The Conservative Friends of Russia: “The UK and Russia have a lot in Common”

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The Conservative Friends of Russia: “The UK and Russia have a lot in Common”

Being a Friend of Russia is not the same as being a Friend of the Russian government believe Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR), a group for those with an interest in Russian politics, history, business and culture. The organisation was launched two years ago by the UK Conservative Party, aiming to improve relations between the two countries, provide a forum for open debate and help to inform decision making in business and politics. It has since grown to gain significant popularity and involvement with a wide range of people from differing backgrounds.

In an interview with RussianMind Richard Royal, the Chairman of CFoR told us why it is important to strengthen Russia-UK relations:

RM: The Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR) was conceived in 2010 by members of the UK Conservative Party, but it is not necessary to be a member of the Conservative Party to be a member of CFoR. So who are involved in your organisation?

RR: We’re connected to the party and many of our members, organisers and speakers are party members, but it’s part of their constitution as well as ours that such groups are not exclusionary. But I’d say around 50% of our members are also Conservative Party members. The rest are from businesses, charities, cultural organisations and those who simply have an interest in our subject area and the events we hold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RM: You say that CFoR is neutral towards Russian politics. What is CFoR’s focus?

RR: Our neutrality in this area is important, because we are Friends of Russia, not of the Russian Government or of a particular Party or Politician. It’s very easy for the western media to portray us as some sort of Kremlin puppets, which we’re far from being and shows the inherent bias in the media. Nevertheless, we want this issue to be very clear on this point so that there is no misunderstanding. We don’t exist to defend or promote every decision the Russian Government takes and individuals within the organisation are free to make up their own minds on each issue. What we do seek to encourage is people having access to the full facts and correct information and listening to different sides of the argument, rather than making assumptions and jumping to conclusions.  

RM: Your official launch was at the Russian Ambassador’s residence this summer and it made a splash in the mass media. Unfortunately, many British publications were negative towards CFoR’s friendship with Russia. Why do you think there are so many controversies about Russia?

RR: It was no surprise to me that a left-wing newspapers and several Labour politicians would criticise an initiative by the Conservatives. It happens every day. I was however very disappointed by some journalists reporting things they knew to be false, that we and others proved to be false. Once something is written, even a retraction or correction doesn’t resolve the problem and this is a real problem with the media which has been highlighted a lot recently. They have a preconception about Russia – that it is corrupt, that Putin is a dictator, that people have no freedom, that every second person is a spy and that an organisation such as ours must be engaged in some conspiracy. Issues like Litvinenko and Pussy Riot don’t help to dispel this, certainly. But it isn’t the Cold War anymore, and we don’t live in a James Bond film! We have to get beyond these stereotypes and try to improve relations going forwards. As part of this I believe the media has a responsibility to report the truth.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RM: Why does your organisation believe it is a good idea for the UK to develop relations with Russia?

RR: Russia is a very influential and significant country on the world stage and it is becoming more, not less, important. It’s ridiculous to think we can put our heads in the sand and ignore it. The UK and Russia have a lot in common, as former empires at the bookends of Europe. Many people don’t realise the links we already have, like that more than half of the coal we import that keeps our lights and TVs on, comes from Russia. Or that 20,000 Russian students come to study in the UK each year. Russia is also our fastest growing major export market, growing an average of 21% a year, so there are also real opportunities for British businesses, areas where we have great expertise whilst Russians are new to the game, such as in service industries. We’ve just held the Olympics and Russia has both the Winter Olympics and the World Cup approaching so these are areas where they will look to us for advice.

RM: What steps are you taking to strengthen these relations?

RR: We hold regular events to bring people together, to talk openly about issues and to inform decision makers, whether it be in politics, business or culture. Experience of meeting people and discussing things is a big step in breaking down barriers and understanding each other better. The very fact that our group exists and has rapidly become one of the most popular political interest groups in the country sends a very clear signal to decision makers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RM: Where do you see as the most prospective areas in British-Russian co-operation?

RR: Energy is an obvious one. Russia is full of natural resources, whilst the UK is heading towards an energy crisis. Each year we have reports of rising energy costs and pensioners being unable to heat their homes. Diversification of supply and increased resource availability has to help this and Russia is an obvious source. There are also many areas of science and technology where we are already working together and this should be encouraged. I also mentioned the service industry and the sporting events organisation where we have great experience and expertise to offer.

