Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Ice Between London and Moscow is Slowly Cracking

Ralitsa Kovacheva, September 14, 2011

"It’s great to be back in Moscow. I first came to Russia as a student in the year between school and university and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Nakhodka to Moscow. I went on to the Black Sea coast and when I was there two Russians, who spoke perfect English, turned up on a beach that was reserved for foreigners. They took me out to lunch; they took me out to dinner. They asked me intriguing questions about life in England, about what I thought about politics. And when I got to university I told my tutor about this and he asked me whether I thought it was an interview. Well, if it was, it seems I didn’t get the job."

This story, told by British Prime Minister David Cameron before students at the Moscow University, provoked a journalist to ask at the joint news conference of Mr Cameron and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: "Mr Cameron suggested this morning that the KGB tried to recruit him on a visit here in 1985. Do you think he would have made a good KGB agent?" "No", briefly replied the British Prime Minister. "I am sure", Dmitry Medvedev said, "that David would have made a very good KGB agent, but then he would never have become prime minister of Britain."

From David Cameron's visit to Moscow, the first since 2006, it was expected no more and no less but to break the ice in Russian-British relations, which have reached the freezing point after the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The former agent of the Russian secret services, also known as an opponent of Vladimir Putin, received political asylum in Britain in 2000 where he died six years later from poisoning with radioactive polonium. The investigation of his death has caused a rift between Moscow and London, as both countries have still not changed their positions, both leaders stressed.

But now nobody talks about an "ice age" - in response to a question about the frozen Russian-British relations, Russian president joked: "If you look at our faces, you’ll see that there is nothing very frozen about David and I. We are quite warm, actually."

The important and widely expected message from British prime minister's visit in Moscow, however, was that disputable issues remain but that did not mean "that we freeze the entire relationship," David Cameron said. "That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue stronger business relations, stronger commercial relations, we shouldn’t work together on issues like stability and peace in the Middle East. [...] It’s absolutely vital for Russia, vital for Britain […] that we solve the problems of the eurozone, the problems of debt and we get the world economy to move on."

"In certain cases, including the investigation into the Litvinenko case, the differences in our legal systems mean that our positions are not quite the same. But this should not become an obstacle to other contacts. We are ready to discuss any matter if needed, basing our positions on our country’s laws of course", President Dmitry Medvedev confirmed. He stressed that it was important to discuss disagreements from a legal perspective and to give legal, and not political assessment of the situation. In this regard David Cameron fully supported him, saying that there were some legal issues, independent from the government and certain legal aspects of the issues where the state should not interfere.

Obviously, the constructive and open relations between the two leaders were not just a theatre for the media because they were candid on another controversial issue too – the UN resolution on Syria which is currently being prepared. Russia wants a strong but balanced UN resolution on Syria, addressed to both sides in the Syrian conflict - the official government of President Bashar Assad and the opposition, Mr Medvedev explained. According to Moscow, the resolution should not automatically impose sanctions, and “very important” - it must not turn into something like Resolution 1973 (the Resolution on Libya from 17 March 2011), not in terms of content but "in terms of practical implementation," the Russian president noted.

The British prime minister clearly explained the difference in views between Moscow and London: "We don’t see a future for President Assad and his regime in Syria. We think it has lost legitimacy and he must stand aside."

Trade and economic relations had their deserved place in the discussions, given the eloquent data: last year bilateral trade between the two countries rose by 25% to 16 billion dollars and only for the first half of this year it has increased with another 50%. As David Cameron said, "Russia is resource rich and services light. Britain is the opposite." The British prime minister stressed that his country was one of the largest direct foreign investors in Russia and Russian companies accounted for a quarter of all foreign initial public offerings on the London Stock Exchange.

“Today we’re announcing £215 million worth of new commercial deals, creating 500 jobs back home and safeguarding thousands more, from engineering companies like AECOM working on the new Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway, to small companies like Global Immersion providing cutting-edge technology for the Moscow Planetarium. And there’s a new joint company launching today to create a state of the art pharmaceutical plant here in Moscow and 300 jobs back in Britain. And this growing business is why British Airways is today announcing more seats on its London to Moscow route. We’ve also agreed to work together on new technology in areas like civil nuclear power. This will pave the way for Rolls-Royce to win a substantial share of Russian-backed projects to develop nuclear reactors elsewhere, with wider benefits for the 250 British companies involved in the nuclear supply chain. I’m delighted that Rosatom and Rolls-Royce have signed that agreement today.” [Memorandum of Understanding with the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation"Rosatom"].

Against this background, it sounded logically but very bravely when a journalist asked Dmitry Medvedev why a British businessman should invest in Russia, given the possibility of facing intimidation, corruption and inconsistent rule of law. Mr Medvedev answered that corruption was everywhere: "Let me reveal a secret you perhaps don’t know and tell you that it exists even in Britain too." That does not mean that we should not fight corruption, the president continued: "We do indeed have a corruption problem and a widespread one too. We need to take systemic measures to vanquish corruption, not so as to make ourselves more attractive to foreign investors, but in order to put our own economy in order, and we are working on just this task."

In his speech at the Moscow University earlier in the day, David Cameron indirectly answered this question: "The rule of law is vital; vital for foreign investment, for entrepreneurship and innovation, for people to be encouraged to start their own businesses. They need to have faith that the state, the judiciary and the police will protect their hard work and not put the obstacles of bureaucracy, regulation or corruption in their way.

I have talked to many British businesses; I have no doubt about their ambition to work in Russia and it is also clear that the concerns that continue to make them hold back are real concerns. They need to know that they can go to a court confident that a contract will be enforced objectively and that their assets and premises won’t be unlawfully taken away from them. In the long run the rule of law is what delivers stability and security. I believe the best guarantor of prosperity and stability is for economic and political progress and political openness to go step in step together.

When people get economically richer they make legitimate demands for political freedoms to match their economic freedoms. And as they start to benefit from a free media, guaranteed human rights, the rule of law, and a greater stake in how their society is run so they will have the confidence and energy to invest in a new cycle of innovation and growth. And that is something I believe to be true in every part of the world."

David Cameron's words are especially understandable for the Russians and the citizens of the former Soviet satellites that continue to strive (more or less) for rule of law, democracy and market economy, more than 20 years after the fall of the socialist regimes. Perhaps for the first time since 1989 all they need to hear again is that this is the right path, even if their politicians conveniently forget it.

While surprising with its frankness at a first glance, the statement of the British prime minister in Moscow delivers a clear message: the Arab spring showed the aspirations of more and more societies around the world for freedom and democracy. The warm spring winds will inevitably be felt everywhere where there still are authoritarian regimes, or governments that use other than democratic means. The European countries are the last that can afford a "winter" of non-freedom in economic and political terms, as described by Mr Cameron, and Russia obviously has a lot to catch up in this regard. But it is clear, especially after the Arab Spring, that "the winter" is not welcome in Europe.