The Bear and the Bulldog
A RECENT radio advertisement nicely hinted at Russia's dual attitude towards Britain. Just as the Kremlin ordered the British Council to shut down its regional offices in Russia, a popular Moscow radio station advertised the sale of homes within “a new settlement of elite cottages” called Richmond. Richmond is found in the most expensive part of Moscow’s suburbia, next to president Vladimir Putin's residence. The advert boasted of “English style with Russian hospitality” and offered security and a lifestyle worthy of the local super-rich elite.
England has traditionally been a subject of envy and aspiration but also of distrust and irritation, particularly to Russian politicians. (It is said that Joseph Stalin hated the sight of the Union flag flying above the British embassy across the river from the Kremlin). Both attitudes are based on the fact that Britain is an antithesis to Russia—seen in its attitude to law, property rights and individual liberties. London has been a magnet for the Russian elite, but also a source of the dangerous bug of democracy. The British Council scandal may seem to be a bilateral matter between the two countries, but it is as good a test as any of Russia's own attitude to law and its relationship with the West and treatment of its own people.
The tension goes back at least a few years to the time when Britain granted political asylum to Boris Berezovsky, a renegade Russian tycoon and Akhmed Zakaev, a Chechen separatist leader. The gesture was deemed unfriendly by Moscow and was followed by several spats and spy scandals. The relationship worsened after the killing of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB man, in London late in 2006. The latest episode flared up two days after Dmitry Medvedev was handpicked to succeed Vladimir Putin as Russia's president.
On December 12th, Russia's Ministry of Foreign affairs told the British Council that its regional offices were operating illegally (anything that the Kremlin does not like is deemed illegal these days) and that they should be closed down. But since there was no court decision, Britain had reasonably argued that the order by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no legal basis and in fact broke an international convention which regulates its activity. But Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, quickly explained that Britain had only itself to blame. First, he said, Britain demanded the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer, accused by the Crown Prosecution Service of poisoning Mr Litvinenko with radioactive material in London. Then, when Russia refused, Britain severed its relationship with the FSB, the successor of the KGB, and promised to tighten the visa regime for Russia's officials.
In other words, the order to close down the British Council's offices had little to do with the legal or the questionable tax status of the British cultural body (as Russian officials had argued). When the British Council offices reopened, despite Russia's order, after a long winter break, Russia called it provocation. But instead of going to court, the Russian ministry of Foreign Affairs went to the traffic police and the security services. Russian staff of the British council were summoned to the FSB for “explanatory talks” and Stephen Kinnock, the head of the St Petersburg office of the British Council was detained by the traffic police for a minor traffic offence and accused of driving while drunk. The British Council said that intimidation left it with no choice but to close down its regional offices. (It is still allowed to operate in Moscow).
One question which remains unanswered is what purpose this serves for Russia, six weeks before presidential elections on March 2nd? The benign theory is that the FSB, feeling upset by the promotion of Mr Medvedev who had never served in the KGB, wanted to make its presence felt. The other, more worrying theory, is that the pressure is part of an election programme and a taste of anti-Westernism which is likely to dominate Russian politics for the next few years.
While Mr Lavrov accuses Britain of colonialism, David Miliband, Britain's Foreign Secretary, says that the actions of the Russian government are “reprehensible” and hark back to Soviet days. There is one important difference however. Russian leaders today—unlike the Communist party bosses of old—own property in London and many send their children to elite schools in Britain. Critics say this makes the action of the Russian officials particularly hypocritical. By closing down the regional offices of the British Council they are putting barriers in the way of less privileged Russians who benefited from its programmes. Anthony Brenton, the British Ambassador to Moscow, says the main losers in this saga are ordinary Russian people. This does not seem to bother the Russian ruling elite: Richmond is a club for the privileged.
You are correct when you say that the Russians do not trust Britain.
Their super spy Sydeny Rielly ( a Ukranian jew ) was only hours away from taking control of Russia early in the revolution..
Lenin got in by the skin of his teeth..