Hottentot Morality

“If he steals my cow, that is bad. If I steal his cow, that is good” — this moral rule was attributed by European racists to the Hottentots, an ancient tribe in Southern Africa.

It’s hard not to be reminded of this when the United States and the European countries cry out against Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two provinces which seceded from the Republic of Sakartvelo, known in the West as Georgia.

Not so long ago, the Western countries recognized the Republic of Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia. The West argued that the population of Kosovo is not Serbian, its culture and language is not Serbian, and that therefore it has a right to independence from Serbia. Especially after Serbia had conducted a grievous campaign of oppression against them. I supported this view with all my heart. Unlike many of my friends, I even supported the military operation that helped the Kosovars to free themselves.

But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as the saying goes. What’s true for Kosovo is no less true for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The population in these provinces is not Georgian, they have their own languages and ancient civilizations. They were annexed to Georgia almost by whim, and they have no desire to be part of it.

So what is the difference between the two cases? A huge one, indeed: the independence of Kosovo is supported by the Americans and opposed by the Russians. Therefore it’s good. The independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is supported by the Russians and opposed by the Americans. Therefore it’s bad. As the Romans said: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, what’s allowed to Jupiter is not allowed to an ox.

I do not accept this moral code. I support the independence of all these regions.

In my view, there is one simple principle, and it applies to everybody: every province that wants to secede from any country has a right to do so. In this respect there is, for me, no difference between Kosovars, Abkhazians, Basques, Scots and Palestinians. One rule for all.

There was a time when this principle could not be implemented. A state of a few hundred thousand people was not viable economically, and could not defend itself militarily.

That was the era of the “nation state”, when a strong people imposed itself, its culture and its language, on weaker peoples, in order to create a state big enough to safeguard security, order and a proper standard of living. France imposed itself on Bretons and Corsicans, Spain on Catalans and Basques, England on Welsh, Scots and Irish, and so forth.

That reality has been superseded. Most of the functions of the “nation state” have moved to super-national structures: large federations like the USA, large partnerships like the EU. In those there is room for small countries like Luxemburg beside larger ones like Germany. If Belgium falls apart and a Flemish state comes into being beside a Walloon state, both will be received into the EU, and nobody will be hurt. Yugoslavia has disintegrated, and each of its parts will eventually belong to the European Union.

That has happened to the former Soviet Union, too. Georgia freed itself from Russia. By the same right and the same logic, Abkhazia can free itself from Georgia.

But then, how can a country avoid disintegration? Very simple: it must convince the smaller peoples which live under its wings that it is worthwhile for them to remain there. If the Scots feel that they enjoy full equality in the United Kingdom, that they have been accorded sufficient autonomy and a fair slice of the common cake, that their culture and traditions are being respected, they may decide to remain there. Such a debate has been going on for decades in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec.

The general trend in the world is to enlarge the functions of the big regional organizations, and at the same time allow peoples to secede from their mother countries and establish their own states. That is what happened in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Georgia. That is bound to happen in many other countries.

Those who want to go in the opposite direction and establish, for example, a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state, are going against the Zeitgeist — to say the least.

This is the historical background to the recent spat between Georgia and Russia. There are no Righteous Ones here. It is rather funny to hear Vladimir Putin, whose hands are dripping with the blood of Chechen freedom fighters, extolling the right of South Ossetia to secession. It’s no less funny to hear Micheil Saakashvili likening the freedom fight of the two separatist regions to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The fighting reminded me of our own history. In the spring of 1967, I heard a senior Israeli general saying that he prayed every night for the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, to send his troops into the Sinai peninsula. There, he said, we shall annihilate them. Some months later, Nasser marched into the trap. The rest is history.

Now Saakashvili has done precisely the same. The Russians prayed for him to invade South Ossetia. When he walked into this trap, the Russians did to him what we did to the Egyptians. It took the Russians six days, the same as it took us.

Nobody can know what was passing through the mind of Saakashvili. He is an inexperienced person, educated in the United States, a politician who came to power on the strength of his promise to bring the separatist regions back to the homeland. The world is full of such demagogues, who build a career on hatred, super-nationalism and racism. We have more than enough of them here, too.

