Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

Czar Vlad’s Guano

We pundit types are expected to have opinions on everything, but I confess I would have been momentarily stymied had I chanced to be in the big geopolitical-analysis chair on some cable network the moment the news broke that Nauru had recognized Abkhazia.

If you can’t tell the players without a GPS, Nauru is in the South Pacific, and Abkhazia is in Georgia, technically and legally. The Georgia that’s a breakaway republic from the Soviet Union, that is. Abkhazia is a breakaway republic from the breakaway republic and has aligned itself with the republic the original breakaway republic broke away from — Russia.

Nauru would not seem to be an obvious candidate to be a big player in Caucasian politics. It’s a former British–Aussie–New Zealand trust territory that for many years had a weird second-class citizenship in the Commonwealth. As the then–secretary general, Sir Sonny Ramphal, a wily Guyanan rogue of whom Her Majesty the Queen was unaccountably fond, once explained to me, Nauru was a “non-voting member” of the Commonwealth. “But hang on,” I pointed out. “Nobody’s a voting member of the Commonwealth. It’s all done by consensus.” He smiled at me enigmatically and glided across the floor to schmooze some A-list dictator.

And then the guano ran out. The entire Nauruan economy, and come to that the nation itself, rested on bird droppings. Once it’s piled up to a sufficient depth, you’re sitting pretty. In the Seventies, phosphate mined from the guano gave Nauru the highest GDP per capita on the planet. But one day Nauruans woke up to find the bird had flown and taken his excrement with him. And they were forced to look elsewhere for an economic base. In the early Nineties, I met a couple of bigwigs from the capital, Yaren, in London when the Nauruan government, in the wake of Cats and Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, decided to invest in a British musical about Leonardo written by a couple of guys whose only hit song was the long-ago  Number One “Concrete and Clay.” Oh, come on. You must remember: “The concrete and the clay beneath my feet begins to crumble . . .”

Which was literally the situation the bird-pooped-out Nauruans found themselves in. Alas, Leonardo: The Musical flopped. The general view of the critics was that, in the words of a famous song about his most famous painting, it just lies there and it dies there. Back to Square One for Nauru.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Eduard Shevardnadze was having a hard time holding Georgia together. I used to appear on the Channel 4 morning show in Britain, which had one of those rolling news formats where you repeat the same headlines every half-hour. The news that morning was about the breakaway movement in Abkhazia, which our lead anchor was following closely mainly because “khazi” is Brit slang for “toilet,” so the name tickled him. You’ll recall that in the classic British film Carry On . . . Up the Khyber, Kenneth Williams plays an Afghan warlord called the Khasi of Kalabar. Anyway, the story got even better when Shevardnadze holed up in his stronghold of Poti, which Dermot, the lead anchor, pronounced “Potty.” At 8 a.m. the pronunciation unit showed up and decreed that the town was to be pronounced “P’tee,” thereby ruining our schoolboy japes.

Like South Ossetia, Abkhazia has enjoyed de facto independence ever since. But it’s recognized de jure only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and now Nauru. What did the Nauruans get for providing Moscow with one minor vote to legitimate Putin’s Greater Russia? Well, Tsar Vlad was apparently very generous in his offer of “financial aid” to the post-guano Nauruan economy.

I doubt one in a million Americans is even aware of the Abkhazia/Nauru story, but it illustrates some important features of the international scene that the Foggy Bottom types don’t always seem hep to. First, Russia’s imperialist ambitions are an issue that resonates far beyond Russia’s backyard. Australia has been concerned for some time about a China–Taiwan competition to, in effect, buy up hastily decolonized Commonwealth territories in the Pacific. It will have a terribly corrupting influence on the region’s politics if Russia is determined on a piece of the action.

Second, we underestimate the importance of sub-jurisdictions. Nauru is sovereign but not quite independent: Its appellate-court rulings can be overturned by the High Court of Australia, a country to which Nauru also contracts its national defense. Why would they object to Abkhazia’s entering into similar relations with Russia? But look at the other side, too: Poti sits on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, and Georgia recently sold a 51 percent stake in the port to Ras Al Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates, to run it as a “free industrial zone.” Like the bankrupt Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah is a sub-national jurisdiction. These are crosscurrents in the undertow of the Big Pond: Arab money, Russian ambition, Chinese subversion, and emerging statelets susceptible to all three.

You’ll notice who seems largely irrelevant to all of the above: us. America and its allies. In a globalized world, the West defers increasingly to the transnational institutions, without apparently even noticing the destabilization by key players at sub-national level. There’ll be a lot more of that in the years ahead.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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