Power, money and principle
Dec 4th 2008
Defending political freedom in Russia and Britain
IMAGINE the outrage if the Russian police raided the Duma and arrested a leading opposition politician on the grounds that he had obtained leaked information embarrassing to the Kremlin. It would prompt pompous lectures from Western politicians and lobby groups about the dangers of autocracy, the need to maintain the separation of powers, and so on. When the same thing happens in Britain, it is not just bad for the political system in a country that likes to think it is the mother of parliamentary democracy. It also weakens the argument that tussles between Russia and the West are based fundamentally on values rather than geopolitics.
“Whataboutism” was a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists during the old Cold War. Any criticism of the Soviet Union’s internal repression or external aggression was met by asking “what about” some crime of the West, from slavery to the Monroe doctrine. In the era when political prisoners rotted in Siberia and you could be shot for trying to leave the socialist paradise, whataboutism was little more than a debating tactic. Most people inside the Soviet Union, particularly towards the end, knew that their system was based on lies and murder. For all its shortcomings, the West was not that bad.
The modern Russian version is getting harder to counter. Many pro-Kremlin Russians seem sincerely to believe that no moral difference now exists between their rulers and those of other countries. Vladimir Putin is a former KGB officer? Well, George Bush senior ran the CIA. Chechnya was bloody, but Iraq was worse. Bombing Serbia and recognising Kosovo disqualifies the West from making any criticism of Russian behaviour in Georgia. These are all flawed arguments, but they are believed nonetheless.
Privately, the cynicism could be deeper still. Some may think, “We have learned that when we need something from the West, we find powerful people in a big country and pay them and then we get what they want.” The rule of law, contested elections, free media and so on are just fictions: they look nice and may fool the voters into thinking that their system is different. But in the end it is all about power and money.
It is not just the strength of the pro-Kremlin business lobby, particularly in the energy industries, in countries such as Germany and Italy. It is remarkable that politicians from both main British parties see nothing wrong in hobnobbing with Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin crony and tycoon who is unable to visit America because of FBI concerns about his business practices and partners.
Events such as the police raid on the home and parliamentary office of Damian Green, a leading British Conservative politician, make it worse. Senior police officers saw nothing wrong with locking Mr Green up for nine hours and taking his private documents, computer, mobile phone, fingerprints and a DNA sample.
Nobody has resigned or been punished. One could easily get the idea that the British authorities not only believe they are above the law but act that way, with impunity.
Actually, things are not yet quite that bad. Voters will decide what they make of it. Unlike in Russia, nobody knows who will win the next general election in Britain, just as nobody knew in advance who would win the American presidency. Contested elections are the ultimate backstop. But real political freedom needs more than that. It is not just what happens at elections but all the other things in between them that matter—including opposition politicians being able to go about their business without being humiliated or intimidated. That’s worth fighting for; in Russia and in Britain.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Power, money and principle