Masha Karp reviews Part Two of the BBC documentary "Putin, Russia & the West"

Unequal Sides of the Triangle

On 19 and 26 January 2012 BBC2 showed the first two parts of a four-part documentary, ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ (series producer - Norma Percy, series director - Paul Mitchell, executive producer – Brian Lapping, BBC executive producer – Fiona Campbell). The film has caused a great deal of controversy (see for example Vladimir Bukovsky and Masha Slonim [in Russian], and Victor Davidoff [in English], and comment in the UK press [see pieces by Luke Harding in The Guardian and Peter Oborne in The Telegraph]).

Here Masha Karp reviews the second part of the documentary for Rights in Russia (her reviews of the other parts of the documentary can be read here: Part 1Part 3, Part 4

Six Years Later 

The ‘spy rock’ story, publicized by the BBC as the main scoop of the series, has nearly overshadowed the rest of the second part of the documentary ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ (director Wanda Koscia), so much attention – and not without reason – has it already attracted. The ‘sensation’ comes in the opening clip of the film: Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, admits that the ‘spy rock’ used by the FSB in 2006 to accuse Russian human rights’ NGOs of taking money from British spies, is not, after all, an FSB invention. It did in fact exist. If this really was as much of a sensation for Britain as the filmmakers claim, one wonders why it had gone completely unnoticed throughout the publicity campaign for The Strongman, a new book about Putin published in December 2011, where Powell’s statement first appeared (page 149). 

The Strongman is partly based on interviews conducted for the film, as it was written by the film’s chief consultant, Angus Roxburgh, a former Sunday Times and BBC correspondent in Russia. Later, as an employee of the PR-firm Ketchum, Roxburgh advised Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on how to improve Russia’s image abroad. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Strongman’s publishers and reviewers in Britain were less impressed by Powell’s revelation than the Russian FSB, which six years later suddenly received a corroboration of their story put out in a Russian TV propaganda film. On 19 January, clips from this propaganda film were shown in a BBC trailer. ‘It appeared that the British had been framed,’ the commentary said, ‘but the prime minister’s chief of staff now reveals….’ 

Three days later (even before the film itself was out!) the same hack who made the 2006 film, Arkady Mamontov, put together an even longer remake, attacking this time not only the human rights activists, but also the journalists who criticized him in 2006, and, most importantly, the organizers of the current anti-Putin protests. Mamontov, obviously, did not expect any further revelations in the BBC documentary that could in any way contradict his film… I must admit, I did. But when, about 10 minutes from the end, the film finally reached the ‘spy rock’ story, it turned out that there was nothing else there, apart from the same, 12-second statement by Powell which had already appeared in the teaser, in the trailer, and had been discussed for a week by all the world’s media... 

I was puzzled. I had been expecting that, confronted with this admission, the filmmakers would have made a proper investigation. Powell could have been asked, for example, why, in the era of modern technology and free travel for Russians, British Intelligence had chosen such a bizarre and dangerous way to communicate with their agents. Or how long he thought the FSB could have known about the rock. Or whether British Intelligence had really been involved with Russian NGOs. And how true, in his opinion, was the Russian propaganda film. It’s hard to imagine that having blurted out this state secret, the retired official would refrain from saying other things, and indeed an interview given to the BBC Russian Service by Angus Roxburgh confirms that he did have more to say. So it must have been the filmmakers who decided that no other information was necessary in this case. 

Roxburgh says in his interview that the only ‘scandalous’ aspect of the story, in his view, is the fact that Britain used its spies to fund Russian NGOs – this is not usually done. He deplores ‘the awkwardness’ of the Brits, while the FSB’s major-general Sergey Sorokin, who comments on the story for Mamontov’s new (2012) film, and also discusses this unusual practice, explains it by British ‘cynicism, arrogance and lack of respect for Russia.’ But do we have any proof that the British Intelligence Service had indeed funded the NGOs via its spies, apart from the assertion in the original Russian TV film of 2006, where many highly improbable statements were made? Powell has only confirmed the fact of the ‘spy rock’s’ existence, not that the spies had given money to NGOs. We only have Mamontov’s word for it, and a piece of paper, signed by embassy official Mark Doe, which Mamontov shows in his film. Is the document genuine? Is the signature genuine? Was Doe a spy? How can Angus Roxburgh be so sure, if there is no interview to confirm it? If there is, why have we not seen it? 

