russia’s oil and gas reserves have fueled Putin’s ambitions to reel back in as much of the old Soviet Union as he could.

Among the former Soviet republics, Georgia is an unusual case. It has grown particularly close to the United States. The young president Mikheil Saakashvili studied law at Columbia and Georgetown. The United States has backed the construction of pipelines across Georgia from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, purposefully bypassing Russia. Georgia has been encouraged to seek membership in NATO. The western alliance was created to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has now crept closer to Moscow with its inclusion of former Soviet satellites in East Europe.

Russian paranoia never lies deep below the surface. And underlying the current Georgian strife is the ethnic divide that rattled even the enormous Soviet Union. Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians are ethnic Slavs, but mistake a Ukrainian for a Russian at your own risk. Georgians, Armenians and Azeris are not. Nor are Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and more.

All of the former Soviet republics have substantial Russian minorities, an opportunity or excuse for Russia to claim it is defending the rights of fellow Russians.

But not all Russians see it that way. At a conference in Chicago last week, I chatted with a young doctoral student now at the University of Alabama, but originally from Tashkent in Uzbekistan. She described herself as Russian ethnically, but Uzbek nationally. She’s not interested in being a Russian (or Soviet) citizen.

Stalin had a simple way of dealing with ethnic matters. He simply ordered the expulsion of whole populations — Koreans, Turks, Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens and more — to outposts of the empire. Where those minorities moved out, Russians moved in.

Stalin died in 1953, but in South Ossetia, Stalin’s legacy is still kicking up trouble.

Mr. Bierbauer was ABC News bureau chief in Moscow, 1978-80. He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

MUSINGS

March 17, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

We thought we left things in good hands when South Carolina nudged the primary process forward. In January, we gave a nearly decisive boost to John McCain’s campaign, and put Barack Obama back on track for a heady two-person race for the Democratic nomination. Not a bad job for a state looking to have an early impact. Yet look at the mess we’ve got now.

DO-OVERS

Democrats in Florida and Michigan have discovered that haste makes waste. How many times have we told our children that? In their perceived urgency to reach the head of the queue, those states ignored the parental admonitions of the Democratic National Committee. You’ll lose your delegates’ seats at the convention; they were warned to no effect.

Whether Hillary Clinton was the crafty kid to stay on the ballot—just in case—or Barack Obama was the obedient child to remove his name is no longer the issue. Voters in Michigan and Florida were afforded incomplete options. “None of the above,” the choice Michigan voters had, does not constitute a vote for Obama.

With the likelihood neither Obama nor Clinton will have sufficient delegates to secure the nomination without a floor fight in Denver, the states in disarray must be addressed. Michigan Democrats want a second primary on June 3d. Can they legally do that? Why not! Enfranchising is better than disenfranchising.

Florida is contemplating a mail-in re-do. What does that portend? Need we remind you of the general election fiasco of 2000 in which ballots were lost, ballots were not counted, absentee ballots remained, well, absent, voters got butterflies when they saw one confusing ballot layout, and those dastardly hanging and pregnant chads were the bane of election commissioners and the delight of late-night comedians. Why is it always Florida that amuses and appalls us?

What’s to be done? Let ‘em vote. Who’s to pay? Frankly, I don’t care. The state parties for being unruly children. The DNC for not exercising parental authority. The campaigns. Anybody but the voters. Not their mess.

THE KEYSTONE STATE

I was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Pennsylvania, and bleed Nittany Lion blue (also Gamecock garnet). Without being smug about it, I’m kind of pleased Pennsylvania voters have the next great say in the Obama-Clinton battle.

The race for the presidency was not meant to be decided by a few self-important states that stampeded to the head of the process. What’s wrong with all 50 states having a say in the matter? Disproportionately, yes. But not disinterestedly. Few would have guessed the race would last this long, but it’s not a bad thing. Starting so early is another matter. Perhaps in 2012 every state will want to hold back to have the decisive vote in June, July or August. Regional primaries, anyone?

SUPERDELEGATES

Who elected them? No one. They are the anointed. Party officials, elected office holders (not elected for this role), and appointed stakeholders. The stakes, as the Democrats’ superdelegate system was conceived, were to keep the party from being hijacked by a candidate out of the mainstream. Ask Walter Mondale. Or Gary Hart, for that matter.

