Being a true friend of Russia

Britain must avoid cosy relationships with Putin’s Kremlin and expend energy instead on fostering links with legitimate and democratic-minded individuals and organisations in Russia

Demonstrators at an anti-Putin rally in Moscow, February 2012
Alexander Blackburn
On 23 August 2012 16:49

The regularity of surprises, U-turns and questionable decisions in the first two years of this coalition government has somewhat numbed the expectations of political commentators thus far. However, with our MPs currently dabbing on the factor 20 and reflecting on a year of economic stagnation and general disappointment, the job of conjuring the unexpected has fallen to those in Westminster lucky enough not to have a seat on the green benches.

The Conservative Friends of Russia launched itself into the political sphere on Tuesday night with a rather – if one swaps the champagne for vodka – traditionally Westminster-like summer party. Established in 2009, the group, headed by PR professional Richard Royal with foreign affairs stalwart Malcolm Rifkind MP as its Honorary President, claims to provide a politically neutral vehicle for those interested in forging cultural and business links with Russians.

While, as one guest put to me, ‘this was always going to be an event that threatened to raise more eyebrows than glasses’, the vast majority of guests have sincerely commended the organisation and atmosphere of the night, pointing to the diverse ‘mafia’ (which would not have been my first choice of words) of attendees, representing “all layers of the society, both British and Russian”.

Metaphors abound, guests described the layout of garden artwork as “spooky but fascinating”, with further compliments being made to the way in which the event brought citizens of the two nations together. Adam Lake, Marketing Manager at Total Politics, agreed: “I think that there is a type of James Bond style mystique between our two countries that needs to be tackled, but what is clear from this event is that both sides are looking to forge links and I think that is incredibly positive”.

The concept of a “friends of” group has historical connotations that this group should be keen to avoid, however. Traditionally, “friends of” groups have worked alongside their nation-friends, largely sharing the political viewpoints of the nation. If one is to establish a group in the “friends of” format, one should expect to be treated in the same way as the others.

Take the Conservative Friends of Israel for example – although they are working with a much more morally acceptable government, and therefore are excused from the criticisms that the Russian group is facing, they share many political and ideological platforms with the state of Israel, including deep concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and strong support for Israel’s right to self-defence.

When David Cameron said at a CFoI lunch in 2010, “in me, you have a Prime Minister whose belief in Israel is indestructible”, the precedent for ‘friends-of’ groups was set. Groups that declare international friendship must be assumed to be declaring friendship and support for said government and its activities.

Despite the clearly pleasant evening, one might perceive the setting of last night’s event to possess some similarities with a Russian state occasion – the guests mingled amongst the glorious setting of the residency of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation, Alexander Yakovenko, who addressed the crowd with a speech on bettering relations between Russia and Britain.

The group, however, is eager to stress that they are “politically neutral regarding Russian political parties and candidates”. Keen to steer the discussion away from the frosty topic of politics, the chairman of the group, Richard Royal, spoke on how those interested in Russian business, history and culture should get involved with the group, informing the crowd of business people, students, politicians, representatives of charities and even, I’m told, princes, that relations between the two nations are paramount.

The formalities were concluded with a speech from John Whittingdale MP, who touched on the ten-ton elephant in the room by arguing that there will always be disagreements between the two nations. Mr. Whittingdale then touched on the herd of ten-ton elephants by mentioning the Pussy Riot trial, which had been the subject of many, “who is providing the music tonight?”, jokes during the evening.

The vodka and stale jokes, however, cannot be solely to blame for the headaches that guests and members may be feeling on Wednesday morning.

Political commentators have been quick to denounce the group, pointing to Russia’s terrible record on human rights and free speech. Nigel Fletcher, a Conservative Councillor who also runs the Centre for Opposition Studies, has stated:

“Promoting good relations is a positive aim, but when a country’s government arouses controversy, you have to be careful how it looks.  Engaging with the Russian government - even perhaps accepting hospitality from their Ambassador – is one thing, but real friends of Russia should ensure the difficult questions are not brushed aside.”

The motives and morals of the group’s members and leaders must not be questioned, however. Dan Hamilton, a Conservative Party member with a long-standing opposition to Putin’s Kremlin, says, “I’ve got no time for anyone who questions the motivations of the people behind Conservative Friends of Russia. To a man, they’re decent guys who care about strengthening our cultural and trading links with Russia”.  (Editor's Note: Dan Hamilton's quote original quote was significantly longer and is produced at the bottom of this article for full context).

Here lies the distinction that the group must strive to make: between the Russian people and the oft-maligned Russian state. Hamilton continues to argue that accepting hospitality at the Russian Embassy must be questioned while “Moscow continues to illegally occupy the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – allies of the United Kingdom who have received the outspoken backing of David Cameron and William Hague”.

Similar objections to the group were outlined in an article by Raheem Kassam of the Henry Jackson Society: "It is of great concern that the CFoR appears to be aligning itself with Putin’s representatives in London, instead of reaching out to a dissident community who are more interested in rooting out corruption and furthering the cause of a liberal, transparent democracy in Russia."

Conservative Friends of Russia, while intending to achieve positive outcomes for both Brits and Russians, has an inherent contradiction to overcome. The “friends of” model they have adopted will attract the kind of negative attention that members have woken up to this week, but it is only through cooperation with the Russian political system that they can hope to have a positive change on the lives of the Russian people.

This view is shared by Ignaty Dyakov, M.D. of Russia Local and guest of the launch event:

“I disagree with people who say it is not wise of Tories to set up a group like this at the time when human rights are violated in Russia. I think quite the opposite, to be honest: only through increasing mutual cooperation and deeper understanding of each other's cultures we can develop strong open relationship between our countries that would bring benefits to both counterparts.”

As the situation with Europe becomes ever more dire, we, as both a nation and a political force, should be looking to create new global friends. Nevertheless, it is important to avoid cosy relationships with Putin’s Kremlin and to expend energy instead on fostering links with legitimate and democratic-minded individuals and organisations. This will be the sign of a true friend of Russia.

Full statement from Dan Hamilton: 

“I’ve got no time for anyone who questions the motivations of the people behind Conservative Friends of Russia.  To a man, they’re decent guys who care about strengthening our cultural and trading links with Russia. 

“I would, however, question the timing of this event, coming only days after the jailing of three women – two of them mothers of young children – following the Pussy Riot trials. 

"At present, press and personal freedom in Russia is more restricted than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.   Vladimir Putin presides over a regime in which journalists and human rights campaigners like Anna Politkovskaya can be murdered in cold blood on the steps of their apartment, while despots like Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov receive the Kremlin’s stamp of approval.

“Questions must also be asked about whether it is appropriate for Conservatives to be accepting hospitality at the Russian Embassy while Moscow continues to illegally occupy the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – allies of the United Kingdom who have received the outspoken backing of David Cameron and William Hague.  For those of us who have stood in the rubble of Georgian villages, visited refugee camps on the Russian border and spoken to the families of those killed by Putin's bombs in August 2008, this is a bitter pill to swallow.

“The challenge for Conservative Friends of Russia is to prove it is just that: a group concerned with furthering the Conservative Party’s ties of friendship with the Russian people.  To do that, it will need to shake off the perception it is little more than a ‘Conservative Friends of Putin’.

“I look forward to helping Conservative Friends of Russia organise a series of high-profile and thought-provoking events in the coming months aimed at exposing the ugly underbelly of the Putin regime.  From a lack of press freedom to the suppression of LBGT rights, there’s plenty of material to work with – and I’d be happy to help them.”

Alexander Blackburn runs the University of Birmingham Freedom Society

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