It seems that once a proper investigation is carried out – and there is obviously a need for that - we will find out a lot of interesting things about the whole story. One that has transpired already is that among those who worked on the film was Katya Zatuliveter, recently acquitted by a British court of spying for Russia. Katya, who before she was accused of spying had been a researcher for the film, writes in her blog how important it is that the film is objective and does not support either one side or the other. 

“Democracy Threatens” 

But to come back to the second part of the BBC film, which mostly deals with the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putting the ‘spy rock’ story into the opening clip allowed the film-makers to announce the main theme of this second part: Russia’s clash with the West. The clip ends with an angry Putin speaking about the 2006 law which made the existence of Russian NGOs nearly impossible. ‘It has been adopted,’ he says, ‘to stop foreign powers interfering in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation.’ 

If, after this, we’d gone straight to the next shot – a battered Russian tank crawling through Chechnya – I would have thought it a brilliant sarcastic sequence. However, precisely at this point the title of the series, followed by the title of this part of the documentary, comes up: ‘Democracy Threatens.’ 

What exactly does this mean? Who feels threatened by democracy? The answer to this is simple – undemocratic governments. And in the film we hear at least two statements in which the position taken by undemocratic governments is put forward. First Putin, speaking at the UN in 2004 after street protests against rigged elections in Ukraine had begun, says: ‘We should not let it become international practice for such disputes to be settled by mobs on the street.’ And the second comes from his security advisor, Sergei Prikhodko: ‘Americans can decide where their tax dollars go: on the nation’s welfare or on the mythical democracy groups in Georgia and Ukraine.’ For Putin, Assad or Gaddafi, democracy groups are always ‘mythical’ – they simply can’t believe that people would take to the streets, or protest in any other way, unless somebody (naturally, the wicked West) had paid them to do it. The idea of people actually wanting to have their say in public affairs seems to have never occurred to the dictators. Since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 the concept of the ‘Orange Threat’ has become one of the cornerstones of Putin’s rhetoric and propaganda. How come it found its way into the title of the BBC film? 

The film itself, however, does its best to consider some real threats - the threats posed, for example, to the Orange Revolution by the Kremlin. It uses some expressive footage made in the course of seven (!) trips Putin made to Ukraine that year, and clips from interviews with the nondescript Kremlin advisers Sergey Markov and Gleb Pavlovsky, who were sent to support the Moscow favourite, Victor Yanukovich. As these two were only able to repeat what had been fed into them, the liveliest moment in these interviews comes when one of them confesses that after Russia’s failure to have its own way he had to flee hiding under an orange hat and scarf! But this outcome was not at all predetermined, as threats to use violence against protesters on the streets of Kiev kept coming one after another, and each time something miraculously occurred to stop them being carried out: Kuchma, for some reason, proved reluctant to follow Putin’s allegedly unspoken advice to use force; the Polish president Kwasniewski cleverly averted a planned provocation by 40,000 miners that could have led to bloodshed; and finally, Interior troops brought to the centre of Kiev were removed after a night-time phone call from Washington. Moreover, while not daring to suggest anything openly, the film shows Viktor Yushchenko, the democratic candidate and later president of Ukraine, who describes his first meeting as head of state with his Russian counterpart in the following way: ‘I thought Mr Putin understood that his behaviour had created a lot of bitterness, especially when it came to my poisoning…’ 

The film also tries to distinguish between real and artificial threats. It gives a convincing response to Russian government insistence that NATO expansion is a perfidious American plan by showing the 2002 NATO summit in Prague at which new members, who had formerly been under Soviet rule, joined the alliance. It is obvious from the speech of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, and from the following clip of Polish President Kwasniewski, that it had been a long-harboured wish of these countries to find security within NATO, rather than NATO’s own wish to move up to Russia’s borders. 