This year, though many superdelegates eschew the notion of a nomination being decided in a smokeless back room, the 842 supposedly “unpledged” delegates are almost surely going to hold the votes that push Obama or Clinton above the nomination threshold that neither is likely to reach by the end of the primaries.

The superdels’ dilemma is whether to vote their conscience or vote in conformity with the primary results in their home states. It’s a choice, but there’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on. If you’re a superdelegate, you’ve got a vote. Use it. Or did you just plan to party?

SURROGATES

Whether it’s former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro or the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, candidates bear the brunt of their supporters’ outrages and indiscretions. Muzzles are impractical. The First Amendment frowns on them.

Clinton and Obama surrogates, official or not, are free to say what they think.
The candidates, though, have little latitude. They must either acknowledge or refute those expressions, especially when they are hateful and disrespectful. It’s best when candidates act quickly and speak for themselves.

SEX

Surely, you didn’t think we’d leave out Eliot Spitzer, the latest politician to trip over his own hubris. It should be the national lament that the best and the brightest are no longer attracted to politics. ‘Nuf said.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000.  He is dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

HomePest

TEXAS HOLDS ‘EM

February 25, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

The cards are clearly stacked against Hillary Clinton in her high stakes game to win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.  It’s increasingly doubtful that Clinton will draw the winning cards in the big primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4.

“Obama’s got a 10 up and a jack down,” says Democratic strategist James Carville, drawing an analogy to a game of blackjack.  Hillary’s showing a three.  And if she wins those primaries, Carville figures, “she only gets another three.”

If you know blackjack, this all makes sense.  Obama is holding 20 points of the 21 he needs to win.  Clinton has, at best, 13 (the three showing plus possibly ten on the down card).  Another three gets her to 16 but with an ever decreasing chance of beating Obama as the primary season plays its remaining cards.

If you don’t know blackjack, trust Carville.  He knows politics.  And judging from his admittedly raucous youth, he knows a thing or two about gambling.

Carville, sometimes known as the Ragin’ Cajun, shared his insights at a conference of journalism educators this weekend in New Orleans.  He’s an LSU alumnus and brutally honest about politics and the media.

Although an unabashed Hillary supporter, and a key strategist in Bill Clinton’s 1992 election, Carville thinks her chances of winning the nomination have grown slim.  Failure to win Texas and Ohio, where Clinton’s leads have been eroding, will pretty much end her chances.  Winning Texas and Ohio and a couple smaller states voting on March 4 would push her toward the Pennsylvania primary in April where she’d have to win again.  Losing any more key states is not an option.

No, Carville is not bailing on his candidate.  Bill has also said it’s over if his wife doesn’t win Texas and Ohio.

Carville is more analyst than strategist this election cycle.  He thinks the Clinton campaign has made some bad decisions, spent its money in some wrong places and, above all, never found the message to counter the Obama surge.  In truth, Hillary has tried just about everything.  She’s been tough; she’s been charming; she’s been shrill.  The rougher her throat gets from this dog-tiring campaign, the harsher she sounds, even when she may not mean to.

“It’s a classic match up between inspiration and perspiration,” says Carville.
He takes the view that most Democrats will be comfortable with either Clinton or Obama who differ less on ideology than they do on their approach to the process of governing. In Carville’s view, Clinton, the technician, will try to cut through obstacles.  Obama would try to go around them.

In contrast, Carville sees Republican John McCain struggling because he’ll never get the enthusiastic support of many Republicans, certainly not religious conservatives.  Carville sees only one Republican now on the national scene who would appeal to the breadth of that party, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who’s not been a part of this race.  Jeb’s biggest handicap is his last name.

Carville’s view on Ralph Nader’s entry as an independent presidential candidate is largely unprintable.  Rightly or wrongly, many Democrats still blame Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000 for Al Gore losing the election.

Back to the card game.  Even if Obama runs the table and Clinton is stuck on 13, he’s still likely to be shy of an absolute winning hand and the Democratic nomination.
There are no wild cards in blackjack, but there are in politics.

Those cards are held by the hundreds of Super Delegates, party stalwarts once expected to overwhelmingly support Clinton. These are folks who much prefer to bet on a sure thing than take a gamble.  For the most part, the Super Delegates seem to be hoping the nomination will somehow be resolved before the party convention so they won’t be asked to show their cards.

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Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 to 2000.  Bierbauer is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university.  He is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.
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