We need more Conservative Friends of Russia
The regularity of surprises, U-turns and questionable decisions in the first two years of this coalition government has somewhat numbed the expectations of political commentators thus far. However, with our MPs currently dabbing on the factor 20 and reflecting on a year of economic stagnation and general disappointment, the job of conjuring the unexpected has fallen to those in Westminster lucky enough not to have a seat on the green benches.
The Conservative Friends of Russia launched itself into the political sphere last night with a rather, if one swaps the champagne for vodka, traditionally Westminster-like summer party. Established in 2009, the group, headed by PR professional Richard Royal with the foreign affairs stalwart Malcolm Rifkind MP as its Honorary President, claims to provide a politically neutral vehicle for those interested in forging cultural and business links with Russians.
The vast majority of guests have sincerely commended the organisation and atmosphere of the night, pointing to the diverse ‘mafia’ (which would not have been my first choice of words) of attendees, which represented ‘all layers of the society, both British and Russian’. Metaphors abound, guests described the layout of garden artwork as ‘spooky but fascinating’, with further compliments being made to the way in which the event brought citizens of the two nations together. Adam Lake, Marketing Manager at Total Politics, agreed: “I think that there is a type of James Bond style mystique between our two countries that needs to be tackled, but what is clear from this event is that both sides are looking to forge links and I think that is incredibly positive”.
The concept of a ‘friends of’ group has historical connotations that this group should be keen to avoid, however. Traditionally, ‘friends of’ groups have worked alongside their nation-friends, largely sharing the political viewpoints of the nation. If one is to establish a group in the ‘friends of’ format, one should expect to be treated in the same way as the others. Take the Conservative Friends of Israel for example – although they are working with a much more morally acceptable government, and therefore are excused from the criticisms that the Russian group are facing, they share many political and ideological platforms of the state of Israel, including deep concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and strong support for Israel’s right to self-defence. When David Cameron said at a CFoI lunch in 2010 “in me, you have a Prime Minister whose belief in Israel is indestructible”, the precedent for ‘friends-of’ groups was set. Groups that declare international friendship must be assumed to be declaring friendship and support for said government and its activities.
Despite the clearly pleasant evening, one might perceive the setting of last night’s event to possess some similarities with a Russian state occasion – the guests mingled amongst the glorious setting of the residency of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation, Alexander Yakovenko, who addressed the crowd with a speech on bettering relations between Russia and Britain. The group, however, is eager to stress that they are ‘politically neutral regarding Russian political parties and candidates’. Keen to steer the discussion away from the frosty topic of politics, the chairman of the group, Richard Royal, spoke on how those interested in Russian business, history and culture should get involved with the group, informing the crowd of business people, students, politicians, representatives of charities and even, I’m told, princes, that relations between the two nations are paramount – the Conservative Friends of Russia are the ideal vehicle to do so. The formalities were concluded with a speech from John Whittingdale MP, who touched on the ten tonne elephant in the room by arguing that there will always be disagreements between the two nations. Mr. Whittingdale then touched on the herd of ten tonne elephants by mentioning the Pussy Riot trial, which had been the subject of many ‘who is providing the music tonight?’ jokes during the evening.
The vodka and stale jokes, however, cannot be solely to blame for the headaches that guests and members may be feeling this morning. Political commentators have been quick to denounce the group, pointing to Russia’s terrible record on human rights and free speech. Nigel Fletcher, a Conservative Councillor who also runs the Centre for Opposition Studies, has stated: “Promoting good relations is a positive aim, but when a country’s government arouses controversy, you have to be careful how it looks. Engaging with the Russian government – even perhaps accepting hospitality from their Ambassador – is one thing, but real friends of Russia should ensure the difficult questions are not brushed aside.”
The motives and morals of the group’s members and leaders must not be questioned, however. Dan Hamilton, a Conservative Party member with a long-standing opposition to Putin’s Kremlin, says “I’ve got no time for anyone who questions the motivations of the people behind Conservative Friends of Russia. To a man, they’re decent guys who care about strengthening our cultural and trading links with Russia”. Here lies the distinction that the group must strive to make: between the Russian people and the oft-maligned Russian state. Hamilton continues to argue that accepting hospitality at the Russian Embassy must be questioned while “Moscow continues to illegally occupy the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – allies of the United Kingdom who have received the outspoken backing of David Cameron and William Hague”. Similar objections to the group were outlined in an article by Raheem Kassam of the Henry Jackson Society: ‘it is of great concern that the CFoR appears to be aligning itself with Putin’s representatives in London, instead of reaching out to a dissident community who are more interested in rooting out corruption and furthering the cause of a liberal, transparent democracy in Russia.’
Conservative Friends of Russia, while intending to achieve positive outcomes for both Brits and Russians, have an inherent contradiction to overcome. The ‘friends of’ model they have adopted will only attract the kind of negative attention that members have woken up to this morning, but it is only through cooperation with the Russian political system that they can hope to have a positive change on the lives of the Russian people. This view is shared by Ignaty Dyakov, M.D. of Russia Local and guest of the launch event: “I disagree with people who say it is not wise of Tories to set up a group like this at the time when human rights are violated in Russia. I think quite the opposite, to be honest: only through increasing mutual cooperation and deeper understanding of each other’s cultures we can develop strong open relationship between our countries that would bring benefits to both counterparts.”
As the situation with Europe becomes ever more dire, we, as both a nation and a political force, should be looking to create new global friends. Reluctances and prejudices must not hold us back from enhancing trade and cultural links between Russia and ourselves, and the Conservative Friends for Russia should be commended for taking a brave step in this direction.