RM: In the UK, as well as in many other European countries, stereotypes about Russian vodka, bears and frost are still alive and taken seriously. Why are Russians still perceived through a prism of stereotypes?

RR: It’s mostly fear of the unknown. But stereotypes aren’t unique to Russia, most countries have them, including Britain. And I’d say vodka, bears and frost are at the tamer end of things. Sometimes they can be useful, we’ve certainly taken advantage when we held a Vodka Party advertised with a photo of Yeltsin and our mascot is Medvedovic the Polar Bear! I’d be more concerned by stereotypes of corruption, authoritarianism, spying and oligarchs throwing around their cash. Unfortunately many people might go through life never having met a Russian person or have been to Russia, so they only have the information spoon-fed to them by films, computer games and the media. So part of our role is about educating and informing – giving people access and experience of Russia, Russian people, Russian culture, Russian business...allowing them to ask questions and explore freely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RM: What do you think about Russians who leave their country to live in the UK? Do they try to build a bridge between the two countries or do they just choose a place, where the grass is greener?

RR: Many left during the 1990s when the grass was certainly greener and things were more stable and secure in the West. Now there isn’t such a difference. Many come here because they respect the institutions we have, particularly our educational ones, but most Russians I know in the UK still talk of returning ‘home’ later in their careers and make regular trips back to see family. There is always a tendency for people in a new country to remain in familiar circles, but I’ve always found Russians to be extremely open and friendly and part of the reason for groups such as ours is to help build bridges and bring people together.

RM: How do you see the future of Russia in the next 5 years?

RR: Russia is on a long and difficult road. People forget where it was just a decade or two ago. It was a country in tatters, queues for bread, money wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, and the world looked on horrified and unsure what to do. When I first visited Russia in 2000 people used American dollars because the rouble was so unstable and children begged for money in Red Square. Only a generation ago we were on the verge of war. People also forget it’s not so long ago that countries like Germany and Japan needed help to move on and rebuild. In many ways Russia has come a long way in a short space of time and we have to keep that in mind, things don’t happen overnight. But it’s now emerging as an important economy, attracting investment and improving opportunities. Its’ political system is still in its infancy really and many Russians feel burned by the experience of the 1990s. So the next five years is really about consolidating what has been achieved and building upon it. Sochi and the World Cup offer great opportunities to show a new bold Russia to the world.

RM: Please tell us about the coming plans for CFoR. What events are you planning to hold in the near future?

RR: We’ve some great events, including an ‘Old New Years’ Dinner with the former Defence and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP; a special event a week before the forthcoming US Election with a panel of experts discussing how the campaigns and the result could affect Russian foreign policy; well known authors and academics speaking on the political system; several networking events which our members specifically asked for. The UK’s new Energy Minister has pledged to speak at an event for us, as have several other MPs and Government Ministers. I’d urge anybody who is interested to become a member - it’s a very reasonable £16 - and come along to our events!

RM: What are the most important things to remember for both British and Russian people in reaching an understanding?

RR: Not to be judgemental. It’s simply not the case that Britain does everything right and Russia does everything wrong and we shouldn’t always be in the business of lecturing sovereign countries over their internal affairs. There are times when I think we haven’t come far from 19th Century Imperialism, when we held the view that the Western developed nations had an obligation to educate and civilise the rest of the world and that we knew what was best for them. But we have to take account of different cultures, histories, traditions and circumstances. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and we need to get away from the idea that there is. 

RM: One Russian poet said that “Russia cannot be understood by brain”. Do you agree or disagree with that comment?

RR: Well of course Sir Winston Churchill also famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Yes, it’s not an easy country to understand, and it’s always been a little confused of its own role I think. The size of it and the fact that it has to play to two audiences – East and West – is both its strength and weakness. Throughout Russia’s history its’ gone back and forth, changing capitals and alliances to reflect this. I think both Putin and Medvedev in essence want to be more Western, but they’ve certainly not been greeted with open arms and in some cases have experienced closed doors and brick walls, so they may start going the other way which makes our experience and understanding of them more difficult to improve.

RM: And the last question, what do you understand by the phrase “Russian Mind?”

RR: I’m sorry, I’m not a psychiatrist! ;)

Find out more about Conservative Friends of Russia at www.cfor.org.uk.

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