Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 12th November, 2012
Being a Liberal in Russia is a risky vocation, as putting one’s head above the parapet politically is an invitation to harrassment, arrest, criminal proceedings and heafty fines or imprisonment. High profile anti-establishment activists such as Pussy Riot get lots of foreign media attention and noises of sympathy from the outside world, of course, but even in their case that did not stop two of their number being sentenced to two years detention each in different gulags. Alas, as the leader of Russia’s Liberal Party Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin, detailed in a speech at Westminster this lunchtime, the long arm of President Putin’s law is getting firmer. He highlighted three aspects of particular concern regarding the current political situation in Russia and the crackdown against Liberal forces. First, there are the political reprisals, which have seen key Yabloko activists charged — often on false evidence — for demanding action against high-level corruption, for example. Second, Sergei stressed the hardening of laws and the suppression of civil rights under various amendments to the legal and civil codes. One good (i.e. bad) example is an amendment which will mean that Russian NGOs receiving grants from international bodies must now register as “foreign agents”. And last but not least in the litany of adverse developments, is what Sergei called the “clericalisation of the state”, in other words the way that a very conservative form of Russian Orthodoxy has now been melded into a state ideology which is dangerously nationalistic, anti-Western and anti-Liberal. Today’s gathering, at Portcullis House, was sponsored by Simon Hughes MP, Lord Alderdice and Liberal International, and in the discussion period after Sergei Mitrokhin’s speech I inquired exactly what helpful actions groups such as LI and the British Liberal Democrats can take to help Yabloko, without jeopardising its activists. Training in election strategies and techniques is something that I and others from the LibDems have done in various parts of the world, through the all-party Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and that may be the best answer — other than heartfelt moral support.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: John Alderdice, Liberal Democrats, Liberal International, Pussy Riot, Russia, Sergei Mitrokhin, Simon Hughes, Vladimir Putin, Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Yabloko | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th February, 2012
Belarus is often portrayed as the Bad Boy of Europe — the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, thanks to its retention (and use) of the death penalty, the apparently fraudulent nature of its elections and its poor record on human rights. Opposition figures are regularly imprisoned (often for short periods), harrassed and denounced in the official media, and the KGB — which still keeps its Soviet-era name — is a looming, ominous presence, with a large headquarters on the main drag in the capital, Minsk. When I went there a few years ago to meet political and human rights activists, I felt I had walked onto the set of a film of one of John Le Carré’s novels. Rendezvous were made with people at their request in parks or noisy restaurants; Even the head of the Communist party insisted on meeting clandestinely in a café. Yet it is an over-simplification to denounce Belarus blithely as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’, for all the self-evident shortcomings of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. People can access the Internet in the numerous cyber-cafés, and young Belorussians with enough money to pay for a Schengen visa can travel West, notably to Lithuania and Poland. They don’t need a visa for Russia, to which Belarus remains tied with an umbilical cord, And even if Lukashenko has sometimes irritated Putin and other Kremlin figures, Belarus is a useful ally for Moscow. Some of the subtleties of the situation came out in a meeting that I chaired this evening at the National Liberal Club, on behalf of Liberal International British Group (LIBG) and Liberal Youth. This was the first such joint venture, which not only packed out the room but also produced some high-level debate, not only from the panel — Jo Swinson MP, Dr Yaraslau Kryvoi of Belarus Digest and Alex Nyce, former East European specialist at Chatham House — but also from the floor. Several members of the audience had had direct or indirect experience of working in or with Belarus and there was considerable discussion about what sort of stance the European Union should take on relations with the recalcitrant state. Intriguingly, a parallel was drawn between Belarus and Myanmar (Burma) and the question was posed as to whether constructive engagement might be a way forward in the hope of encouraging reform — though Lukashenko would have to release prominent dissidents before his good faith would be taken seriously.
http://libg.co.uk and www.belarusdigest.com
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Alex Nyce, Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, Burma, Council of Europe, European Union, Jo Swinson, John Le Carré, KGB, Liberal Youth, LIBG, Lithuania, Minsk, Myanmar, National Liberal Club, Poland, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Yaraslau Kryvoi | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 20th August, 2011
The European Union’s relations with Russia hit a low in the summer of 2008, when Russian troops intervened in Georgia. And the energy crisis triggered by the Ukrainian gas dispute of January 2009 didn’t help. But in the two-and-a-half years since then, there has been a degree of reconciliation, or at least the mutual acceptance of a kind of modus vivendi. As the Centre for European Studies’ short book, EU-Russia Relations: Time for a Realistic Turnaround (CES, Brussels, 2011), points out, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to see more Western investment in Russia, while President Dmitry Medvedev concedes that Russia will need Western (including European) assistance if it is to modernise. One of the main conclusions of the book is that at the end of the day, Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia. Three authors have provided short essays that form the core of the work: Katinka Barysch (the Deputy Director of the Centre for European Reform), my chum Christopher Coker (Professor of International Relations at the LSE) and Leszak Jesien (EU coordinator at the Polish Institute of International Affairs). It is good to have a Pole involved, as the Polish-Russian dynamic has often been the most problematic within the overall EU-Russia relationship. A central, stark warning by the book’s authors is that the EU still tries to change not only what Russia does but also what it is. Europeans like to think that Russians should be just like us, whereas in fact they aren’t, and probably never will be. In short, Russia is not a Western society.
