When we have stopped guffawing about the alleged British spy rock in Moscow, some serious questions will remain, although not about the developing techniques of the second oldest profession in the world. I have no idea what truth there is in these particular allegations, but I have no doubt that Britain is spying on Russia and Russia is spying on Britain. The bulldog and the bear have been playing what Rudyard Kipling called “the great game” against each other for more than a century, and they are unlikely to stop any time soon. Q, the eccentric inventor of British spy gadgets in the James Bond movies, would be proud of that Moscow rock. And look out for a Russian-made rock next time you go for a stroll in your local park.
Spying is not the issue. The issue is what this episode tells us about the Putin regime’s attitude toward democracy in Russia and its former empire and what lessons we, as citizens of democracies, should draw about the way our countries try to promote democracy in other people’s backyards. First, the Putinists and democracy. They don’t like it. They see democracy devouring the former Russian empire, all the way from Poland in the 1980s, through Georgia’s rose revolution and Ukraine’s orange revolution, to today’s challenge to President Lukashenko in Belarus and the criticism of their own supremacy in Russia from independent media and NGOs.
|I have no doubt that Britain is spying on Russia and vice versa. The bulldog and the bear have been playing what Rudyard Kipling called “the great game” for more than a century.|
Putin regime thinks the virus of “color revolution,” and the poison of democracy, is being spread by NGOs. And it believes, or at least claims to believe, that these are being inspired and funded by Western powers. This is, on a smaller canvas and in changed circumstances, a classic Kremlin, Cold War–conspiracy view of politics—as you might expect from former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. After the orange revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin’s “political technologists,” as they are nicely styled, have identified NGOs as the new soft-power battlefield between Russia and the West.
The most dangerous thing about the Putin regime’s rock demarche is, therefore, the link it has made between the alleged British spy jinks and the activity of Russian NGOs. This comes at a moment when Russia has just passed a law giving the Kremlin far-reaching powers to monitor and control NGOs, including the right to suspend them should they threaten Rus-sia’s sovereignty or independence. Colonel Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Federal Security Service (FSB), claims that Marc Doe, one of the British diplomats alleged to be a secret rock operator, had authorized several payments to Russian NGOs, including £23,000 to the Moscow Helsinki Group. Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group said, “They are preparing public opinion for a government move to close us down, which they can now do under the new law.” Thus may Russia celebrate its presidency of the G8.
PURSUING DEMOCRACY TRANSPARENTLY
What should we do about this? Immediately, we need to make the threat to NGOs an issue in our relations with Russia. German chancellor Angela Merkel has already done this, making a refreshing departure from the craven practices of her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. So has Condoleezza Rice. On this, there should be a common, clearly articulated European Union position. We should also have an honest and detailed discussion of what is and what is not fair play by Western countries trying to promote democracy elsewhere. The debate in editorial pages will no doubt continue, but there is a limit to what can be achieved by exchanges of opinion pieces. The next step might be for an international group of independent analysts to look at all the evidence, listen to all sides, and come up with a set of suggested norms.
Meanwhile, there’s the urgent question of what we are doing now. Every country does things differently, but, since Britain is in the Kremlin’s sights at the moment, let’s talk about Britain. “We know well,” said Ignatchenko, as quoted by Novosti, “that Marc Doe introduced himself as a representative of the Global Opportunities Fund at meetings with NGO members.” The Global Opportunities Fund is the Foreign Office’s big new program budget “to promote action on global issues in areas of strategic importance to the UK.” Its “reuniting Europe” pillar has as one of its purposes the promotion of “democracy and the rule of law—including protection of human rights.”
|When public money is being channeled to frontline democracy promotion, it should go through an institution that is as transparent and as independent from government as possible.|
Excellent idea. If, however, it turns out that Marc Doe was a British spy, laying out transmitter rocks one day, doling out dollars for democracy the next, then the impact on embattled NGOs in Russia will be disastrous. Nothing could be more compromising for Russian democrats. Even if the British government insists that Doe—who is accredited as second secretary (political)—was not a spy working under diplomatic cover but simply a mild-mannered diplomat with an interest in local geology, it will be impossible to prove that negative. The suspicion will always remain, not least in the minds of the Russian public. The NGOs will have been successfully tarred with the spy brush.
The lesson is that, when public money is being channeled to frontline democracy promotion, it should go through an institution that is as transparent and as independent from government as possible. In Britain there is already such an institution. It’s called the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. You can visit its website (www.wfd.org) and see exactly what it does. You can read its annual reports and see precisely who it has supported. Its funding (currently a modest £4.1 million, far less than the Global Opportunities Fund) comes almost entirely from the Foreign Office, but decisions on how to spend it are made by an independent board, composed of governors representing all the political parties in the House of Commons and a slightly smaller number of independent, nonparty governors. Its chief patron is the Speaker of the House, supported by the leaders of all the parties. It sails throughout the world under the portcullis flag of the mother of parliaments.
|We need to make the threat to NGOs an issue in our relations with Russia.|
I was a founding member of the Westminster Foundation and served on its board as an independent governor for many years. We were given responses on proposals to support NGOs in a particular country from the local British embassy. Sometimes we heeded their advice; sometimes we ignored it. And that’s how it should be done. Like Caesar’s wife, democracy promotion must not only be above suspicion but be seen to be above suspicion. And in this area there’s a lot of suspicion about, some of it probably justified. As the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Sergei Lebedev, said in a rare interview, “Humanitarian missions and nongovernmental organizations are very attractive for all secret services in the world. Secrets services need cover, a mask, a screen.” You can be sure he knows what he’s talking about.
Now I read that the Speaker of the Russian parliament, Boris Gryzlov, is talking of raising this issue with colleagues in the British parliament. Indeed he should. And his British colleagues should be able to reply that the entirely legitimate purpose of promoting democracy is being pursued scrupulously and transparently, by an independent public body under an independent board and the supervision and sign of the mother of parliaments, by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. That would be a model of good practice and not just for Britain.The content of this article is only available in the print edition.