Masha Karp: How to Deal with Russia

posted 13 Sept 2010, 08:27 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Apr 2011, 15:09 ]
On 4th March the Henry Jackson Society, a British-based non-profit organisation which supports the development of democracy, hosted a discussion in the Boothroyd Room of Portcullis House at the House of Commons on the topic: “Russia in 2010: An Appraisal”. Chaired by Lord Trimble, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the panel included Sir Anthony Brenton, a former British Ambassador in Russia, Elena Tregubova, a journalist and a critic of the Russian government, Charles Grant, the founding Director of the Centre for European Reform and Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Masha Karp reports:

Two distinct, although obviously related, issues were at the centre of the panel’s attention: what is Russia like today and how should the West as a whole, and Britain in particular, behave towards it? The first two speakers, Sir Anthony Brenton and Elena Tregubova, mostly dealt with the first issue, while the other two, Charles Grant and Gisela Stuart, concentrated on European and British attitudes respectively.

View of a Diplomat

Sir Anthony Brenton, British Ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, well-known in Russia because of the persecution he suffered from the pro-Kremlin group “Nashi”, went out of his way to present “a balanced approach”. He started the discussion by comparing today’s Russia with the Russia of the Communist times. This gave him an opportunity to stress “what has gone right”. He mentioned all possible achievements in the spheres of politics, economy, international and UK-Russia relations. The country had become more pluralistic and had a lively domestic political discussion, especially in the internet. The Russian economy was “market-oriented”. Russia was much more integrated into world politics than the Soviet Union had ever been, in certain instances the integration even went so far as to become co-operation - for example when Russia allowed Western military equipment to be taken to Afghanistan. And finally, the flow of people and the contacts between Britain and Russia had dramatically increased. Britain had become one of the biggest investors in Russia and today it would be impossible to walk a street in Cambridge without hearing somebody speaking Russian.

The list of “what has gone wrong” that followed the first part not only contradicted its upbeat tone, but stressed that what might have seemed positive on the surface had somehow failed to bring any positive developments to the new reality.

The claim that the country had become more pluralistic compared to the Soviet Union was thrown into doubt by the admission that the results of many, especially local, elections had been skewed and controlled and the elite was fixed in its ways and not likely to be removed. The pluralism that so many would like to see, at least in President Medvedev’s attempts to carve a distinct role for himself as an admirer of the rule of law, had not yet been confirmed by any obvious results, but rather compromised by the continuing incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. As far as the “market-oriented” approach of the Russian economy was concerned, Anthony Brenton quoted his friend Mikhail Kasyanov who quipped that Russia had a “capitalism for friends”. The audience also heard that no serious decision in the Russian economy was taken without consulting the Kremlin. The former ambassador also had to admit that in the sphere of international relations the prevailing feeling in Russia was that of a deep resentment towards the West. The most striking difference in the positions of Russia and the West lay in the attitude to the countries of the “near abroad”, which Russia believed to be its own backyard, rather than independent states as the West saw them.

The artificial character of the comparison with Soviet times became especially clear when Sir Anthony Brenton talked of British-Russian relations. The picture of lively British-Russian exchange was severely overshadowed by diplomatic rows over Litvinenko’s murder, the UK refusal to extradite Berezovsky, and the persecution of the British Council as well as BP-TNK, Shell and other companies. These problems were like potholes on the road”, Brenton said, one could not “walk away from them”.

Interestingly, the former ambassador’s optimism for the future, which he felt necessary to reaffirm in his conclusion, was based not on the positive developments he described earlier, but mainly on Russia’s insecurity in a time of the economic crisis, which, he suggested, might make it more amenable.

When asked what the West could do to entice Russia towards further democratic development, Sir Anthony Brenton said: “I do not think there is any directly useful thing we can do about Russian democracy. Interference by the West is viewed with resentment. We need to be clear about our values, and make sure they know it, because there are beleaguered liberals there who value that. But the only channel that is available to us is through economic development, through involvement of the economic, and the social, and the travel, and the education level which hopefully will build up a middle class and will infect them to also want –which many of them do – the democratic values as well. But in direct terms I don’t think there‘s anything we can do, sadly”.

This was not a position shared by everybody on the panel.

View of a Dissident

Elena Tregubova was granted political asylum in Britain in 2008. She had to flee Russia after a bomb exploded near her apartment in Moscow following the publication of her anti-Kremlin books. But although she now lives in the UK her speech at the HJS discussion reflected the attitude of honest journalists and human rights activists inside Russia.

Her list of “what has gone wrong” concerned mostly one sphere – suppression of human rights – and was quite alarming: the scandalous arrest of 82-year-old world-famous human rights activist Ludmila Alekseeva in the centre of Moscow, when she, together with others, tried to insist on the constitutional right to peaceful assembly; the beating up and arrest of other activists on similar occasions; the absence of free elections; the full control of Russian television by the Kremlin; arrests and imprisonment of bloggers who post critical comments in their blogs. While Anthony Brenton named an “absolutely free Internet” as one of the achievements of Russia’s transformation, Elena Tregubova had to disagree, pointing out that the government was trying to introduce full-scale censorship in the Russian part of the World Wide Web. She referred to the case of the bravest web-site,, which gives a true picture of human rights abuse in Russia and provides serious analysis of the current situation. Currently it is being investigated for “extremist” content, which can only be read as a threat of potential suppression or closure.

