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Carl Thomson: Getting the Anglo-Russian relationship back on track

Carl Thomson 2010 Carl Thomson is a public affairs consultant and commentator on Russian and East European affairs.  A former Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidate, he was elected to Woking Borough Council in May 2010.  He previously worked for Theresa May and John Redwood.

While Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev have successfully “reset” relations between the United States and Russia, putting behind them the acrimony of Georgia’s assault on South Ossetia and moving towards closer cooperation in missile defence, Afghanistan and investment in digital infrastructure and information technology, the Anglo-Russian relationship remains frosty. 

This is not for a lack of trying.  Shortly after becoming Foreign Secretary, William Hague made a trip to Moscow to assure the Russians that the door remained open to a better relationship.  The Russians too have expressed concern that ties with Britain remain unsatisfactory.  Attempts to wipe the slate clean last year were blown off course by allegations of spying, Moscow’s refusal to extradite the main suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case, and even a perceived sour response to Russia’s successful bid for the 2018 World Cup.

The political ties between Britain and Russia might be in need of repair, but the economic relationship has never been better.  Since 2001, trade between the UK and Russia has been growing by an average of 21% year-on-year.  Britain accounted for 15% of all investment in 2009, and over six hundred British companies have a base in the country.  This is not a one way street or a trading relationship based purely on commodities either.  Rusnano, the state enterprise responsible for developing Russia’s nanotech industries, is planning to spend $8.5bn on research and development and has recently invested in a Cambridge based nanotechnology company.  Russian companies accounted for 13% of all IPOs on the London Stock Exchange last year.

Moreover, Russia’s elite value their links to Britain.  Russians make up 15% of all foreign buyers in the London luxury property market, and Russian tourists bring in some £500m a year, as much as their American counterparts.  Cultural ties between the two countries also remain strong.  Gone are the days when Russian “friendship societies” were euphemisms for left-wing political organisations that agitated for the acceptance of Soviet repression.  An exhibition at the London Victoria & Albert Museum of Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes has attracted over 50,000 visitors since September.  The UK and Russia recently signed an information exchange and support agreement on major sporting events to promote an economic legacy from the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

One of the biggest problems in getting the Anglo-Russian relationship back on track has been to define exactly what we want to get out of it.  Those who have described the lingering difficulties between Russia and the West as a new Cold War are inaccurate.  Unlike the real Cold War, Russia has no ideology of aggression or expansion that it wishes to impose on the rest of the world.  Compared to the threat of nuclear conflict and mutually assured destruction prevalent throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the current tension in Anglo-Russian relations is a relatively minor blip in global affairs. 

However, that is not to say there is genuine disagreement and serious problems that need to be resolved, nor is it an attempt to view Russia through rose tinted glasses when there are obviously some quite serious flaws in its hybrid democracy, most notably in terms of the rule of law, political accountability and media freedoms.  Some of the bilateral issues which have caused the most difficulty could easily be resolved by a renewed diplomatic offensive and some give-and-take on both sides.  Others are a symptom not so much of Russia’s growing power and influence in the world, but the internal contradictions and problems she is experiencing at this stage in her development.

The most serious issue from Britain’s point of view is the extradition of Andrey Lugovoy, a member of State Duma for the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the main suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.  There has never been anything more than speculation that the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was carried out at the behest of the Russian authorities, and indeed, such a course of action would have been counterproductive from almost any angle given that Litvinenko was a discredited and obscure figure who in six years in the UK had failed to produce any substantive evidence for his allegations against Vladimir Putin.  Nonetheless, he was a British citizen, apparently murdered on British soil, and so it is right that the British Government press in the strongest possible terms for Lugovoy’s extradition.

The extradition of a Russian citizen for trial in a third country is actually illegal under Article 6.11 of the Russian Constitution, which states: “A citizen of the Russian Federation may not be deported from Russia or extradited to another state”.  However, a solution to this impasse could be found, particularly if the will to do so was there.  Russia has previously expressed a readiness to progress with a trial on Russian soil, perhaps under UK law or presided over by a judge from a third, mutually agreeable country.  Another option, although less preferable, would be to provide the Russian police with the evidence needed to investigate and prosecute Andrey Lugovoy in his home country, with the United Russia majority in the State Duma having the power to strip him of his parliamentary immunity.

