Russia, a government without scruples

28.05.07 Publication:

A few years ago, the thuggish behaviour of Moscow police towards gay-rights activists might have been dismissed merely as signs of Russia’s backwardness. It will take time to emerge from more than seven decades of Soviet Communism, sympathisers might have said; at least Russia is moving in the right direction, towards democracy and human rights. But that defence no longer works. We can now all see that this behaviour is part of a pattern. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, power and force are what count. Nothing else, including the rule of law, matters.

            That fact would anyway be clear from this weekend’s example. Homosexuality is legal in Russia, having been decriminalised 14 years ago. But the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, still feels at liberty to describe it as “satanic” and to ban all gay parades in his city, and the city police still feel at liberty to arrest European parliamentarians who were present to support the gay-rights petitioners.

            It is also clear from many other examples, however. One of the world’s biggest oil companies, BP, is in the course of having its investment in a huge gas field confiscated, on an invented claim that its joint venture with three Russian billionaires, TNK-BP, has broken the terms of its licence. The billionaires are likely to be forced to sell their shares to Russia’s massive state-owned gas company, Gazprom. This may just be part of the Kremlin’s efforts to take control of all Russia’s energy resources; or it may be in retaliation at Britain’s decision to press charges against a former KGB spy, Andrei Lugovoi, for the murder with radioactive Polonium of another ex-KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in London last November.

            Litvinenko is not the only critic of the Russian government who has died mysteriously in a foreign city. In 2004 Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, an exiled Chechen leader, was blown up in Doha, the capital of Qatar, by Russian agents. Paul Joyal, an American expert on Russian intelligence and a friend of Litvinenko, was lucky to survive when he was shot outside his home in Washington, DC, just a week after accusing the Kremlin on American television of having arranged Litvinenko’s murder.

            Much of this, one might say, is a worry chiefly for Russians themselves. But that is not, unfortunately, the case. Russia’s tiny neighbours, the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, can testify that others need to worry too. Russia has used energy blackmail on Lithuania, for example, by shutting off a vital oil pipeline to that country’s main oil refinery. Supposedly, it has been shut for urgent maintenance, but the closure has now lasted for almost a year.

            Estonia has suffered more directly, from riots by Russian citizens of Estonia, encouraged by Russia, when it decided to move a Soviet war memorial recently from the centre of the country’s capital, Tallinn. Gangs also attacked the Estonian embassy in Moscow, and the computer systems of government agencies and banks were crippled by a massive attack by hackers.

            The pattern is clear. Russia is a dangerous place and is led by an unscrupulous government. But what can we do about it? The first, unhelpful, answer is that our governments have to carry on dealing with Russia in the usual way: they must work with the government that exists, not the one they would like to exist. But the second and third answers are more helpful. The second is that no European leader must ever again behave towards a Russian president in the way Silvio Berlusconi did while he was prime minister: treating him as a cosy friend, and being photographed together at play. Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder also made that mistake.

The third answer is that Russian companies and even visiting officials should be given special, and rather tough treatment, to match the way in which Europeans are being treated in, and by, Russia. Efforts by Russian organisations to buy European companies, such as Aeroflot’s attempt to take a stake in Alitalia, should be blocked; that violates the free market, but so does Russia’s behaviour. Buyers of energy or other resources from Russia should band together to strengthen their negotiating hand with Russian suppliers. There is no longer any reason to treat Russia gently. That, after all, is not the way in which Russia behaves.