In countering the more hysterical commentary about perceived Russian tyranny, I am sometimes aware that it might appear that I do not want the country to be more free or democratic. That is assuredly not the case. I simply think that the best way in which to achieve such an outcome is not to brow-beat and demonise Russia, nor is it the display of flagrant hypocrisy and double-think in dealings with the Kremlin.
I do not, for example, think it is helpful to lecture Russia about intervention in their neighbours’ affairs, whilst simultaneously intervening most blatantly and directly in the affairs of a great many countries around the world. I do not believe it is reasonable to invoke international law to denounce separatist conflicts in Georgia (for example) whilst concurrently condemning Russia for invoking international law to denounce Kosovo’s declaration of independence. I do not consider reasonable demonising Russia for a failure to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whilst reserving the right to shelter wanted terrorists like Akhmed Zakayev and insurrectionist crooks like Boris Berezovsky from Russian justice.
These are merely examples of the double standards applied by western countries to Russia; the litany of hypocrisy is extensive. Russia has been abused, ignored and trampled under foot in the years since 1991. Indeed even as an increase in energy prices and the leadership of Vladimir Putin have allowed Russia to attempt to reassert itself on the international stage, the tendency remains to ignore its input and subvert its interests. Some commentators seem to feel the way to influence Russia and edge it towards western norms of representative democracy is to continue such a process of demonisation and hypocrisy. Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian is one such columnist.
On the eve of Russia’s presidential election Garton Ash has produced an article epitomising an attitude which can only lead to greater estrangement among Russians from the western prescription of how that great country should rule itself. We know that the presidential election on Sunday is unlikely to adhere to western notions of how a free and fair election should be conducted. Garton Ash is correct when he identifies the Russian regime as neither democratic nor entirely totalitarian. But where he runs into difficulty is in failing to acknowledge that most Russian people are perfectly aware of this too, and not only that, but they actually support and condone the character of the regime which Garton Ash condemns.
Of course Russian ascent to the notion of sovereign democracy does not make it a positive system and nor does it preclude western criticism. It is perfectly reasonable to advance the notion that a freer and fairer system would be preferable and indeed would allow the Kremlin to claim a greater degree of legitimacy for itself. However it should preclude the excoriating and demonising character of the criticism which is increasingly appearing in our newspapers and informing western opinion on Russia. It should also preclude the type of strong-armed and duplicitous diplomacy which Garton Ash proceeds to advocate.
To claim, as the Guardian article does, that “in recent years, the Russian wolf has run rings around the free countries of the world in general, and European ones in particular” is disingenuous to the point of being laughable. A commenter rightly points out below the article that the US is presently building a literal ring of missile defences around Russian territory. NATO has advanced to Russia’s borders despite implicit understanding since 1991 that the former Soviet bloc should not enter NATO and that should it do so, Russia would perceive this as a threat. Western support has fomented a series of colour revolutions in Russia’s near abroad and established a series of regimes which are more convivial to the west, but not necessarily more democratic, than those that preceded them. And only weeks ago much of the EU and the US circumvented the UN to recognise an illegal state explicitly against the wishes of Russia and with no regard to its opinion. If anyone has been running circles around anyone, it is certainly not Russia.
The gist of the article is that the EU must “get its act together” and present a united front against Russia. The message is to intimidate and face down the bear rather than to accord it respect. What is implicit in this analysis is that Russia should be considered an enemy, to be cowed and defeated by diplomatic or economic means if not by military might. Certainly a strategy less likely to win over Russians to a programme of westernising reform is difficult to conceive. But then perhaps Garton Ash’s concern is not actually to win Russian hearts and minds, after all for such a supposedly enlightened intellectual his diatribe is not without its moments of casual and generalising Russophobia – wishing for Putin’s death in one instance or the amorphous comment “there's something about being the top man in the Kremlin that gets to you in the end”.
Certainly Garton Ash is certainly not a believer in international law in any consistent way. Russia’s influence in the UN is cited as “spoiling powers”. Of course that’s the beauty about international bodies and the law they disseminate. It does not allow the kind of unipolar world which Garton Ash advocates to prevail. That is why the countries he champions have to circumvent it. And for that reason his concluding paragraph becomes drenched in irony. In order to avoid pariah status he demands Russia must show “more respect for the sovereignty of neighbouring states, and for human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad”.
Perhaps when the US and other states that recognised Kosovo show some respect for the sovereignty of Serbia and for the rule of international law, perhaps when human rights are not set aside due to self-declared special circumstances and perhaps when there is a consistent approach to advocating democracy, these states will have a right to lecture Russia. Otherwise they should recognise that like them Russia is an imperfect democracy, attempting to advance its interests on the international stage and accord it a bit more respect.