Public smiles and private grimaces
IF YOU like democracy, you probably don’t like the Kremlin much these days. That’s a big change from the dewy-eyed days of glasnost when Westerners went weak at the knees for “Gorbymania”. Yet for all the shared dislike, nobody can agree what to do next.
One policy is to swallow hard and smother the Kremlin with kisses, in the hope that the frog will turn into a prince. Just show enough understanding and patience, and Russia will wobble its way to towards European normality. That was the Schröder-Chirac policy. And to give it its due, Russia is actually doing pretty well in the circumstances. Stability is a huge achievement. Let’s not be hasty in condemning the Russian authorities who have problems to deal with that we meet only in our nightmares.
Then there is the Blair-Bush approach: detest Mr Putin in private, but stay friendly in public. There are all sorts of nuanced versions of this, but they all amount to the same thing. We need Russia too much on Iran and North Korea to show the cold shoulder.
It is a measure of the rapprochement of the past 20 years that it is quite hard, initially at least, to imagine any other option. But if you listen hard, there are people eager to help sketch the outlines. Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident now based in Cambridge, wants an end to “appeasement”. He says the West should demand the repeal of a law enacted in Russia this year authorising the elimination of “extremists” anywhere in the world. “Extremism”, notes Mr Bukovsky, has been redefined to include any “libellous” statements about the Russian authorities. In principle, death-squads might be used against critics.
Bite back, says Mr Bukovsky
A good line of attack, perhaps, but hard to carry off. Diplomatic frosts (expulsions, recalling ambassadors) have little bite and don’t last. Mr Bukovsky also suggests that NATO invokes Article V (which guarantees the collective security of all members) on the grounds that the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, on British soil, by agents of foreign power, constitutes an act of aggression. Hmm. Hard to see the French, Greeks and other NATO Russia-lovers going along with that.
If Russia declines to repeal its death-squad law, Mr Bukovsky recommends expelling it from international organisations including the G8 and the Council of Europe. The Kremlin will huff and puff, he says, and perhaps flex its energy muscles a bit, but in the end it will back down.
It is hard to see Western governments doing that in a hurry. First there is no conclusive proof that the Kremlin was responsible for the murder of Mr Litvinenko. Second, if you believe, as Mr Bukovsky does, that the Kremlin is as capable now of cold-blooded murder as it was when it pursued Trotsky, Bandera, Khokhlov and Markov, a law here or there is not going to make that much difference.
More likely, if a tougher policy towards Russia is to emerge, it will take shape at working levels. Russia is throwing its weight around in international institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the United Nations Development Programme and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. It is blocking projects in countries (such as Georgia) that it doesn’t like, and demanding big kowtows on other issues.
So far that has worked rather well. But Russia is, as so often, overplaying its hand, alienating its allies and consolidating its critics. International institutions are consensus-loving, conflict-shy outfits, and they can only cope with so much brinksmanship. Opinion within them is going to harden against Russia. Expect the dull landscapes of international bureaucracy to be lit up with some entertaining fireworks in the new year.