Paris this spring was still beautiful, but tense. Post-Charlie Hebdo, 8,000 smart, almost chic, soldiers supplement the edgy French police. The Marais district— ah, the Marais in spring!—is still flavour of the month. Just as in pre-World War II it’s still a bit Jewish, but definitely no longer proletarian. Rollicking crowds of tourists and citoyens still fill the Marais, the banks of the Seine, and the Luxembourg Gardens. Napoleon’s Tomb is awe inspiring. Only the French do grandeur like that. Yet outside the packed, hip Misnon café in the Marais there is tension. This life-loving cosmopolitan dream is juxtaposed with body armour and automatic weapons, bedecking pensive, crew cut French paratroopers and older, fatter French coppers.
In this centre of world culture, astride the Champs-Élysées, Australia’s embassy is curiously close to the Eiffel Tower; after all we are the number twelve ranking economy in the G20. Still, those patriotic timbres of the heart. Oh yes. Our brash, ‘Lucky Country’ is now so close to the centre of events. But, why? Why are we there? How did we acquire such a prominent spot? Surely it is something to do with the great Gough or his frenetic follower Gareth Gareth Evans? No. Ambassador Stephen Brady has a rare sense of history and explains that our site was a deserted railway siding, before Australia built the much overblown Seidler concrete monstrosity there. Yes, the Germans and Aussies originally competed for the site. Then, all those years ago, the Élysée Palace intervened. It would be undiplomatic for the Bosche to build on that particular site. Better leave it to the Antipodeans. After all, it is from that place that the Jews of Paris were deported ‘to the east’. Nearby to that railway siding now incarnated as the Australian Embassy, is the infamous Velodrome. Yes, that Velodrome depicted in Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s gut-wrenching film ‘Sarah’s Key’. That Velodrome, emblematic of the brutality of the French collaborators. Now we spit out the words for collaborators – ‘Vichy’, ‘Pétain’, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ and ‘Quisling’. The Vichy’s paramilitary Milice rounded up over 10,000 of their Jewish co-citizens—mostly women, children and the elderly, in horrific conditions described in all the literature about Paris under the swastika.
Drang nach Osten: Hitler and Stalin ground through 20 million people between them on the route I’m flying. It’s only three hours from Charles de Gaulle to the frontiers of freedom in Kiev. Straight to the Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament. Thank heavens there’s a responsible Australian Ambassador here now, post MH17. Doug Trappett, ex-2IC Rome, is located in the top floor of the Canadian Embassy (translated for the tabloids critical of misspent taxi fares of any public official, that means that DFAT’s secretary Peter Varghese is saving money). For years, DFAT cowered from the gaze of the tabloids, refusing a diplomatic representation in this sad, independent country, despite its size, the impossibility of serving it from Moscow or the fact that the Ukrainians have an embassy in Canberra. Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal on the basis of Russian and international guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. What a joke. First, Putin has seized Crimea, nearly cutting this country of 45 million from the sea. Poor new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who enjoyed a successful December visit to Canberra, is warning that with the spring ‘campaign season’, his country and the world should prepare for Putin’s tanks to roll again.
In 1989, at the fall of the despised creed of communism, Ukraine’s GDP per head was slightly ahead of Poland (roughly $US6,000). Now, Poland’s GDP (parity pricing) is $23,273, up 400 per cent over 20 years, whereas Ukraine’s is $8,651, only increasing 34 per cent over the same 20 years. Failed Orange Revolutions and post-independence corruption by thieves like former Putinist President Yushchenko with his gold toilet, ruined Ukraine. Now Putin is grinding Ukraine into the dust. Poroshenko’s attempts to eliminate corruption are derided by the New York Times. Yet over the weekend I was in Kiev, he was arresting corrupt bureaucrats on state TV (that beats even ICAC). Nonetheless, Ukrainians are finding it nearly impossible to simultaneously fight the war against Russian irredentism and revive the economy. Along the Black Sea, his next Ukranian target, Mariupol, feels it will fall next to the crazy Russian push for a land corridor from the Rodina (the Motherland) to Crimea. And Comrade Putin’s ‘volunteers’ are not just in the south. For in the north there are daily incursions. Russian ‘volunteer’ tanks, mortars and artillery shells fall on Von Manstein’s famous battlefield, between Kharkiv and Belgorod, north of the conflict-filled Donetsk and the Luhansk Oblasts. This is a postscript for Tim Snyder’s magisterial tragedy Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, outlining the deliberate murder of 20 million civilians between 1919 and 1945. It’s a must-read for anyone trying to understand the brutal politics of what was just 70 years ago the lands of WWII’s Eastern Front.
Strangely, the murder of our Australian countrymen on MH17, along with all the others murdered by the ‘Cossacks’ fighting for the Donetsk People’s Republic, have brought the two countries into each other’s consciousness. Let’s hope fear of ‘Little Australia’ doesn’t prompt Julie Bishop and DFAT to withdraw our Embassy, now that it’s finally established.
Final scene, the Vatican. Ambassador John McCarthy QC continues the fine work of Tim Fisher. Apart from their personal qualities, both our embassy here and in Kiev are sites of a little known battle of ideas. Will the enervating, provincial ‘Little Australian’ world of the Daily Telegraph prevail, and these important outposts be abolished? A non-partisan report by a parliamentary joint committee established that Australia needed to step up from having the lowest level of diplomatic representation in the G20 apart from New Zealand and Slovakia. Yes, having Australian missions in Chunking, (China) and Bougainville (PNG) are important, but so are the Vatican and Kiev. Both ambassadors are highly regarded and have important work to do. Over to you, Julie Bishop.
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