Artwork: Claude Monet, "Houses of Parliament, London"
Last month I was invited to a discussion panel at the Houses of Parliament entitled Russia A Year On – Testing Medvedev’s Democratic Credentials. Having never been inside that elaborate building dominating the Thames, and as a fan of both democracy and Russia, I was pretty keen to attend.
The evening sunshine soaked the busy streets of London as I made my way through the heartland of British politics, dodging both tourists and traffic at Parliament Square. I was in good spirits and looking forward to a constructive debate. But the feeling did not last long past the moment that I entered Committee Room 11, where the panel was gathering. The event was oversubscribed, the bottle-green room was stuffy, attendees were tip-toeing not-so-subtly through the creaking door thirty minutes late, and those who were already sitting down were either texting away on their phones or kicking the back of my chair. Or so it seemed. But more importantly, the event turned out to be a no holds barred Russia-bashing session. And there was very little mention of either Medvedev or democracy.
The panel comprised of an exasperated Russian dissident, the hot-blooded prime minister of the resistance Government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and two Western foreign policy experts. It was only the dissident who actually referred to the intended subject matter. Some interesting comparisons were made between the expectations of Medvedev’s supposed liberalism and those of past leaders. He concluded that with every new leader there has been renewed hope for a Western-friendly attitude, but every time this has ultimately proved to be a disappointment. I particularly enjoyed his reference to Andropov’s understandable fondness for whisky and jazz.
As valid as his points were, he was more of a downbeat entertainer than someone who could open up fresh debate. But because of his experiences (he was arrested and imprisoned for defending human rights in the 1960s and his application to run for the Russian Presidency was rejected in 2007), I found it hard to blame him for his cynicism. Nor did I blame the Chechen for his anger, having learnt what he had seen and experienced. But the attitude of the foreign policy buffs was another story. These were young, Western academics at the forefront of their field who should have taken the opportunity to lead a well-balanced discussion in order to make some progress in what sometimes seems to be the ‘inevitable’ confrontation between Russia and the West.
However, these two experts simply rehashed the same negative views about Russia, poorly justifying their opinions with unhelpful, sweeping comments such as ‘Russia refuses to co-operate’ and ‘Russia is dangerous’. Not only was this something that I had heard countless times before, but the speakers also made no attempt to propose what could or should be done to improve relations. Comments from the audience, which questioned Western policy towards Russia, were ungraciously slapped down. Such one-sided discussion serves no purpose other than to entrench mistrust in the West and hostility in Russia.
Certainly, Russia is far from perfect; it has many serious issues to address and the Georgia story has rightly provoked a wave of jittering. But if foreign policy experts working in think tanks and academic institutions continue to promote an attitude that smacks of Cold War divisions, then Russia will simply retreat further away from what is already a quasi-democracy and continue to regard the West with suspicion. Fortunately, there was someone last week who successfully managed to avoid such hackneyed rhetoric.
Although US President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia did not go down with the frenzy of hope and expectation as his presence has done elsewhere in the world, it was a positive step forward and one that should be emulated by all those dealing with Russia. His discussions with the Kremlin were positive, yet honest. He admitted and highlighted points of contention – namely the US proposed missile defence system – but made it clear that this would be worked around, as the issues of Georgia and NATO expansion will have to be. The summit converged on important areas of co-operation – nuclear warhead reductions, US transit to Afghanistan and combating terrorism – that can be built upon in the coming years and hopefully be used a basis to improve relations.
I honestly believe that Obama has it right here. There is little point trying to impose on Russia what we deem to be correct or right. The West needs to accept the differences and cope with them accordingly, but without selling out. Areas where interests do overlap must be emphasised and used as the point of departure for a relationship to be developed. Although it may not be for many years to come, the bitter aftertaste of the Cold War may finally be sweetened as co-operation progresses and the barriers of mistrust are broken down.
It simply serves no purpose whatsoever for us to discuss Russia in the terms that were used at the Houses of Parliament that June evening. However, an about-turn in the West will not be enough. Introspection from Russia is also necessary if genuine co-operation is to occur; many cite Obama’s cool reception as the result of anti-Western propaganda in Russia, which has only been exacerbated by the Kremlin pointing fingers at the US as the financial crisis has engulfed the world. A renewed relationship requires a change in attitude from both sides.
Perhaps these ideas are a little naïve and I know that many believe this summit will change nothing (and admittedly I do find Obama somewhat charming). But the Russian-Western partnership has failed over the last twenty years and it is certainly time to try a new, open, positive approach. And if we fail, at least we tried.