Tregubova said she could not believe that the business and political communities in the West were not aware of the facts she mentioned and made it clear that, in her view, if they were aware of them and kept silent they were covering up terror. She attacked European leaders for being primarily interested in Russian oil and gas and not caring about the destruction of basic democracy and human rights in the country. She cited not only the well-known example of former German Chancellor Schroeder’s support for Putin in exchange for a lucrative appointment to Gazprom’s international enterprise, but also the very recent case of Eutelsat – a leading European satellite provider based in Paris – which had taken off air the First Caucasian Russian Language TV channel, critical of Russia’s rulers, after being approached by a pro-Kremlin media company with a money-laden proposition, again involving Gazprom. Thus Western institutions not only failed to offer any resistance to the Kremlin line, but also allowed themselves to be corrupted by the anti-democratic regime, which Tregubova thought was “not only amoral, but stupid and suicidal for the West”.

She mentioned Russia’s long-term support for Iran and North Korea, the absence of which would have saved the world from the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threat, and the 2008 war against Georgia, which, in her view, could have been avoided, if German and French leaders had not blocked Georgia’s and Ukraine’s entry into the NATO preparatory club.

Later, during the Q&A session, Lord Alan Watson, a Member of the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, mentioned that just after the Georgian war he was in Sandhurst at a meeting of the British and German Officers Association where all the high-ranking officers present were saying that had Georgia in the end been included in the NATO defence scheme, it would have been a disaster because NATO would never have been able to deliver its promises. His question therefore was: if Russia intervened in the “near abroad” countries, what could the West’s reaction be, when there is not much scope for economic retaliation and there is no scope for military retaliation? Elena Tregubova’s answer to this was that Russia’s provocations against Georgia had been going on for years and if the West had been more willing to interfere it could have interfered at an earlier stage, thus preventing the war.

There was no doubt that, in her opinion, the Western resources of persuasion and pressure were far from being exhausted.

Views from Outside

But what could the West do? Charles Grant, as the Director of an independent think-tank, the Centre for European Reform, felt that the answer lay in a united EU policy towards Russia, although he immediately admitted that this was easier said than done. Europe, he claimed, was divided on Russia by its geography – some countries are very close to Russia and some are quite far away; by history - some have been invaded by Russia, others haven’t; and by issues like energy supplies – some countries get a lot of their energy from Russia, some don’t. Germany, for example, is against having a united European policy on energy for the sake of its own big business, which is uniquely influential there.

The European countries find Russia quite difficult to deal with, especially when it is getting increasingly hostile to the idea of integration with the West, which was obvious in its refusal to join the WTO or sign the European Energy Charter. Grant quoted Igor Shuvalov, a First Deputy Prime Minister, who had recently said that Russia should not adopt western models, but being unique, special, exceptional and different, needs its own models, even if borrowing western technology, skills and capital.

Unlike Anthony Brenton, Charles Grant did not express any optimism about the Russian economy, because he felt too many people with a lot of power did terribly well under the current economic structure to want to change it, although it is totally focussed on natural resources. On the other hand, he noticed with satisfaction that the changes in the world gas market had allowed Europe to be less dependent on Russian gas. With America becoming self-sufficient in gas, Europe had started getting all the shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) that were meant for America. This allowed it to push the price of gas down, which naturally left Gazprom worried.

While in business some compromise between Russia and the EU, in Charles Grant’s opinion, was possible, because both sides had mutual interest in each other, the issues of the “near abroad”, or common neighbourhood, were much more difficult to solve. Still here a united European policy towards Russia was even more necessary. “Should Russia, for example, decide to gobble up Crimea”, - Grant said, -“that should be unacceptable and we should greatly reduce our contacts and engagement with it”.

He briefly dwelt on the Washington’s contradictory approach to Russia: while the State Department still believed in the “reset” of relations announced by Obama, which had effectively meant going slow on NATO enlargement and changing plans about missiles in Europe in return for Russia being helpful on Afghanistan, outside the State Department a lot of impatience with Russia was obvious. In general, however, Americans see Russia as less interesting and important than Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq or China, and even Obama supporters think that Russia is only important vis-à-vis Iran. If Russia does not deliver on getting Iran to change its nuclear programme, the “reset” will be over.

The crudeness of this approach must have been one of the reasons that made Gisela Stuart, a member of the Foreign Affairs committee, call for better understanding of Russia and the need to develop a consistent policy towards it. She said that even among her colleagues in Parliament this need was not fully acknowledged – not many MPs thought that Russia mattered sufficiently or even bothered to attend a discussion about it. “We do not teach Russian any more, we do not translate contemporary Russian literature and as a result we have consistently got Russia wrong!” she said. Among the issues that she found particularly worrying Gisela Stuart named cyber security, which became a tangible threat after Estonia’s complaints of Russia’s cyber-attacks on its sites; Russian historic revisionism with its glorification of Stalin; and again the threat coming from the Russian understanding of the concept of “spheres of influence” - a concept that she was sure did not exist any longer.

A View from the Audience

Among numerous questions and comments from the floor, one, in particular, stood out. It was a comment by Jamison Firestone, a founding partner of Firestone Duncan, a law firm active in Russia since 1991. This was the law firm where Sergey Magnitsky had been employed prior to his arrest and death in prison. Jamison Firestone said he had to flee Russia for his own safety after uncovering a criminal conspiracy that bore a resemblance to the events that led to Magnitsky’s death. Addressing the panel he made it absolutely clear that no business with Russia was possible until the West insisted on the observance of the rule of law, the absence of which threatens Western investors and lawyers as much as it threatens Russian citizens.

There is little doubt that any "insistence" of this kind would cause resentment among Russia’s rulers and be treated as “interference” in the country’s internal affairs. But should the West carry on keeping silent?
12 March 2010