But even a demagogue does not have to be an idiot. Did he believe that President Bush, who is bankrupt in all fields, would rush to his aid? Did he not know that America has no soldiers to spare? That Bush’s warlike speeches are being carried away by the wind? That NATO is a paper tiger? That the Georgian army would melt like butter in the fire of war?

I am curious about our part in this story.

In the Georgian government there are several ministers who grew up and received their education in Israel. It seems that the Minister of Defense and the Minister for Integration (of the separatist regions) are also Israeli citizens. And most importantly: that the elite units of the Georgian army have been trained by Israeli officers, including the one who was blamed for losing Lebanon War II. The Americans, too, invested much effort in training the Georgians.

I am always amused by the idea that it is possible to train a foreign army. One can, of course, teach technicalities: how to use particular weapons or how to conduct a battalion-scale maneuver. But anyone who has taken part in a real war (as distinct from policing an occupied population) knows that the technical aspects are secondary. What matters is the spirit of the soldiers, their readiness to risk their lives for the cause, their motivation, the human quality of the fighting units and the command echelon.

Such things cannot be imparted by foreigners. Every army is a part of its society, and the quality of the society decides the quality of the army. That is particularly true in a war against an enemy who enjoys a decisive numerical superiority. We experienced that in the 1948 war, when David Ben-Gurion wanted to impose on us officers who were trained in the British army, and we, the combat soldiers, preferred our own commanders, who were trained in our underground army and had never seen a military academy in their lives.

Only professional generals, whose whole outlook is technical, imagine that they could “train” soldiers of another people and another culture – in Afghanistan, Iraq or Georgia.

A well developed trait among our officers is arrogance. In our case, it is generally connected with a reasonable standard of the army. If the Israeli officers infected their Georgian colleagues with this arrogance, convincing them that they could beat the mighty Russian army, they committed a grievous sin against them.

I do not believe that this is the beginning of Cold War II, as has been suggested. But this is certainly a continuation of the Great Game.

This appellation was given to the relentless secret struggle that went on all through the 19th century along Russia’s southern border between the two great empires of the time: the British and the Russian. Secret agents and not so secret armies were active in the border regions of India (including today’s Pakistan), Afghanistan, Persia and so on. The “North-West Frontier” (of Pakistan), which is starring now in the war against the Taliban, was already legendary then.

Today, the Great Game between the current two great empires – the USA and Russia – is going on all over the place from the Ukraine to Pakistan. It proves that geography is more important than ideology: Communism has come and gone, but the struggle goes on as if nothing has happened.

Georgia is a mere pawn in the chess game. The initiative belongs to the US: it wants to encircle Russia by expanding NATO, an arm of US policy, all along the border. That is a direct threat to the rival empire. Russia, on its part, is trying to extend its control over the resources most vital to the West, oil and gas, as well as their routes of transportation. That can lead to disaster.

When Henry Kissinger was still a wise historian, before he became a foolish statesman, he expounded an important principle: in order to maintain stability in the world, a system has to be formed that includes all the parties. If one party is left outside, stability is in danger.

He cited as an example the “Holy Alliance” of the great powers that came into being after the Napoleonic wars. The wise statesmen of the time, headed by the Austrian Prince Clemens von Metternich, took care not to leave the defeated French outside, but, on the contrary, gave them an important place in the Concert of Europe.

The present American policy, with its attempt to push Russia out, is a danger to the whole world. (And I have not even mentioned the rising power of China.)

A small country which gets involved in the struggle between the big bullies risks being squashed. That has happened in the past to Poland, and it seems that it has not learned from that experience. One should advise Georgia, and also the Ukraine, not to emulate the Poles but rather the Finns, who since world War II have pursued a wise policy: they guard their independence but endeavor to take the interest of their mighty neighbor into account.

We Israelis can, perhaps, also learn something from all of this: that it is not safe to be a vassal of one great Empire and provoke the rival empire. Russia is returning to our region, and every move we make to further American expansion will surely be countered by a Russian move in favor of Syria and Iran.

So let’s not adopt the “Hottentot morality”. It is not wise, and certainly not moral.

