Foreign Affairs and Human Rights are topics never far from the news where Russia is concerned. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if there is some cosmic conspiracy that leads our events, organised months in advance, to accidentally land within days of some Russian-related controversy.
Thus I introduced our guest speaker, Dr Charles Tannock MEP, Conservative Spokesman in the European Parliament for Human Rights and Foreign Affairs, in the same week as the trial into the death of Sergei Magnitsky was dropped by Russian Authorities and just days after the Cypriot Finance Minister flew to Moscow seeking a bailout for his crisis-hit, sun-kissed island. Two days later, Boris Berezovsky was found dead in his Berkshire mansion. The event was also set against the backdrop of the ongoing problems in Syria, another conflict where Russia potentially has unique leverage, but finds itself on the opposite side of the fence to the American juggernaut.
In such circumstances I was looking forward to a fiery discussion, difficult questions and contentious answers. I wasn’t disappointed, although I was surprised at how many questions focussed on foreign affairs rather than human rights, judging by the column inches usually devoted to the latter topic.
I was also impressed by Tannock’s views on Russia. He was uncompromising in his criticism where it was deserved, but recognised the value and importance of Russia’s role and clearly longed for a day when relations would be better. It was a view at odds with many commentators on Russia, who would rather put their heads in the sand hoping that when they come up for air the country will have ceased to exist, whilst praying that nobody from the FSB taps their leg with an umbrella during their exposure to the elements.
I’ve long thought that the Western media’s prevailing view of Russia and its people is one that is extraordinarily prejudicial and discriminatory, bordering on xenophobic and even racist (in the widest sense of the word). There is no way that some things I have read and heard would be deemed acceptable if the word ‘Russian’ were replaced by any other nationality or group of people. The individual incidents raised in articles may well be true, but the picture their authors seek to paint is one of Reds under the Bed and shadowy men in long coats and wide brimmed hats at the end of your street. This inevitably bubbled back to the surface in the hours following the discovery of Mr Berezovsky’s body. Yet clearly not all of the 35,000 Russians in the UK are spies or vodka-swilling billionaires, nor do they adhere to all the decisions made in the Kremlin. But they are still proud to be Russian, and so they should be.
The reality is that Russia is still the largest country on the planet with sixteen land borders, and holds the World’s biggest reserves of mineral and energy resources. It is the UK’s fastest growing export market, with clear opportunities for British businesses particularly around the forthcoming Sochi Games and World Cup. Its’ history, not just in the last decade or two, but over centuries, has led to it becoming one of the major players in international politics and one whose influence extends way beyond its own realm.
Yet despite everything it has going for it, Russia can often get it wrong. Dealing with Russia is I imagine not unlike dealing with a teenage son … you’ll always love them, but their foolish and reckless behaviour often disappoints you.
We of course gaze upon Russia through our Western-tinted spectacles and cast judgements upon it without considering that our values are not universal. Yet Tannock points out that if Russia wants to become a respected Western power it needs to behave like one. That includes being more responsible on the international stage and improving its internal judicial system. In many ways Russia’s straddling of two continents and all the associated mixture of peoples, religions and customs which make it such a unique melting pot also causes it huge problems on the international stage, and has done for centuries. But whilst Peter the Great uncompromisingly eradicated Eastern practices to ingratiate Russia with the West, President Putin seems adamant on keeping a foot in both camps. Not unlike Britain, its desire to maintain its Great Power status also makes it many enemies.
Tannock believes Russia has shot itself in the foot over Syria – supporting a government that looks set to fall, seems to be a classic case of backing the wrong horse. He adds, nor is it in Moscow’s interest to have a nuclear Iran, so why does it seem so reluctant to condemn this possibility? Its stance in the United Nations makes it appear to be constantly obstructive and, as Mitt Romney said “always standing up for the world’s worst actors”. Although I’d add that the UN represents 193 states and is not merely a vehicle for pursuing American foreign policy by other means. Indeed many of these states are appalled by the stance of Western nations on a variety of issues, and why shouldn’t their views be represented on the Security Council? Let us not forget that they were right on Iraq. But again, Russia can’t be all things to all men.
Unlike many, Tannock doesn’t deny that Russia has a right to pursue its own interests, but he does believe that its short and long term goals are confused, and that it should pay more attention to the latter. One of the major problems, he argues, is Russia’s zero-sum mindset which assumes that any victory for the West is automatically a defeat for Russia, and vice versa. This is a hangover from the Cold War which needs to be put aside before progress can be made.
The fact that Russia has always been a Eurasian country rather than a Western democracy, coupled with its experience of the 1990s makes it deeply suspicious of democratic systems. Tannock puts forward the rarely considered view that Putin is genuinely widely popular in Russia, and that he would likely win a free democratic election if it were allowed to happen. The fact that Putin mistrusts this and feels the need to go down another route is a shame and undermines his power and position.
The same is true for the continued rumblings of particular cases such as Litvinenko, Khordorkovsky, Pussy Riot and Magnitsky. Tannock refers to the ‘selective justice’ of such cases which land some people in prison – or worse – whilst others maintain their position. I’ve often wondered why Russia doesn’t simply extradite Andrei Lugovoi and get it over with, and I didn’t buy Alexei Pushkov’s response when I asked him, that they didn’t trust the British legal system. After all, there is a reason why so many oligarchs are in London.
Tannock was also critical of the ongoing posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky and is a fan of the ‘Magnitsky Bill’, which he argues targets the bad guys without placing all Russians in the same boat – a refreshing consideration given our habit of generalising and labelling. For what it’s worth of course neither I nor any other commentators have the first clue about what happened in most of these situations, but it is braver to confess lack of knowledge than to concoct conspiracy theories to sell newspapers. That approach has led us to a situation where the death of any Russian is automatically front page news as well as an excuse to remind everyone of past misdemeanours and the books for sale about them. And in the face of such a barrage of negativity, Russia retreats back into its shell.
Like Dr Charles Tannock, I am a big fan of Russia and am not afraid to say so. But that doesn’t mean being uncritical or not offering friendly advice. We both want to see a situation in the not too distant future when Russia does not make the slip ups that make supporting it troublesome. But I believe that is best achieved by open dialogue rather than demonisation. And judging by Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to London, our Government feels the same.