Britain's Conservatives are rolling out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin's wealthy oligarchs.
- By Michael WeissMichael Weiss is the editor in chief of the Interpreter, an online journal that translates and analyzes Russian media. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeldweiss.
When most people think of British-Russian relations, they imagine Bond films, iron curtains, Cambridge double agents, irradiated dissidents, and billionaire oligarchs who dress like Evelyn Waugh but behave like Tony Soprano and then sue each other in London courts. But there’s another element underwriting this not-so-special relationship.
British elites, elected or otherwise, have grown highly susceptible to the unscrutinized rubles that continue to pour into the boom-or-boom London real estate market and a luxury-service industry catering to wealthy Russians who are as bodyguarded as they are jet-set. This phenomenon has not only imported some of the worst practices of a mafia state across the English Channel, but it has had a deleterious impact on Britain’s domestic politics. And some of the most powerful and well-connected figures of British public life, from the Rothschilds to former prime ministers, have been taken in by it. Most surprising, though, is how the heirs to Margaret Thatcher’s fierce opposition to the Soviets have often been the ones most easily seduced by the Kremlin’s entreaties.
On Aug. 21, a new lobby group called Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR) was launched at the London home of Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to Britain. The launch was attended by some 250 guests, including parliamentarians, Conservative Party members, businessmen, lobbyists, NGO representatives, and even princes. Yakovenko and Member of Parliament John Whittingdale, who chairs the Culture Select Committee in Parliament and is an "honorary vice president" of CFoR, both delivered keynote addresses. The lavish do in the backyard of the Kremlin envoy featured, as the Guardian reported, a "barbecue, drinks and a raffle, with prizes of vodka, champagne and a biography of Vladimir Putin," and it came just days after the Pussy Riot verdict. It was an open invitation to controversy. If CFoR wanted to portray itself as merely a promoter of "dialogue" between Britain and Russia, it was an odd beginning for a group born looking and sounding a lot like "Tories for Putin."
CFoR was founded by Richard Royal, a public affairs manager at Ladbrokes, a popular chain of betting parlors in Britain. He also owns his own company, Lionheart Public Affairs, which has no website but shares a registered address with the new pro-Russia lobby group. Responding to the storm of criticism his new project has provoked, Royal took to the Guardian‘s website to defend the initiative against what he called "armchair critics on Twitter," in language you’d expect from a PR professional. "Whether we like it or not," Royal wrote, "Russia is an influential and essential part of the international community and its importance will only grow over time. We need to stop making decisions based on misconceptions that are decades old, and deal with reality."
Royal’s notion of "reality" will strike some observers as rather loosely defined. He claims that "democracy [in Russia] is only just approaching its 21st birthday" when it has actually been in a state of arrested development for 12 years. The rest of his op-ed is a vague endorsement of better Anglo-Russian cooperation on energy, science, and technology and of a relaxation of Britain’s visa requirements for Russian businesses — all of which are, of course, fully in line with the desires of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The recent clampdown on civil society, the forced registration of NGOs as "foreign agents," Putin’s backing and arming of Syria’s Assad regime, and the arrests of other members of the Russian protest movement, from Garry Kasparov to Alexey Navalny, earn not a single mention by Royal or CFoR on their website, despite their avowed interest in fostering cozier relations between peoples, not governments. Royal has boasted on Facebook of the "great deal of support for our fantastic organisation" received at another Russian Embassy event featuring Yakovenko and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. With friends like these, CFoR isn’t likely to stray very far from the Kremlin line. To date, CFoR’s loudest campaign has been waged against Britain’s Foreign Office, which cites technical prohibitions on allowing Russia to award the Medal of Ushakov to surviving British participants in the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union during World War II. (Much as the lobby rails against a Cold War mindset, it seems quite comfortable intervening vociferously on an issue that seems better tailored to a Soviet-era "friendship" society.)
Consider, too, the "news" section of the group’s site. One item that conspicuously stood out was "The miserable meowing of Pussy Riot," which accused the feminist punk group of "scandalous and pedophilic acts" and claimed the court that sentenced three of its members to two years in jail "has treated the hooligans gently enough." That article came courtesy of Pravda.ru, the combination propaganda mill/supermarket tabloid run by Vadim Gorshenin, an underling of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. After several MPs and newspapers called attention to CFoR’s pro-Kremlin media portfolio, the anti-Pussy Riot screed was removed from the site.
