Ballets Russes: A scandal exposes the delicacy of Britain’s relationship with Russia

The Economist

IN JOHN LE CARRÉ’S 1990 thriller, “The Secret Pilgrim”, a retired British spy looks back, melancholy and uncertain, on his exotic career. The novel rightly consigns the “nonsense” of cold war espionage to a bygone age, says Russia’s embassy in London. It offered this literary insight in response to recent reports alleging links between shady Russian diplomats and Britain’s Conservative Party. The embassy accused the source of the offending reports, the Guardian, of “blatant disregard for common decency” and advised it to “exercise its freedom responsibly”. That the statement read like a Politburo screed did little to help its argument.

For the Tories, who are strenuously defending that same press freedom from proposed statutory regulations, the affair is deeply embarrassing. The subject of the Guardian’s investigation, the Conservative Friends of Russia (CFOR) group, was “too close to the Russian embassy”, admits a senior Tory. Its establishment and later ignominy illustrates the delicacy of politicians’ dealings with Russia.

The relationship between the two countries has long been choppy. The previous Labour government fell out with the Kremlin over Britain’s harbouring of Russian dissidents and renegade businessmen, and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. So Moscow turned its attention to the Conservatives. In 2010 the state-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported a wave of “Toryphilia” sweeping the Russian foreign ministry.

This quickly became evident to Sergei Cristo, a Russian-born Conservative fund-raiser, when a Russian diplomat “aggressively” sought to develop links between the Tories and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. When Mr Cristo learned of CFOR’s launch in August, he says he immediately suspected that diplomat’s hand. The group’s chair confirmed his suspicions.

The outfit was founded to “inform decision-making in business and politics”. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, its former honorary president, recalls that “it seemed like a perfectly reasonable initiative.” Soon, though, he and other MPs became concerned about the group’s impartiality. Conservative Home, a website, rejected several pro-Kremlin articles offered by CFOR. For Sir Malcolm the final straw came in late November when it published a “stupid and juvenile” attack on a Putin critic and Labour MP, Chris Bryant. Along with several others, Sir Malcolm immediately resigned.

Some accuse the Tories, whose partnerships within the EU have frayed of late, of being too close to Russia’s leaders. Mr Cameron’s deputies still sit with United Russia’s in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for example. But CFOR has no official affiliation to the party, and its relatively uncritical view of the Kremlin is shared by some in other parties. Powerful Russians come to London to bank, trade, settle legal disputes, educate their children and splurge with their petro-roubles. Politicians of all stripes, says a former Foreign Office adviser, are wary of undermining that commercial relationship. A smaller number, he adds, even admire Mr Putin’s “strong man” image. Others, like Sir Malcolm and Mr Bryant, are deeply critical of the state of human rights and democracy in Russia.

Debates raging over a proposed “Magnitsky law” also evince this spread of views. Many MPs back the move, which would close Britain’s borders to over 60 Russian officials linked with the mistreatment and death of a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Moscow prison. A version of it has already been enacted in America.

The quandary pits two parts of Britain’s self-image against each other: its role as a buccaneering global entrepôt, and its “golden thread” of political liberty stretching back to Magna Carta. Britain’s economic ties to today’s thuggish Russia make it hard to honour both. Embarrassed by CFOR and split over the Magnitsky law, the Tories are befuddled by their own balancing act.
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