When most people think of British-Russian relations, they imagine Bond films, iron curtains, Cambridge double agents, irradiated dissidents, and billionaire oligarchs who dress like Evelyn Waugh but behave like Tony Soprano and then sue each other in London courts. But there's another element underwriting this not-so-special relationship.
British elites, elected or otherwise, have grown highly susceptible to the unscrutinized rubles that continue to pour into the boom-or-boom London real estate market and a luxury-service industry catering to wealthy Russians who are as bodyguarded as they are jet-set. This phenomenon has not only imported some of the worst practices of a mafia state across the English Channel, but it has had a deleterious impact on Britain's domestic politics. And some of the most powerful and well-connected figures of British public life, from the Rothschilds to former prime ministers, have been taken in by it. Most surprising, though, is how the heirs to Margaret Thatcher's fierce opposition to the Soviets have often been the ones most easily seduced by the Kremlin's entreaties.
On Aug. 21, a new lobby group called Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR) was launched at the London home of Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to Britain. The launch was attended by some 250 guests, including parliamentarians, Conservative Party members, businessmen, lobbyists, NGO representatives, and even princes. Yakovenko and Member of Parliament John Whittingdale, who chairs the Culture Select Committee in Parliament and is an "honorary vice president" of CFoR, both delivered keynote addresses. The lavish do in the backyard of the Kremlin envoy featured, as the Guardian reported, a "barbecue, drinks and a raffle, with prizes of vodka, champagne and a biography of Vladimir Putin," and it came just days after the Pussy Riot verdict. It was an open invitation to controversy. If CFoR wanted to portray itself as merely a promoter of "dialogue" between Britain and Russia, it was an odd beginning for a group born looking and sounding a lot like "Tories for Putin."
CFoR was founded by Richard Royal, a public affairs manager at Ladbrokes, a popular chain of betting parlors in Britain. He also owns his own company, Lionheart Public Affairs, which has no website but shares a registered address with the new pro-Russia lobby group. Responding to the storm of criticism his new project has provoked, Royal took to the Guardian's website to defend the initiative against what he called "armchair critics on Twitter," in language you'd expect from a PR professional. "Whether we like it or not," Royal wrote, "Russia is an influential and essential part of the international community and its importance will only grow over time. We need to stop making decisions based on misconceptions that are decades old, and deal with reality."
Royal's notion of "reality" will strike some observers as rather loosely defined. He claims that "democracy [in Russia] is only just approaching its 21st birthday" when it has actually been in a state of arrested development for 12 years. The rest of his op-ed is a vague endorsement of better Anglo-Russian cooperation on energy, science, and technology and of a relaxation of Britain's visa requirements for Russian businesses -- all of which are, of course, fully in line with the desires of the Russian Foreign Ministry. The recent clampdown on civil society, the forced registration of NGOs as "foreign agents," Putin's backing and arming of Syria's Assad regime, and the arrests of other members of the Russian protest movement, from Garry Kasparov to Alexey Navalny, earn not a single mention by Royal or CFoR on their website, despite their avowed interest in fostering cozier relations between peoples, not governments. Royal has boasted on Facebook of the "great deal of support for our fantastic organisation" received at another Russian Embassy event featuring Yakovenko and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. With friends like these, CFoR isn't likely to stray very far from the Kremlin line. To date, CFoR's loudest campaign has been waged against Britain's Foreign Office, which cites technical prohibitions on allowing Russia to award the Medal of Ushakov to surviving British participants in the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union during World War II. (Much as the lobby rails against a Cold War mindset, it seems quite comfortable intervening vociferously on an issue that seems better tailored to a Soviet-era "friendship" society.)
Consider, too, the "news" section of the group's site. One item that conspicuously stood out was "The miserable meowing of Pussy Riot," which accused the feminist punk group of "scandalous and pedophilic acts" and claimed the court that sentenced three of its members to two years in jail "has treated the hooligans gently enough." That article came courtesy of Pravda.ru, the combination propaganda mill/supermarket tabloid run by Vadim Gorshenin, an underling of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. After several MPs and newspapers called attention to CFoR's pro-Kremlin media portfolio, the anti-Pussy Riot screed was removed from the site.
More alarming was the interview Royal gave to Ilya Goryachev, the former head of Russky Obraz ("Russian Image"), a neo-Nazi outfit that has called for the restriction of civil rights for "aboriginal non-Slavic" citizens outside areas where they heavily predominate and for a ban on interracial marriage. Russky Obraz became notorious when two of its members, Nikita Tikhonov and his girlfriend, Yevgenia Khasis, were convicted last year for the murders of human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a reporter for muckraking newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who rushed to Markelov's rescue. He was shot in the head in central Moscow in 2009 directly after leaving a news conference at which he'd promised to fight the early release of Russian Col. Yuri Budanov, who was imprisoned in 2000 for strangling an 18-year-old Chechen woman to death. That Goryachev had taken an interest in a new right-wing pro-Russia lobby group abroad should have unnerved rather than flattered any good public relations professional. Goryachev got what he came for in that interview, with Royal confining his boilerplate responses to how Russia unfairly judged "on the basis of misconceptions and outdated beliefs" and how it's no other country's business to "lecture" Moscow on Caucasian separatism or counterterrorism.