Magazine article The Spectator

Why We Must Not Appease the Kremlin

Magazine article The Spectator

Why We Must Not Appease the Kremlin

Article excerpt

Were any of us unlucky enough to be Vladimir Putin, we too would be keen to make the rest of the world think that what happened in Beslan last week was yet another chapter in al-Qa'eda's campaign of international terrorism. Luckily, you would have some evidence to bear out your theory. Some of the hostage-takers were Arab mercenaries. Some Chechen separatists have been trained abroad and have received funding from international organisations. There is evidence that an externally inspired campaign is under way not so much to secure Chechen independence from Russia as to destabilise that whole region, setting predominantly Muslim Ingus against predominantly Christian Ossetians. Yes, if you were Mr Putin you would not wish to suggest in any way that your own prehistoric policy towards Chechnya - one of many brutal, offensive and downright unacceptable ways in which you have behaved over the last five years or so - was more to blame than 'international terrorism'.

Before the West rushes to welcome Mr Putin's Russia into the family of shared suffering caused by terrorism, it might care to pause and reflect on the real nature of the state whose people suffered this ghastly tragedy in Beslan; and on the real nature of its government. To use a phrase fashionably in the news in another context, Russia is a kleptocracy. It is in many respects, and increasingly, a gangster state. Its politicians and officialdom are widely and systematically corrupt. Its recent presidential elections were rigged. Its media are not free - this week the editor of Izvestia was sacked for criticising Mr Putin's Chechnya policies. The observation of basic human rights is in many respects no better than under the old Soviet regime. Rule is arbitrary and often violent. There is in many cases little distinction between businessmen and criminals. While being in itself the victim of attempts at destabilisation, it is seeking to destabilise other regimes in its orbit, notably in the Baltic states.

Yet Russia is also a country with which Britain is seeking ever closer ties. We are one of the greatest overseas investors in Russia. The Prime Minister himself has gone to great lengths to show his personal affection and regard for Mr Putin. This week Downing Street declared that now is not the time to discuss Russia's policies in Chechnya. In fact, there could not be a better time. In the past five years, and on Mr Putin's orders, the Chechen capital of Grozny has been all but obliterated, the Russian armed forces there have behaved viciously, and the old fascist/communist staples of detention camps and 'disappearances' have become a routine part of life in Chechnya.

Why, when Russia behaves in a way that would normally have a Labour government calling for sanctions against it, does the Blair administration turn a blind eye to Putin's excesses and brutalities? Is it simply that, with the Cold War consigned to history, our government has decided that never again - whatever the provocation - must a nation so considerable and so geographically near as Russia be in the enemy camp? Wasn't that why, after all, Mr Blair rushed to Moscow at the end of April last year to try to make friends with Mr Putin after the two men had become estranged over the Iraq war?

Certainly, no effort was spared to patch up the quarrel. After Mr Putin proved to be rather charm-free on Mr Blair's visit to him, the boat was pushed out two months later when he paid the first visit to Britain by a Russian head of state since 1874. At the state banquet in his honour at the end of June 2003 the Queen herself recognised that there had been differences in the preceding months but argued the need for Britain and Russia to remain 'firm partners'. More to the point, she said that Mr Putin and his programme of 'reforms' had her - for which read her government's - 'admiration, respect and support'.

That was heady stuff. The fact that you can be locked up in Russia without trial simply for having political ambitions (ask Yukos oil boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky) would, to take just one example of Mr Putin's behaviour, seem worthy of neither respect nor admiration, and definitely ought not to be supported. …

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