More alarming was the interview Royal gave to Ilya Goryachev, the former head of Russky Obraz ("Russian Image"), a neo-Nazi outfit that has called for the restriction of civil rights for "aboriginal non-Slavic" citizens outside areas where they heavily predominate and for a ban on interracial marriage. Russky Obraz became notorious when two of its members, Nikita Tikhonov and his girlfriend, Yevgenia Khasis, were convicted last year for the murders of human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a reporter for muckraking newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who rushed to Markelov’s rescue. He was shot in the head in central Moscow in 2009 directly after leaving a news conference at which he’d promised to fight the early release of Russian Col. Yuri Budanov, who was imprisoned in 2000 for strangling an 18-year-old Chechen woman to death. That Goryachev had taken an interest in a new right-wing pro-Russia lobby group abroad should have unnerved rather than flattered any good public relations professional. Goryachev got what he came for in that interview, with Royal confining his boilerplate responses to how Russia unfairly judged "on the basis of misconceptions and outdated beliefs" and how it’s no other country’s business to "lecture" Moscow on Caucasian separatism or counterterrorism.
It also won’t help CFoR’s benign self-portrait that among its honorary vice presidents is Andrew Rosindell, a Tory parliamentarian who in June expressed his "huge admiration" for Augusto Pinochet and suggested that he would "happily" join a Facebook fan club for the dead Chilean junta leader who killed, tortured, or disappeared tens of thousands. What does puzzle some is the presence of former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who is generally thought of as gimlet-eyed about Putinism, as an honorary president of CFoR.* (Rifkind didn’t attend the CFoR launch; he was in Edinburgh.)
When contacted by email, Royal told me that CFoR receives no money from the Russian government, nor has any past or present Russian official contracted Lionheart Public Affairs for campaign work. Rather, the entire initiative is funded "from membership and events," and everyone works on a volunteer basis. I asked about the website’s news feed, which, since the launch event at Yakovenko’s house, continued to feature only state-owned or state-subsidized outlets such as Voice of Russia, RIA Novosti, and Russia Beyond the Headlines. These selections, Royal replied, were "entirely coincidental.… [W]e have used a wide range of providers, and simply want something with Russian-related news which very few international agencies provide." CFoR doesn’t endorse any articles that appear on the website, Royal noted, while adding that he had just included the independently owned Moscow Times to the news feed.
Following our email exchange, Royal and CFoR took part in a 10-day trip to Russia paid for by Rossotrudnichestvo, a new state "cultural agency" that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sees as "play[ing] an important role" in the furthering of Russian foreign policy. Royal used this government-funded excursion to see what he calls the "real Russia": He did a spot on Russia Today — the Kremlin-controlled television channel that veers between feverish anti-American conspiracy and nothing-to-see-here coverage of Russia’s domestic turmoil — in which he explained that he and his retinue (members of which he elsewhere refused to identify) met with politicians and "opposition" figures. I asked which ones.
"We met with lots of representatives from United Russia, A Just Cause, LDPR, Communist Party," Royal replied, naming officially tolerated opposition parties in the Duma, "and chairs of foreign affairs committees, energy advisers and so on." So no one from the protest movement, which held a 50,000-strong rally in Moscow while Royal was in the country, or from the besieged civil society sector, such as the election monitor Golos or the human rights watchdog Memorial? Nope. Two of the organizations Royal mentioned meeting with are part of the Kremlin’s new "public diplomacy" outreach, including the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund and the Russian International Affairs Council (here’s Lavrov expanding fondly on them). A third was the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, a government-run business development group on whose advisory board Putin sits. All was not Potemkin theater, however: "Several of us also attended a ‘Free Pussy Riot’ concert," wrote Royal.
Pretend naiveté about an increasingly authoritarian regime competes with CFoR’s general posture, which Nabokov might have called yuppie "poshlust." The group’s monthly calendar of events displays a passion for kitschy networking opportunities. Young Tories seeking lucrative consultancy gigs with Gazprom won’t want to miss "Pancakes until 6pm" at Mari Vanna (a pricey restaurant in Knightsbridge) or the standing Saturday-night "Russki London Party" at the Harrington Club ("DJ A-Lex will treat you to selection of best club hits and many Russian popular remixes.… Best place to celebrate your Birthday Party ‘Russian style’!")
This is quite a distance for the Conservative Party to have traveled from Thatcher’s Iron Lady stolidity. With a few notable back-bench exceptions, the younger generation of Conservatives has tended toward softness on the new master of the Kremlin, a disposition that predates the party’s return to government in the last election. When Prime Minister David Cameron was still just an opposition leader, he yanked his party out of the dominant center-right voting bloc in the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in favor of joining with Putin’s United Russia along with a few far-right European political parties to vote on recommendations and investigations into human rights, the state of democracy, and the rule of law in member countries. The Conservatives even campaigned to have Mikhail Margelov, a former KGB officer, appointed president of PACE. Despite a promise to cancel this affiliation following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, during which Cameron traveled to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and sounded as hawkish and anti-Kremlin as he ever has, Conservatives continue to caucus with United Russia, probably for the unremarkable reason that both parties are ideologically opposed to pan-European institutions or treaties in the first place.
