The murder in Moscow yesterday of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was a cruel reminder of just how far the values of Vladimir Putin’s Russia differ from the European mainstream. Many other critics of the Kremlin — not least journalists — have been killed, beaten up or imprisoned since Vlad the Bad came to power. I suppose it was natural for the West to imagine when Communism collapsed a quarter of a century ago that Russia would modernise politically as well as economically, in short to become more like us, but this assumption failed to take into account the fact that Russia is unlike Europe in many ways — including the high regard many Russians have for strong leaders and their rejection of contemporary European liberal views on everything from the right to peaceful protest to same sex marriage. Moreover, even if Putin is out-of-step with European and North American values, he has many admirers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So as a new Cold War seems to be shaping up in the wake of the Russian intervention in Ukraine Moscow is unlikely to find itself alone out in the cold. In the meantime, it is natural for us to feel compassion for the small band of brave liberal voices inside Russia itself who dare to speak out. They deserve our support, as well as sanctuary in Europe if they feel their only means of survival is to get out.
Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Putin’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th February, 2015
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th June, 2014
This week, for the first time ever, the LGBTi Pride Rainbow Flag is flying from the facade of Europe House in London’s Smith Square, headquarters of the European Parliament office and European Commission representation. Yesterday afternoon, there was a seminar there on extending LGBT rights in the EU, learning from the UK experience. For once it was good to celebrate an area in which Britain is actually a leader in the European Union. Things are not nearly so advanced in some formerly Communist states of Europe, but the point was interestingly made at the seminar that labour mobility within the EU had helped to alter attitudes in some central and eastern European states radically. Poland is a good case in point; until recently overwhelmingly conserative an often homophobic it has recently liberalised, partly thanks to migrant workers who came to Britain, for example, and for the first time engaged with LGBTi people and later returned home with a different opinion. Alas, in some eastern European states that are not part of the EU the situation is still dire. It was good (but a little depressing) to hear of work being done to help activists in Belarus who have been prevented from setting up a solidarity group. In Russia, the situation is actually regresing, as Putin has led a red-blooded heterosexual counter-offensive as what he decries as gay EU expansionism. Anyway, when Conchita Wurst will lead the London Pride celebrations in Trafalgar Square this Saturday, so those of us living in London will have much to be joyful about, which should fortify us to help defend the rights of those living in jurisdictions that are not so inclusive.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th April, 2014
In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War many minds have been turning to the issues of war and peace, and when I make speeches at hustings or rallies in the current European election campaign I always make the point that the founding fathers of what is now the European Union wanted to enmesh the economies of France and Germany (in particular) so that war in western Europe would be unthinkable. And so it appears. But it is all too easy for us today to take that for granted. As a child of the 1950s, I was very much aware of the legacy of the Second World War — the bomb sites, the drab unpainted unrestored buildings, the dreary food and the tail-end of rationing — but I was too young to see National Service. So it was perhaps a little perverse of me to go off to war voluntarily at the age of 18 — as a journalist in Vietnam. What I saw there burned into my heart a hatred for war and for all the human emotions connected with it. I attended my first Quaker meeting there, and joined the Society of Friends when I went up to Oxford. And although Reuters sent me off to comfortable Brussels when I joined the news agency after university, the lure of conflict zones was too great, and relaunched as a freelance commentator and broadcaster I covered a whole range of bloody situations, from Israel/Palestine to Central America and Angola. That was not because I revelled in the suffering. Quite the contrary. But I believed passionately that it needed to be reported, so people might learn that humanity should develop ways of resolving differences and rivalries more constructively. I still feel that today, as Vladimir Putin seems intent on infiltrating deeper into eastern Ukraine, alarming not just Kiev but several other of Russia’s neighbours. In the recent Clegg versus Farage EU IN/OUT debates in Britain, Nick Clegg stressed the importance of Britain’s EU membership for jobs — and of course that is true. But I shall also carry on talking about something that is not just related to the economy or livelihoods: the EU — enlarged a decade ago to take in formerly Communist states of central and eastern Europe — is a brilliant example of how to do things differently, about how to live togeter in peace, celebrating diversity. Fall back on nationalism, as Nigel Farage and some of his more unsavoury counterparts on the Continent would like us to do, will only lead to renewed tensions between peoples and, yes, the reappearance of the spectre of war.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Angola, Brussels, Central America, First World War, Israel/Palestine, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Quakers, Religious Society of Friends, Reuters, Russia, Second World War, the European Union, Ukraine, Vietnam War, Vladimir Putin | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 8th April, 2014
The Global Strategy Forum can hardly have realised just how topical today’s lunchtime event at the National Liberal Club would be by focusing on “Crisis in Ukraine, Crisis in Russian-Western Relations: What Next?”. There was an interesting line-up of speakers, including my old BBC World Service colleague, Oleksiy Solohubenko, a SkyNews reporter and presenter, Andrew Wilson, a former British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, and Labour’s last Europe Minister, Chris Bryant MP. Diplomats from both the Russian and Ukrainian embassies also chipped in from the floor, not surprisingly seeing what has been happening recently in Crimea and eastern Ukraine very differently. The West is still protesting about the de facto annexation of Crimea by Russia, though unofficially accepting this as a fait accompli. But the real concern is how much further Russian encroachment could go, in response to the declaration of “independence” by pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, unrest in other parts of Ukraine and indeed in other regions in Russia’s orbit, including Moldova (Transdniester), Belarus and maybe even Kazakhstan. Most speakers on the panel painted Vladimir Putin as the villain, though Chris Bryant told the rather chilling anecdote that a Russian diplomat had told him that Putin is “not yet mad”, the implication being that he could well become so if he sticks around much longer. In the meantime it does seem likely that Putin is now one of the richest men on the planet, if not the richest, though he manages to hide his assets from public view. Sir Andrew Wood made the point that Russia is weakened by the fact that it relies so heavly on hydrocarbons and indeed could at some stage run out of money. So even if Putin and his at the moment largely adoring compatriots may be on a roll at the moment, things may deteriorate for Moscow quite quickly. The panel side-stepped the question put by the Ukrainian diplomat as to whether the EU and US should now impose the third and far more serious range of sanctions it has threatened against Russia. Certainly, the limited sanctions against a small group of named targets have proved little more than a gentle slap on the wrist. But the ball is currently in the court of the Russians and their supporters in eastern Ukraine, and what they do will now determine what happens next.