Russia tests the limits of realism

By Gideon Rachman

Financial Times

Published: December 5 2006

In the US, outstanding investigative journalists win Pulitzer prizes. In Russia, they get shot. Browsing through the shelves of recent books on modern Russia it is chilling to realise that the authors of two of the most interesting volumes – Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov – were subsequently murdered.

It is another killing – the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian agent – which is today’s cause célèbre. Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister, is also in hospital – perhaps another victim of a poisoning.

British policemen are heading to Moscow to try to get to the bottom of the Litvinenko case. But one cannot be entirely optimistic about their chances. The unsolved poisoning is an old Russian tradition. Historians are still arguing about the role of poison in the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 – as well as in those of Rasputin in 1916 and Maxim Gorky in 1936.

Prolonged exposure to Russian conspiracy theories can be damaging to mental health. But, whoever is behind the recent spate of killings, Vladimir Putin’s Russia looks like an increasingly sinister place. As José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, put it recently: “We have a problem with Russia. In fact, we have several problems. Too many people have been killed and we don’t know who killed them.”

Some western commentators are using much less diplomatic language. Recent opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal and the Times (of London) have claimed respectively that Russia is “the enemy” and that a “new cold war” is under way.

But there is little appetite in official circles in the west for renewed confrontation with Russia. Germany and France have made it clear long ago that they want to pal up with Mr Putin. Jacques Chirac, French president, recently invited Mr Putin to his birthday party. (He was unable to make it.) Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, has happily taken a position on the board of a subsidiary of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is closely associated with the Kremlin.

As for Washington and London, the problems of the Middle East are daunting enough already without seeking a new clash with Russia. It is not just that the war in Iraq sucks up time and resources. Iraq has also damped American and British zeal for promoting democracy and human rights. Foreign policy “realism” is coming back into fashion.

A realist approach to Russia starts by emphasising all the areas in which Europeans and Americans need Russian co-operation – the supply of energy, the control of nuclear proliferation, the war on terror and the containment of Iran – to name a few. A classical realist would recommend conceding the Russians their own “sphere of influence”, in return for co-operation on areas of mutual importance. Realists would not exactly condone murder within Russian borders – and they might sigh at restrictions on the media and non-governmental organisations. But they would insist that arguments over the future of Georgia or Russian NGOs should not be allowed to poison a vital working relationship.

The Iraqi debacle has also fostered an appropriate humility about the ability of western nations to export democracy. The new orthodoxy is that change must come, above all, from within a society and that democracy needs to be grounded in civil institutions and supported by an independent middle-class.

Looked at from this perspective, the picture of Putin’s Russia is not all bad. It is discouraging that the independence of the media and of big business has been steadily eroded in favour of a re-assertion of state power. But there is also real evidence of the emergence of a new middle-class. Driven by high commodity prices, the Russian economy has been growing at nearly 7 per cent a year. This wealth has not simply led to a proliferation of Ferraris and casinos in the centre of Moscow. Ikea, that symbol of middle-class retailing and self-improvement, is becoming a striking presence on the outskirts of Russia’s biggest cities. Russian package tourists are visible from Egypt to Cyprus to the Costa del Sol.

The growth of a Russian middle class may or may not follow the models of political scientists and lead to pressure for political liberalisation. But, after the collapse in Russian living standards in the 1990s, rising affluence is good news in itself – and goes a long way to accounting for the evident popularity of President Putin.

These “realist” points about Russia are important and valid. But the realist perspective also has its limitations. In a globalised world, the idea that the problems of Russia can be safely walled off behind its borders and a notional “sphere of influence” is too sanguine. If Russia continues to try to strangle Georgian independence, that tells us something about the kind of country that we are dealing with on all the other issues. And Litvinenko was, after all, a British citizen assassinated in London.

The billions generated by the commodity boom also means that Russian money, linked to the Russian state, is an increasingly powerful and potentially corrupting force in western Europe. Britain, France and Germany all have ruling political parties that are chronically short of funds and that have proved susceptible in the past to murky financing deals. The sight of Chancellor Schröder signing a deal to build a controversial gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – and then weeks later leaving office to take a job on the pipeline’s supervisory board – is not a pretty one. Who knows what job offers may come Mr Chirac’s way when he steps down next year?

Given Gazprom’s relationship with the Kremlin – and obvious questions about the political direction of Russia – it would be prudent for Europeans to qualify the traditional liberal position that foreign investment is welcome from whatever quarter, provided it is properly regulated. But an expanding presence of Gazprom in western Europe has a political aspect that cannot be ignored.

Mr Putin has exercised a strange fascination over his western colleagues. George W. Bush famously suggested that he had glanced into his Russian counterpart’s soul and liked what he had seen. Others to fall for the charming Russian president have been Messrs Chirac, Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.

There are no longer any excuses for infatuation with Mr Putin. But it is usually unwise to swing straight from adoration to loathing. Mr Putin may not be a soulmate. But he is not an enemy of the west either.