The grim Tory-United Russia alliance is also doing real harm to the very liberals and pro-Western actors within Russia with whom Britain ought to be showing solidarity. This month, PACE introduced a resolution recognizing a years-long survey, newly published by an appointed monitoring committee, into the state of Russia’s democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Everything from the Pussy Riot trial to the continued imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to the state’s murder of whistle-blowing attorney Sergei Magnitsky was examined by the committee. The committee’s report was adopted with over two-thirds of delegates voting in favor. But every Tory in PACE voted against an amendment, which recommended further year-on-year monitoring of Russia for the issues raised in the initial report, such as the curtailment of civil liberties, the harassment of NGO workers and journalists, a lack of judicial independence, and the continued impunity for state officials culpable for the deaths of pretrial detainees such as Magnitsky and Vera Trifonova, a 53-year-old real estate agent who died after being denied a badly needed medical furlough. The recommendation measure failed to obtain the requisite two-thirds of the vote (it needed 136 "in favor" votes to pass; it received 121), thanks to "against" votes by eight Tory MPs and their co-thinkers from Russia, Serbia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. Given that, in Russia, elections are still rigged, bribes by officials are now listed by the Finance Ministry as non-tax-deductible, slander and libel have been recriminalized, the U.S. Agency for International Development has been expelled, and Internet censorship is being introduced under the pretext of combating child pornography, the need for a follow-up investigation by the monitoring committee is indisputable. Conservatives thus find themselves on the side of authoritarianism and cynicism.
Like U.S. President Barack Obama, Cameron came to the national leadership with a plan for revivifying bilateral relations after a nadir in the mid-2000s. In Britain’s case that was 2006, the year of both the "spy rock" incident — in which British officials were caught red-handed using a hollowed-out rock in a Moscow park as a communications drop site — and the nuclear assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. (An inquest ordered by his widow, Marina, into his death is under way, and Kenneth Macdonald, who was director of public prosecutions in 2006, has expressed the "gravest suspicions" that the poisoning involved state actors — yet another bit of Anglo-Russian news CFoR finds unworthy of discussion.)
Cameron’s much-touted state visit to Moscow in September 2011 — a visit that coincided with the NATO intervention in Libya, which Putin opposed — was, by even low diplomatic standards, a busted flush. Even Putin’s attendance at the Olympics in July came and went with no major policy announcement; he and Cameron talked about Syria and then attended a judo match. Cameron evidently raised the Pussy Riot case but found his guest was "not particularly responsive," as the Guardian reported with fine English understatement.
So what’s CFoR’s long game? The lobby is clearly acting as a helpmeet of Putin’s strictly business interests in Britain, and its contrived air of neutrality seems perfectly placed for convincing a new generation of Tories that Russia is little more than Upper Volga with hedge funds. Royal, for instance, does not seem to know that his choice of a promotional vehicle was an infamous neo-Nazi; nor do any of the Facebook followers of CFoR’s group page seem much bothered by the Goryachev interview. And why should they? Assassinated dissidents, rampant state corruption, and the steady erosion of hard-won political freedoms simply aren’t priorities in London right now. "Russia is a massive economy with a huge amount of natural resources and the potential to invest further afield," Royal told Goryachev. That was before Russia’s state-owned oil giant, Rosneft, became the world’s largest publicly traded energy company — by buying out BP’s stake in TNK-BP.
With its first-rate tax avoidance system, strict libel laws, good living, and easy access to Moscow (the flight’s just four hours long), London was always poised to serve as both a clearinghouse for Kremlin-connected billionaires and a propaganda mill for the attendant influencers who underwrite them. This is why oligarchs and state officials alight in Blighty to go on shopping sprees at Harrods, educate their offspring at elite schools, hobnob with aristocrats, and buy football clubs, medieval castles, and lavish country piles. So long as "Moscow-on-Thames" continues to prosper, lobby groups like Conservative Friends of Russia will do as brisk a trade as the blinis at Mari Vanna.
*UPDATED: And so he is. Sir Malcom resigned on Friday, November 23, from the honorary presidency of CFoR after the lobby published a homophobic attack piece on Chris Bryant MP, the openly gay Labourite parliamentarian who heads the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia. Bryant, who has been denied a visa to travel to Russia, is an outspoken critic of the Putin regime’s human rights abuses. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Sir Malcolm was “very unhappy” with CFoR’s trajectory since its founding and the piece was the “final straw” for him.