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Andrew Wilson, Belarus, Chris Bryant, Crimea, Donetsk, Global Strategy Forum, Kazakhstan, Moldova, National Liberal Club, Oleksiy Solohubenko, Russia, Sir Andrew Wood, Transdniester, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 15th March, 2014
At the UN Security Council in New York Russia has vetoed a resolution denouncing tomorrow’s planned referendum in Crimea. China abstained. But the clear majority view within the international community is that the referendum is illegitimate and that moreover Russia’s increasingly belligerent stand-off with Ukraine is the most serious threat to European security since the end of the Cold War. The European Union and the US have rightly warned Moscow that economic sanctions and other punitive measures could be imposed against key Russian figures unless President Putin backs off, but he seems to be on a roll, basking in the support of Russian nationalists and a significant proportion of the population of Crimea itself. Crimea was ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev during the old Soviet days, but as there were no internal borders between the different republics of the Soviet Union that did not make much difference. These days Russia and Ukraine are two separate countries, however, and the demonstrators who occupied Kiev’s Independence Square from last November onwards made clear their preference for an EU-oriented future rather than one ties to Russia’s apron-strings. In advance of tomorrow’s vote, an attempted incursion by Russian helicopters was made into the Ukrainian district of Kherson, which is not part of Crimea and which represents a serious escalation. Frantic diplomatic efforts are still going on to try get the Russians to calm the situation, but the UNSC vote does feel like a return to the old days of East-West standoff. However, there two important differences worth noting. These days Moscow does not have a group of satellite states to support it; indeed, Poland and the Baltic States (the latter once part of the Soviet Union) have been strong in their criticism of Putin’s moves. And secondly, although there were, predictably, some demonstrations in Russia lauding Putin’s machismo, several tens of thousands went into the street of Moscow today to protest against what is happening.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th March, 2014
European Union Heads of Government met in emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss what to do about Ukraine. Although there was not complete agreement about how forcefully to react to provocative moves by President Putin and pro-Russian forces inside Crimea, everyone understood the need to prevent a further escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Interestingly, Romania offered to act as an honest-broker between the EU and Moscow, which is a promising development; certainly, diplomacy will remain Europe’s tack for the time being, though European Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that various economic sanctions will be imposed if Russia does not change its tune soon. As it is, preparatory talks for the panned G8 Summit in Sochi have been abandoned, and the mood in both Washington and London is in favour of cold-shouldering Russia from the G8, which could possibly revert to being the G7. Meanwhile, ominously, the state-oriented Russian TV channel Russia Today showed viewers a map of Russia into which Crimea had already been incorporated. And the Crimean regional government’s parliament voted to hold a referendum to secede from Ukraine, to be held on 16 March — i.e. in 10 days time. That not only violates Ukraine’s constitution but would also make any proper debate about the pros and cons of the status quo, independence, devo max or incorporation into Russia impossible. So the situation remains extremely tense. However, the EU is right to try to pursue the diplomatic route — while offering financial and moral assistance to the provisional government in Kiev — rather than inflaming the situation further.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd September, 2013
I don’t always agree with (Lord) David Owen, but he made a valid point in an op ed piece in today’s London’s Evening Standard when he suggested that the G20 Summit in St Petersburg later this week could offer an important opportunity for negotiations to find a way out of the Syria impasse. The host of the Summit, of course, is Vladimir Putin, who is Bashar al-Assad’s closest European ally. And the G20 brings together an interesting mix of developed, emerging and developing countries: the Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, UK and US, plus the European Union. It is clear that there is stalemate on the ground in Syria; Assad is not losing, but he’s not winning either, and in the meantime yet more people get killed — over 110,00 already — and more refugees are created. The Syrian economy, as well as the country’s infrastructure and heritage, is being systematically destroyed. Despite the UK Parliament’s rejection of a military option last Thursday, it is still possible that the United States (if President Obama persuades Congress), France and Turkey may take part in a strike. But what exactly would that achieve. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wrote in a piece in this morning’s Daily Telegraph that it would be possible to call another vote in the Commons and that the aim of any military strike should be to punish Bashar al-Assad. Well, there is a growing consensus that the Assad regime was responsible for the 21 August chemical weapons attack; the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was the latest authority to state that today. But as I said in a live interview on BBC Radio London this evening, surely the way to “punish” Assad and his clique would be to bring them before the ICC in The Hague, to face charges of crimes against humanity. I genuinely believe that is the best outcome, though I have no illusions about how difficult it may be to get him and his cohorts to The Hague. In the meantime, surely the prime concern must be to prevent as many deaths and as much suffering as possible. And the only plausible way to do that is convene the Geneva 2 peace conference that has been in the air for some time now. It may be uncomfortable to sit down with a dictator, but that may be the only sensible option — and it won’t happen unless Mr Putin is on board.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Barack Obama, Bashar Al-Assad, Boris Johnson, David Owen, G20, Geneva 2, ICC, NATO, Russia, St Petersburg, Syria, Vladimir Putin | Leave a Comment »
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.
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 »