The distrust on both sides makes it difficult to believe this will happen any time soon.  Russia’s attitude has been hardened by the insensitive manner in which the subject was raised by David Miliband, who as Foreign Secretary airily demanded that the Russians simply change their constitution, and by the UK’s perceived double standards on issues of asylum and extradition.  Britain has been generous in granting asylum to Russian citizens, and has denied more than 150 extradition requests from Moscow since 2001.

Russia has been particularly anxious to secure the extradition of the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who in 2007 said in an interview with The Guardian that he was using Britain as a base to overthrow the Russian Government, and Akhmed Zakayev, a prominent Chechen activist and former Minister of Culture under the separatist regime of Dzhokar Dudayev.  The situation is not as clear as Russia implies, since extradition requests in the UK are a matter for the courts rather than politicians, and there are such serious doubts about the independence of the Russian judiciary that in these high profile cases a fair trial cannot realistically be considered a credible prospect.

The next stage of Russia’s electoral cycle will begin with elections to the State Duma in December and a presidential election in March 2012.  Recent changes to the length of parliamentary and presidential terms mean that the winner of the 2012 election will enjoy a further six years in the Kremlin, with the possibility to seek re-election in 2018.  The question of whether Vladimir Putin will attempt a return to office, or whether Dmitry Medvedev will seek re-election has dominated political discussion in Russia almost since the day Medvedev was first elected.  Most observers expect Medvedev to stand down in 2012 and allow Putin to regain his old position.  Both Putin and Medvedev have refused to be drawn on their intentions, stating that they will decide the matter between themselves closer to the time.

The outcome may not be as clear as most commentators expect.  There has been a gradual realisation amongst the Russian elite that the economic growth and improvement in living standards seen under Putin will soon hit a plateau unless deep seated problems with corruption, a lack of judicial independence and property rights, and a stagnant political environment with a lack of any serious competition, are resolved.

In a major speech in 2009, Medvedev called for the “modernisation” of Russia and said the country will simply not be able to survive unless it adopts an economic model based on high technology and private sector innovation.  Medvedev has lamented Russia’s “backwardness” and its “archaic” and “paternalistic” society.  Last month, the Chief Justice of Russia’s Constitutional Court warned that if the relationship between the state and organised crime, described by US officials in the recent WikiLeaks cables, continued to deepen, then Russians may soon seek the “strong hand” of a dictatorship to protect them from rampant crime.

While Medvedev is most closely associated with the modernisation project, the prospect of a four-term, twenty year Putin presidency draws uncomfortable parallels with the Brezhnev era.  Last month, one of the smaller, Kremlin friendly parties stated that Medvedev, and not Putin, should be the establishment choice for president in 2012.  A caucus in the United Russia party was recently established to promote Medvedev’s agenda.  Recent opinion polls show that Dmitry Medvedev would easily win re-election if Putin were not a candidate for president in 2012, and even in a contest with his mentor the outcome is by no means uncertain.  Polls suggest Medvedev would take 42% to Putin’s 48%, hardly an insurmountable gap especially considering that Medvedev would enjoy the advantage of incumbency and the administrative resources that created an election winning machine under Putin.

Russia is currently undergoing a generational change as the former Communist apparatchiks and bureaucrats give way in the corridors of power to those who are younger and to whom nostalgia about Soviet prestige are archaic in a country where the basic organs of state do not work effectively.  This generation is profoundly aware that Russia is lagging behind the West, and has little interest in forming a geopolitical axis with Cuba, Turkmenistan and Venezuela.  It may be that it is this generational change, along with the economic and cultural links which have still proven strong even in the face of serious political differences, that finally gets the Anglo-Russian relationship back on track.


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