Boyars of Belgravia
The Kremlin and its critics do battle in London
THE weapons in this war are not high explosives, nor even gas pipelines, but stories about them. The battlefronts are seminars, think-tanks and dinner parties in the posher parts of London. Not since Alexander Herzen’s day has Britain's capital been party to such arguing over Russia’s future.
The biggest and richest protagonist is the Kremlin, or, more properly the sprawling mass of business and political interests connected with it. Their aim is simple: to rehabilitate Russia’s reputation. Events (they say) have proved the doomsayers wrong. Far from crumbling, Russia is flourishing. Europe, and the world, need its oil and gas. Critics of Russian policy are crazed cold warriors, hypocrites with double standards, agents of Vladimir Putin’s enemies, or all three.
The critics of the Kremlin fall into two main camps. One is ruled by Boris Berezovsky (below, right), an exiled Russian oligarch. He can't outgun the Russian regime pound for pound, but his money is well targeted for maximum damage.
Mr Putin (he argues) is not only a dictator, but a murderous one. The Russia security services organised a bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999, with many deaths, to create a climate of fear in which their man, Mr Putin, could take power. They assassinate opponents, among them Alexander Litvinenko, a Berezovsky loyalist poisoned with polonium in a London hotel last year.
The other anti-Kremlin camp salutes Mikhail Khodorkovsky (below, left), a one-time oil tycoon, jailed in Siberia on fraud charges that his supporters say are trumped up. This camp has two main tactics: highlighting its backer’s legal plight, and sponsoring academic and think-tank work undermining the Kremlin’s claim to respectability.
Divided by a common enemy
The two anti-Kremlin camps do not co-operate. Mr Khodorkovsky’s lot regards Mr Berezovsky as the epitome of what went wrong in Russia in the 1990s, and their own man as an emblem of modern business brought down by greedy Kremlin thugs. They shun the Chechen cause; Mr Berezovsky befriends it.
For the Kremlin’s propagandists, Mr Berezovsky is a terrorist sympathiser and Mr Khodorkovsky is a self-serving crook.
The Kremlin has been winning the argument in London’s morally myopic financial world. Russian companies are a spectacularly lucrative line of business for brokers, bankers, lawyers, accountants, and PR-chiks (a wealthy, mainly male species not to be confused with homophonous English “PR chicks”, though the latter benefit too). Pro-Kremlin Russian Londoners have struck up a close friendship with the city's mayor, and sponsor a popular and entertaining winter festival in Trafalgar Square.
Spent well (as with the winter jamboree), or badly (as it otherwise mostly is), the tide of money washing through London is proving the Kremlin’s best ally. “Nobody wants a reputation as a Russophobe these days: it’s bad for business,” says one Sovietologist-turned-banker.
But the opposition camps have their successes. The Litvinenko murder was a disaster for the Kremlin. The British media gleefully unleashed every cold-war cliché—a kneejerk reaction, perhaps, but one that was justified subsequently by Russian officialdom’s sullen and obstructive behaviour towards British investigators.
This week a book called “Blowing up Russia”, written five years ago by Litvinenko and a co-author, Yuri Felshtinsky, is being published in Britain for the first time. It argues that there was official collusion in the Moscow apartment-block bombings. A press conference to launch the book was cancelled at short notice because, it was said, of unspecified threats to Mr Felshtinsky’s life.
The hi-jacking of Shell’s Sakhalin gas fields, and the looming likelihood of a similar raid on the mighty BP, also hurt the Kremlin’s cause. But the mood in moneyed London is still largely positive towards Russia. In thinking London it is increasingly negative. The battle continues.