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Why is Russia Terrified of Burma’s Saffron Revolution?

For all that is said about the enigma of Russian politics and the “impenetrable” opacity of Putin’s Kremlin, much can be gleaned from their imagined history – the much ballyhooed new school textbook created by the government. The new official history, which among other fantasies declares Stalin as “the most successful Soviet leader ever,” contains a revisionist portrayal of the color revolutions in the Ukraine and other countries in the region – arguing that these events were not genuine uprisings, but rather were perpetrated by the “foreign influence” of a malicious government intent on violating other nations’ sovereignty. Ever since Russia lent her support to Viktor Yanukovych and succeeded in crushing what was left of the Orange Revolution, the possibility of further color revolutions within or near her borders has been couched in similar terms. If there is unrest, if there are protests in the streets, it must be due to “foreign influence.” This mentality rings painfully true this week at the United Nations. As the military junta completed its second full day of bloody repression of the spontaneous Saffron Revolution, a title hastily given to the enormously courageous protest marches of Buddhist monks in Burma, the chorus of condemnation across the free world has grown deafening. The images of thousands of robed monks marching, hands peacefully clasped in desperate appeal, is nothing short of historic and heartbreaking, capable of winning over the most dedicated isolationist. burma0927.JPG Photo: Reuters But Russia, yet again provided with an opportunity to prove that they are the responsible semi-democratic nation that they claim to be, has shown its true colors in refusing to support the monks. Joined by China, the two nations have wielded the threat of their “Authoritarian Veto” to prevent the United Nations from issuing sanctions or even a strong condemnation. The reason? The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that “We consider any attempts to use the latest developments to exercise outside pressure or interference in the domestic affairs of this sovereign state to be counterproductive,” and that Moscow believes that the situation “will be back to normal soon.”

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A man gestures to members of the military after a crowd of thousands were fired upon while protesting in Yangon’s city centre September 27, 2007. Russia and China are using their veto influence in the UN to protect Myanmar from international actions (Photo: Reuters)

Unlike the color revolutions in the Ukraine and Georgia, the Kremlin is going to have a tough time convincing anyone that these spontaneous uprisings were simply events orchestrated from abroad, which further underscores the crass insincerity of their position. Both China and Russia’s willingness to block the international community from helping these people is grotesque and unmerited, and makes their political leadership complicit not only in the repression of their own people, but that of a foreign nation. Doesn’t the “sovereignty” lie with the people? Isn’t the threat of the authoritarian veto the greatest violation of sovereignty? As a Washington Post editorial quipped, “If the repression proceeds, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao will have Burma’s blood on their hands.” It is easy enough to see right through the diplomatic arguments and examine what’s at stake. China, on its behalf, has long enjoyed being one of the only nations in the world to lack the scruples to do close business with the pariah state, and has turned Burma into a virtual economic colony. Russia, under Putin’s leadership, has perfected the practice of targeted encumbrance in international institutions. Either out of its desire to repeatedly remind the world of its reasserted role as a heavyweight (yes, we get it already), or perhaps in a move to cause a problem, and then later extract a concession for helping fix it, Moscow has seen fit to make numerous international crisis issues even more difficult, from Iran to Syria to Kosovo, and now, to Burma. However I don’t think the Burma case is simple politics for the Kremlin. Here we have an international development that lays bare the core weakness of the regime: the fallacy of sovereign democracy. History has shown that invoking security and nationalism as the rationale for power grabs and oppression has a limited tactical shelf life. All these hysterics surrounding state sovereignty, especially in the absence of free media or a representative government, are becoming increasingly tenuous as it is made clear that not even those within the Russian government believe in their own legitimacy. The position Moscow has taken on Burma is a clear illustration of their fear, made especially acute during this election season. Moscow is terrified of the contagion effect of such social movements like the Saffron Revolution, and very well they should be. The Russian government’s greatest adversary is not the United States – it is their own citizens.