Uri Avnery is a peace activist, journalist, and writer. Read other articles by Uri, or visit Uri's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Scott F said on September 1st, 2008 at 9:41am #

    Everybody get’s the right to secede?

    And you consider yourself a PEACE activist, and FOR human rights?

    Holy-Flippin’-Jesus-Christ. Have you read any history, AT ALL? (Not that current events are anything but sufficient to teach the lesson!)

    Secessionism (and the closely related desire to reunite ethnic groups divided by national borders) has been THE major driving force behind war, genocide and ethnic cleasing in the modern era. And you want to VALIDATE this motive???

    Do you know anything, for instance, about the history of South Ossetia? Ethnic Georgians and Russians lived there for many years, side-by-side, in the same villages. It was the secessionist movement (and Russian intervention primarily) the drove their segregation to separate villages, and that now has Georgians being murdered, driven from their villages, and their homes burned. But to you this is an ADVANCE of human rights and self-determination?!

    Once you allow a process of balkanization to start, there’s no logical, and no peaceful, end to it. The policy you favor presages a universe of war and genocide. You’re either insane or feckless beyond belief.

    If you’re really for “peace,” how about advocating that humans learn to get along with their neighbors regardless of ethnicity and borders?

  2. bozhidar balkas said on September 1st, 2008 at 4:48pm #

    yes avery,
    i too am for independent kosovo. i also think that tibet, abkhazia, kashmir, baluchistan, turkestan, s.ossetia have the right to govern selves either via independence or a most modern autonomy. thanx

  3. bozhidar balkas said on September 1st, 2008 at 4:59pm #

    generally speaking, when there are two or three major ethnic groups in a land like afghanistan, yugoslavia, et al the largest/strongest folk almost is always or perceived as unjust.
    that’s what happened in yuga. serbs were hated just a year or two after macedonians, bosnians, croats, montenegrins, and slovenians joined the kingdom of the s. slavs in 1919.
    it was one of the worst mistakes parlamentarians cld have made. and there was no referendum.
    thank u

  4. bill rowe said on September 1st, 2008 at 9:11pm #

    the concept is valid, but cannot always work; because of pre-existing hatreds., mised populations, geographic wealth inequity, and general human unwillingness to accept all as equals with the goal of maximizing the common good. For examle if several mixed “tribes” live in close regions where one is wealthy in resources and others poor, the human response is to separate from the poor and keep the rightful regional wealth for “us” ,,, give us another 1000 yrars or so with global intermixing marriage ,communication ….. and maybe then ….

  5. Giorgio said on September 2nd, 2008 at 9:59am #

    I would rather say, instead of a right to secede, every culture and language has a right to thrive and respect even within some other larger national identity. What I like about this, aside the “Hottentot Morality” of politics, is that Russia is now beginning to flex its muscles and sending the message to America that it no longer is the world’s sole superpower… and then when China comes of age, there will be a third superpower and hopefully will bring some measure of restraint and balance to a world now crazed and running amok…

  6. AaronG said on September 3rd, 2008 at 5:17am #

    I enjoyed the article, Uri, once I got past the “every province that wants to secede from any country has a right to do so ” line. I’m with Scott F on this one. Creating imaginary lines on a map and getting groups of people with similar genes, features, religion, ethnicity, common gripes or whatever to live together has been proven wrong. How much more history do we need before people realise this? We don’t need another 20th century before the penny drops, surely?!

    Where’s the limit with such a doctrine? 6 billion individual nation states…all locked in our fortressed McMansions so that we don’t have to interact with our neighbours? (Hang on a minute, that’s almost what we have now).

    Anyway, I’m calling all 36 year-old white Jehovah’s Witness South Australians out there with Welsh fathers and Chinese/Indian mothers with dark brown hair, brown eyes, father of two adorable toddlers, who hate politics and religion and must be right-handed/right-legged to join my country. Please submit nominations for a national anthem and Constitution……………… if you’re wondering, my country is a dictatorship and I’ve appointed ME as the king

  7. AaronG said on September 3rd, 2008 at 5:25am #

    …………..our first task is to invade the left-legged, blue-eyed, black Catholics who live next door. That left-leggedness does not belong in my country.