Christopher Coker takes a cultural approach to the subject. He draws a valuable distinction between what we profess (values) and what we practise (norms). He pulls no punches: ‘Russia is less a functioning nation state than a collection of vested interests… Russia is still trapped in the old ways of thinking.’ He nonetheless foresees a way of resolving the dilemma inherent in bilateral relations: ‘Only by granting [Russia] a distinctive identity will be able to acknowledge that its norms may not be ours, any more than ours are America’s.’ Leszek Jesien focuses on energy relations and trade. Russia enjoys a faourable balance of trade with the EU, but its exports are mainly gas and steel — commodities that are vulnerable to the whims of the market. Europe, on the other hand, is keen to secure its energy supply, even though the trade is currently mainly bilateral between Russia and EU member states, rather than being coordinated Europe-wide. Russia uses energy supplies as an instrument in its foreign policy. ‘For Russia, energy seems to be more like a chess game than a market game,’ Jesien writes. Europe needs to build up a single energy market, he argues. Finally, Katinka Barysch examines the institutional framework. The admission of central and eastern European states into the EU during he 2000s complicated maters considerably, even driving Russia to argue for compensation because of new barriers to trade with its former satellite partners. The current institutions for EU-Russia relations function badly, she argues. But we need to recognise that a chaotic, angry and unstable Russia is a risk to European security and prosperity, So the EU must continue to offer assistance and advice in helping Riussia strengthen the rule of law, build solid institutions, diversify its economy and develop a vibrant civil society.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Centre for European Reform, Centre for European Studies, Christopher Coker, Dimtry Medvedev, EU, Georgia, Katinka Barysch, Leszek Jesien, LSE, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | 2 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th April, 2009
This evening, Liberal International British Group (LIBG) held the first in a planned series of four Forums on the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in the New World Order, being steered through the choppy waters of Russia, past, present and future, at Pushkin House in London by Stephen Dalziel, Executive Director of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce and former Russian Affairs analyst at the BBC. For me (in the Chair), his most interesting observation was that Vladimir Putin, now Russian Prime Minister, is not trying to usurp the power of the position of President Dmitry Medvedev (his sucessor in that post), in contrast to what one often reads in the Western media. Putin accepts Medvedev’s primacy in foreign affairs (as the constitution stipulates); besides, he has enough on his plate to deal with in relation to Russia’s shrinking economy, which has been hard hit by falling energy prices.
Stephen’s assertion that the Russians must have known in advance about the Georgian attack on South Ossetia last summer as they moved into Georgia the following day brought on a heated reposte from a Russian lady in the audience. But there was general agreement that Georgia had won the propaganda war in that sad affair, and that the Russians are rubbish at PR. I agreed strongly with Stephen’s point that the real trigger for instability and renewed East-West tensions would be if Ukraine is encouraged towards EU and NATO membership. Not only would the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine protest, but Moscow would go ballistic (figuratively speaking).
Link: www.libg.org.uk and www.pushkinhouse.org.uk
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: BRICs, Dmitry Medvedev, Georgia, LIBG, New World Order, Pushkin House, Russia, Russo-British Chamber of Commerce, South Ossetia, Stpehen Dalziel, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th December, 2008
The world’s leading gas producers have formalised a collaborative association, the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), which will have its headquarters here in Doha. Qatar has the third largest reserves of natural gas after Russia and Iran; together with Algeria and Venezuela, these countries are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s gas supply. It’s a roll-call of states (with the notable exception of Qatar) that sends shivers down the spine of many Western leaders, who are already murmuring their discontent at the emergence of an OPEC-style cartel that could wield enormous power.
Attempts by some GECF members to dismiss the notion of a cartel have been undermined by the Venezuelan Energy Minister, Rafael Ramirez, who declared yesterday at the GCEF charter-signing meeting in Moscow that ‘we see in this forum an opportunity to build a solid organisation, which has in its foundation the same principles that gave birth to OPEC.’
The nature of gas contracts means that the natural gas market is quite different from the oil market. But as Russia has shown vis-a-vis Ukraine, for example, controlling the gas supply can be used as an economic or political weapon. And gas-importing countries will hardly have been reassured by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s comment yesterday that the ‘era of cheap gas’ is over.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Algeria, Doha, Gas Exporting Countries Forum, GECF, Iran, OPEC, Qatar, Rafael Ramirez, Russia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th November, 2008
An impressive (free) exhibition of photo portraits by young photographers, photography students and gifted amateurs opens today at the National Portrait Gallery in London (where work by the American super-photographer Annie Leibovitz is coincidentally currently on display). There is something about good portrait photographs which I find eerily compelling, as they can give one an entry into the sitter’s soul. Amongst the most treasured volumes in my library are books of black-and-white prints by Bill Brandt, John Deakin and Richard Avedon, and the walls of my study are covered in signed, framed photos of people I have written about, including W H Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Edith Sitwell, Dylan Thomas and Oscar Wilde.
Over 2,500 people entered this year’s Taylor Wessing prize (sponsored by the European law firm of the same name). The winner was Lottie Davies, for her representation of a friend’s nightmare of giving birth to quintuplets, though I have to say I was more struck by Hendrik Kertstens’ ‘Bag’, a witty and evocative potrait of a young Dutch woman with a plastic bag on her head, shaped like a seventeenth-century cap, echoing Vermeer and other old Dutch masters. Kerstens was awarded the second prize. Otherwise, the images which really struck me were not those of beautiful young women (or indeed men), of which there were plenty, but the characterful lined faces of novelist Doris Lessing and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, and a chilling picture of an almost zombie-like Vladimir Putin.
The exhibition runs until 15 February and as often at the NPG, there is an accompanying book (NPG, £12.99), with a forward by Ben Okri and interviews with the prizewinners by Richard McClure.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Annie Leibovitz, Ben Okri, Bill Brandt, Christopher Isherwood, Doris Lessing, Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Hendrik Kerstens, John Deakin, Lottie Davies, Louise Bourgeois, National Portrait Gallery, Oscar Wilde, Richard Avedon, Richard McClure, Taylor Wessing Prize, Vermeer, Vladimir Putin, W H Auden | Leave a Comment »