Seeking Respect

Today an FT editor breaks down the main arguments currently driving the bitter divide between Russian and the West in the attached op/ed:

Murder and oppression will not earn Russia respect By Stefan Wagstyl The killer of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB man poisoned in London last year, assumed he would get away with it. That is why, the police think, he used radioactive polonium, a deadly but almost undetectable toxin. But doctors found the traces in Mr Litvinenko’s ravaged body. And last week British prosecutors decided to press for the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, another ex-KGB officer, for murder. What was designed to stay in the shadows of deniability has been exposed to the glaring light of day. Mr Lugovoi denies wrongdoing – and has said in the past that he is ready to come to London to clear his name. But the Russian authorities say the constitution bans the extradition of Russian citizens. Claims that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is criminally responsible for Mr Litvinenko’s death are rightly condemned by the Kremlin as absurd. No evidence has emerged to support such allegations. But the Russian leader is morally responsible for presiding over a country in which murder has become a tool in politics and business. Anna Politkovskaya, the campaigning journalist, and Sergei Kozlov, a senior central central bank official investigating fraud cases, are two other recent prominent victims. In a democratic country, the president would be given a political grilling over such killings. But there’s the rub. Russia is not a democracy in any normal sense of the word. It is an authoritarian state in which the rule of law is based not on the rights of the citizen but on the dictates of the Kremlin. The fact that Mr Putin is hugely popular does not detract from the argument. He is profiting from Russia’s biggest economic boom in a century. History is full of authoritarian leaders who have been lucky with their economic timing. Mr Putin and his supporters retort that the west is in no position to give lectures, given its own shortcomings. “Every country has its strengths and weaknesses” is a favourite argument. The American adventure in Iraq as an oft-cited example of how even well- established democracies go wrong. Some in the Putin camp add that since western countries took centuries to reach their current (imperfect) levels of democracy, Russia should be given more time. With some justification, they say the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 are a brief moment in the long march of history. The Kremlin is often backed by western business people making money in Russia who do not want western politicians rocking the economic boat. They accuse the Kremlin’s critics of judging Russia by impossibly high standards. The same criteria are, they say, rarely applied to other countries of political and economic interest to the west – notably China. To these points there are three answers. First, the fact that the west often fails in achieving its own ideals argues for patience and respect in criticising others. But it does not undermine the value of those ideals. Second, even if the road to democracy is long it is important to be heading in the right direction. On the eve of Mr Putin’s presidency in 2000, Russia was an unstable country with rapacious oligarchs accumulating power and money at the Kremlin’s expense. Mr Putin was right to try to reimpose order. But he and the other ex-KGB officials whom he brought into the Kremlin have gone far too far. Officials have combined the consolidation of political power with the pursuit of control over economic assets as ruthless as that of the oligarchs. This is not the construction of a platform for democracy, but the building of an authoritarian fortress. The elite is not preparing to share power, however slowly. It is digging in for a decade. Finally, the China argument. It is true the human rights standards applied by the west to Beijing are less demanding than those set for Moscow. The levels for much of the rest of the developing world are lower still. But this is what many educated Russians want. With their long history of engagement with the rest of Europe and their spectacular contributions to European culture, they see themselves as Europeans, not citizens of the developing world. They aspire to a European standard of living and talk hopefully of Russia becoming “a civilised country” – by which they mean a country like Germany, France or the UK. They also seek respect. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an enormous blow to Russian prestige. Many Russians quite reasonably take pride in the country’s recent economic resurgence and its new-found willingness to assert itself among its neighbours. That is, after all, what powerful nations do, not least the US. But the Kremlin must learn that respect comes not from bullying neighbours, still less from oppressing their own citizens. If Russia’s leaders really want it to be seen as a “civilised” country they must embrace “civilised” standards, including standards of human rights. There is no more important human right than the right to life, as Mr Litvinenko found to his cost. The writer is the FT’s east Europe editor