Monday, July 12, 2004

What are we to do about Russia?

Russia has been hosting visits. First our own Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw went for a day, then Chancellor Schröder. No doubt, there will be others. What these two visits had in common was a reluctance to raise awkward questions in a country and to a government that abounds with awkwardness.

The German media spent some time sneering at the fact that Schröder refused to discuss the Yukos case with Putin. (Jack Straw had not mentioned it either.) In reply Shcröder mumbled some explanation that a country has the right to collect taxes from its companies and citizens. Well,he should know. The German government is so anxious to collect taxes that it is driving all business and investment into other countries.

Nevertheless, this rather disingenuous statement ignores certain aspects of the Yukos case. One is the persistent opinion that the attack on the company and its largest shareholder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, came as he was trying to change the running of the company to more accepted Western ways, which would have involved fewer bribes to officials and, above all, as he began to display an interest in entering the political field. Up with that Putin would not put.

The trial is due to start today and there is a strong possibility, reported in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday that the government will move in to seize Yukos's oil and hand the marketing over to Gennady Timchenko, an oil trader, friend of Putin and former KGB officer, in fact, one of Putin’s own oligarchs. Would these things not be worth mentioning?

The attitude of European ministers and leaders to Russia is very different to that of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who, after his last visit a couple of months ago, wrote a strongly worded article telling the Russian government that if it wanted to be part of the western world, it had better clean up its human rights record.

Nothing much has happened on that score and the European proponents of ethical foreign policy have kept conspicuously quiet.

Menawhile Le Monde has reported another interesting fact. Apparently in February the Americans repatriated seven of the eight Russian citizens from Guantanamo, much against their wishes. Clearly, they knew that, with all its problems, Guantanamo was preferable to the prison system in Russia. All seven, who were clearly Chechens from their names, have disappeared.

According to the article, the American authorities have shrugged their shoulders, pointing out that once they repatriate the prisoners, they have no more interest in the subject. But whatever happened to the European opinion formers who have been hyperventilating about Guantanamo? Why have they not expressed some interest in the fate of the Chechens? Human rights organizations in Russia who encountered ever more problems with the authorities, have tried to raise the issue as they have tried to interest the West in what is going on in Chechnya in general.

Alas, neither Foreign Secretary Jack Straw nor Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have been listening. It is not part of the ethical foreign policy to worry about what is going on in Russia.

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