However, sometimes the unreal threats seem to get out of proportion. Although the commentary mentions that the Kremlin had spent millions trying to influence the situation in Ukraine, the information about Western funding of pro-democracy groups, both in Ukraine and Georgia, is repeated several times and treated as something much more sinister. And it is clear why: using ‘American tax-dollars on mythical democracy groups,’ Sergei Prikhodko says, ‘did affect Russian-American relations and not in a good way.’ 

The western film-makers, surprisingly, seem to have accepted this perverse logic and even to admit the responsibility of the West. ‘The more the West supported pro-democracy movements on Russian borders,’ the commentary claims gravely, ‘the more dictatorial Putin became.’ Now the causative relation implied here is simply not true. The strengthening of the ‘power vertical’, that is, curbing democratic freedoms, was announced by Putin in a speech in September 2004, immediately after the Beslan school tragedy (which is wholly omitted from the film), and not after the Orange Revolution (November 2004-January 2005). It was in this speech that the plans to change election rules and appoint regional governors instead of electing them, which are mentioned in the film, were first aired, and shocked many as a rather inappropriate response to the need ‘to fight terrorism.’ 

There is no doubt that the West is responsible for Putin’s increasing dictatorship, but not because it has been ‘supporting democracy’ or ‘meddling in Russia’s internal affairs’, or ‘preaching like a Messiah,’ as the official Russia would claim. It is responsible because its leaders have been unwilling to pay attention to the terrible transformation of the regime into a new form of totalitarianism. 

In one of the most striking paradoxes of our time, in sharp contrast to the years of the Cold War, the official West no longer listens to pro-Western Russian critics of the Russian government, but prefers dealing with the official Russia, perhaps still under the illusion that for the last twenty years there has not been any ideological difference between East and West, and only business matters. With Russian propaganda much subtler than it was in Soviet times, and the Russian government’s wealth allowing it to promote this propaganda everywhere, it’s no wonder that the official Russian narrative often drowns out the democratic one. 

Surprisingly unwilling to look beyond this narrative, ‘Putin, Russia and the West’ does not even attempt to analyse the events of 2004-2006 that were significant for Russian-Western relations. Most important among them was the adoption of a law which permits Russian special forces to kill terrorists abroad. It was mentioned in Putin’s key speech after the Beslan tragedy, but only passed into law in March 2006. The law was preceded by the murder of the Chechen President, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, by three Russians (a diplomat and two military foreign intelligence agents) in Qatar in 2004, and followed by the murder of Litvinenko in London in November 2006. The West chose to ignore Yandarbiev’s murder - although his murderers, convicted by a Qatari court, at the time received official support from Sergey Ivanov, who seems to have personally given them the order to eliminate Yandarbiev. (And how interesting it would have been to interview the spy-turned-minister about that!) The law on killing terrorists abroad was also ignored. It was Litvinenko’s murder that could not be overlooked… 

However, in the film even Litvinenko’s murder - together with several other important events (with the exception of the excellent portrayal of Putin’s youth group Nashi) is squeezed into the last minutes and, what’s worse, discussed in the most predictable way. But at least the argument between Miliband and Lavrov brings us back to Putin – and you certainly can’t reproach this part of the film for making him look nicer than he is. Sitting in a summer forest among his Nashi supporters, he still is as aggressive as at the beginning of the film, when he talked about foreign interference: ‘They forget that Britain is no longer a colonial power. Their advice is insulting. It shows they are still stuck in the last century. They should treat us with respect. Then we will respect them.’ 

At the moment ‘we’ obviously don’t: Putin’s Russia does not respect the West and yet is a member of the G-8 and the Council of Europe and has special relations with NATO. Does the film about Russia’s relations with the West question this? No. And the West does not dare to offend Russia by expelling it from international bodies – it would rather accept that the threat is posed by democracy. 

To be continued
Rights in Russia,
2 Feb 2012, 12:01