Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dealing with Russia

Democracy is something that a country usually has to learn over decades or even centuries. There is no doubt in my mind that Russia, for all the huge faults that it demonstrated this year by invading Georgia and threatening just about every other neighbour, is more democratic, less tyrannical, and less dangerous than the Soviet Union was when I was a boy at the time of the cold war.

Nevertheless Russia's path towards democracy has been slow and painful, and the country can be very difficult to deal with. The West has to make enough friendly gestures to reward Russia's fitful steps in the right direction and make clear that we will deal fairly with them if they give us a chance, while standing up to them over issues like Georgia and the Litvinenko assassination without provoking Russia's deep-seated and long term paranoia.

A more minor difficulty, but a difficulty nonetheless for Western political parties, is how to deal with Russia's representatives on bodies like the Council of Europe.

Labour MP Denis MacShane is forever banging on, and was again this week, about the fact that the Conservatives are currently members of the centre-right European Democrats group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which also includes, amongst others, representatives of Vladimir Putin’s "United Russia" party. He includes the Conservatives of working with the Kremlin in the Council of Europe.

The Conservative Party has in fact announced that, in light of recent events in Georgia, it is to review its membership of the European Democrats group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

However, McShane's attack is a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black given that Labour’s representatives to the Council of Europe sit as members of the Socialist Group, which also includes Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s comical nationalist outfit, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

The Conservatives have responded that Zhirinovsky’s statements that Russia is “entitled to carry out a preventative nuclear strike” against Poland and that Georgia is trying to create a “mono-ethnic state and fascist dictatorship” hardly makes his group a better choice of partner than United Russia for any mainstream British political party.

Carl Thompson points out in The European Journal at

that these Zhirinovsky quotes are not the worst ones that Conservative Central Office could have used. The absurdly named Russian "Liberal Democrats" are neither liberal nor democrats. Their leader has been accused of everything from anti-semitism and misogyny to corruption and demagoguery. He has been filmed throwing juice at his opponents, grabbing a female reporter by her hair and brawling in parliament. In late 1999 the LDPR held a series of demonstrations in Moscow in which signs reading “the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen” were displayed.

There are legitimate questions about how mainstream democratic parties should deal with either United Russia or the Russian "Liberal Democrats" and I'm not ecstatic about the idea of our political parties sitting in the same group as either. But unless we're going to pull out or organisations like the Council of Europe, which I think would be very silly, we have to recognise that people from these parties have been elected to their country's legislature and we will sometimes have to talk to them and deal with them. And perhaps Mr McShane should ask his party to take the plank out of their own eye before he complains about the speck in that of the Conservatives.

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