Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in the United Kingdom for a two-day visit in the hopes of creating a better atmosphere for British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Moscow later this year. In fact, Lavrov personally delivered President Medvedev’s invitation to the prime minister. Medvedev met Cameron on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Seoul in November 2010, and invited him to come to Moscow this year. The visit will most likely take place in October or November.
One scandal after another
In the last 30 or 40 years, every such visit has been preceded by a spy scandal, high-profile diplomatic expulsions or even a murder accusation, as in the case of Alexander Litvinenko.
It’s as if we save up these scandals for future use – to spice up our relations and diplomatic discussions.
The most recent case involves Guardian correspondent Luke Harding. He returned to Russia on February 5 after a two months’ absence but was detained in the airport and sent back for violating accreditation rules. There was nothing wrong with his visa. After Lavrov received a phone call from his British counterpart, William Hague, the accreditation was re-registered and Harding was allowed back in the country. Now he is allowed to stay in Russia until his visa expires on May 31, 2011. But it’s still not clear why any of this happened in the first place.
The incident only served to anger the British media and Brits in general. After all, the Guardian is a respectable, liberal and tolerant national newspaper. All journalists violate the rules in the countries they are sent to cover from time to time, but violating accreditation rules is truly a poor excuse for expelling a journalist who possesses a valid visa.
The Guardian is now claiming that Harding was targeted for saying something unflattering about a Russian official – or rather repeating it from the U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in cooperation with the Guardian. Harding is a co-author of the book, “WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.” There are reports that Russian officials already tried to expel him from Russia in November after his trip to Ingushetia and Dagestan but abstained after the British government got involved. Now all British newspapers are writing that Russia is reverting to its old ways, and expelling journalists for what they write.
To be sure, Lavrov and Hague spoke about more than the Harding case, such as economic cooperation and investment (which are quietly progressing without the government), visas, European security and non-proliferation, NATO, European missile defense, the Middle East and anti-terrorism efforts. But these are largely issues of multilateral rather than bilateral cooperation.
Of all issues discussed, Lavrov and Hague made actual progress only on direct communication between their respective governments. Specialists from both countries will completely replace the equipment supporting the direct phone line between 10 Downing Street and the Kremlin. The new equipment will be completely failsafe. But this is routine modernization, without any larger implications. After all, the old equipment was installed in 1992.
Russian oligarchs in London
Russian-British relations have seen their fair share of scandals since the two nations first made contact at the turn of the 16th century. Indeed, improving relations always seems to be a goal between our nations.
The reasons behind our difficult relationship run deep. Our two empires competed for centuries all over the world. Britain was constantly stirring up mischief in the periphery of the Russian Empire, the USSR and then the Russia Federation. We have clashed in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. The reserves of enmity and the colonial mentality built up over centuries have proved durable. The Brits have found it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that it no longer has leverage over Russia in this young century. But London is gradually realizing that Washington, Berlin, Paris, Beijing and Delhi are much more important for Moscow politically than London.
Even our economic ties with Britain are lagging behind all other European countries.
Of course, it would be good to remove the many sources of irritation in our relations, but this is no easy task.
It is always instructive to compare the past and present in our relations. We often curse the Brits for giving asylum to disgraced Russian citizens – opposition leaders, militants accused of terrorism, corrupt oligarchs…But let’s try to focus on the positive.
Our problems did not start yesterday, nor even in the past century, but the influx of Russians to Britain is a recent phenomenon. According to official UK statistics, 300,000 Russian citizens, including 100 multimillionaires, are currently living in Britain, mostly London. Some of them are oligarchs. The recently dismissed mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, is said to be seeking a residence permit. Almost all Russian oligarchs seem to agree that a residence in London is a must for a respectable businessman (not to mention houses in France, Florida , Italy, etc.).
The Brits also welcomed Russian rebels and free thinkers in the past. Take Alexander Herzen or Nikolai Ogarev. Herzen founded the Free Russian Press and the magazine Kolokol (Bell) in London. Other classic Russian publications that were banned in Russia, such as Narodovolets (Popular Will Defender), Khleb i Volya (Bread and Will), and Nakanune (On the Eve), were first published in London. If Alexander II had not asked Queen Victoria to stop this disgrace, Herzen might have lived his final days in Britain. Even Count Pyotr Kropotkin, a revolutionary and the anarchist leader, lived in Britain. The Russian Social Democratic Party held its second congress in London in 1903. The party split into the Bolsheviks (majority) and the Mensheviks (minority) during this fateful meeting.
Of course, the Russian fugitives currently living in the UK cannot be compared with these revolutionary thinkers. Likewise, the Britain of today can’t be compared to Queen Victoria’s Britain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.