Understanding Russia: British Politicians Visit State Duma

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Understanding Russia: British Politicians Visit State Duma

Last month I joined a delegation of young political activists to the Russian Federation, where we met with politicians, journalists, cultural figures and opposition activists. The trip was organised by Rossotrudnichestvo, the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation – an organisation aimed at fostering friendly ties between Russia and other countries and promoting a more positive image of the country abroad.

It is fair to say that Russia does not have the best reputation in the West, with much of the discourse and media coverage portraying Vladimir Putin as an authoritarian despot intent on crushing democracy and threatening neighbouring countries. It is also the case that in the past few years, relations between Russia and the UK have not been as strong as they could be, despite positive and growing cultural, economic and family links. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko, disputes over extradition and resentment over what is seen as hectoring on human rights and double standards over foreign policy, have all complicated what should otherwise be productive discussions on bilateral issues such as loosening the visa regime and encouraging inward investment.














It was with these diplomatic obstacles in mind that our group went to the Moscow City Duma and the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation for a series of meetings with leaders from each of the parties represented in Russia’s parliament. Aware that some might think our acceptance of a trip to Russia would blunt any serious inquiry into political life in the country, we arrived with a series of controversial questions, including on recent legislation outlawing gay rights parades, the state of media freedom, relations with neighbouring post-Soviet states and the jailing of avant garde protest group Pussy Riot.

During our discussions there was consensus from all sides that the cooling of Anglo-Russian relations in recent years was a bad thing and that more was needed to be done to facilitate greater dialogue and engagement. When the discussion focused on the low hanging fruit of diplomacy, there was agreement that more needed to be done to encourage athletes and businessmen to visit our respective countries, that Russians are fondly inclined towards British culture and there is likewise great appreciation for Tolstoy and Pushkin in the UK, and that throughout history we have usually come to one another’s assistance in times of crises.

On this superficial basis, the most agreeable discussion we held was with Ivan Melnikov, the Deputy Speaker of the State Duma and Deputy Chairman of the Communist Party. Melnikov proudly showed us a collection of trophies won by the communist faction in various sports contests between the different parties in the Duma. His party, we were told, had a great respect for British sporting endeavour and had huge admiration for the way we had made the London Olympics a success. Asked if the communists coming to power in Russia might damage relations with the West, given their role as the successors to those responsible for the gulags, repression, collectivisation and famine, Melnikov gave a quizzical look. “Of course not,” he told us. “These were mistakes of the past. They won’t be repeated next time”. It reminded me that the most evil ideologies often come in the form of smiling and genial old men.











The trickier discussions came when thornier areas of disagreement were approached. While the jailing of Pussy Riot has become a cause célèbre in the West, with many seeing them as political prisoners locked up for speaking out against Vladimir Putin, we found that ordinary Russians saw their protest as blasphemous, and an attack on Russia’s religious and cultural values. “I don’t like the authorities and I don’t agree with Putin”, said an activist from one of the parties not represented in the State Duma, “but I don’t support them. I don’t like women who describe themselves through their genitals. I don’t like their pornography. What they did had nothing to do with politics”.

On this subject and others, it was felt British people did not appreciate the spiritual and socially conservative nature of Russian society. When asked about gay rights, most of the Russian attendees at our meetings sniggered like schoolchildren. “Russia is not ready for such things”, Sergey Orlov, Chairman of the Moscow City Duma, told us. “Gay people already have freedom to do what they like. Why do they need to parade about it? Most people find this offensive and do not want it”.












The recurring theme of our meetings was that Britain either did not understand Russia, or treated it hypocritically and with double standards. On the subject of Litvinenko and whether Russia would extradite the main suspect, Andrey Lugovoy, for trial in Britain, we were told the Russian constitution prohibits the extradition of their citizens to foreign countries and that it was offensive to demand that this obstacle be ignored. It was also pointed out to us that Britain harbours many people Russia would like to see extradited and the UK authorities have been far from cooperative.

A similar response came when we raised other areas of disagreement.  When the issue of Russia’s arms sales to Syria and support for Assad was brought up, we were reminded about Britain’s support for Bahrain, which has suppressed opposition protests in a brutal fashion. When the discussion turned to the war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, it was suggested that Russia had behaved no differently to how NATO acted over Kosovo. In short, Russians felt that they were being demonised for doing exactly the same as Western countries.

“We do want to have better relations with Britain,” Aleksey Pushkov, the pugnacious and hugely articulate Chairman of the Duma’s International Relations Committee, told us, “but quite frankly, the problems are all on your side”. It was suggested that in their representations about human rights and multilateral disagreements, British diplomats held Russia to a far higher standards than other countries whose records in these areas are much worse. “You would never speak to China the way you speak to us. You would never speak to Saudi Arabia the way you speak to us”, Pushkov said. Russia is ready to be a partner with the West, we were told, but not until we learn to treat Russia with respect and on an equal footing.

A more surreal approach to Anglo-Russian relations was adopted by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, who arrived forty minutes late and proceeded to berate our group for the ills of the world, lambasting Britain’s responsibility for, amongst others, the Napoleonic wars, the Crimean War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the First and Second World Wars. In true Zhirinovsky fashion, having screamed and left us shell shocked, he then suggested that we go out for vodka shots – an invitation politely declined – before doling out autographs and pens, t-shirts and baseball caps adorned with his party’s logo.











Our group left the Duma facing something of a paradox. All sides wanted better relations and saw this was in the best interest of both countries. But Russia’s economic success under Putin – including a six-fold increase in GDP, tripling of real wages and five-fold increase in the price of oil and gas – has left it demanding that this rapprochement take place on terms agreeable to Moscow as well as the West. Any improvement in relations will therefore depend not only on a shift in attitude amongst the Russia sceptics and Putin critics in Britain, but also amongst the British sceptics in an increasingly assertive and confident Russia.