It also won't help CFoR's benign self-portrait that among its honorary vice presidents is Andrew Rosindell, a Tory parliamentarian who in June expressed his "huge admiration" for Augusto Pinochet and suggested that he would "happily" join a Facebook fan club for the dead Chilean junta leader who killed, tortured, or disappeared tens of thousands. What does puzzle some is the presence of former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who is generally thought of as gimlet-eyed about Putinism, as an honorary president of CFoR.* (Rifkind didn't attend the CFoR launch; he was in Edinburgh.)
When contacted by email, Royal told me that CFoR receives no money from the Russian government, nor has any past or present Russian official contracted Lionheart Public Affairs for campaign work. Rather, the entire initiative is funded "from membership and events," and everyone works on a volunteer basis. I asked about the website's news feed, which, since the launch event at Yakovenko's house, continued to feature only state-owned or state-subsidized outlets such as Voice of Russia, RIA Novosti, and Russia Beyond the Headlines. These selections, Royal replied, were "entirely coincidental.… [W]e have used a wide range of providers, and simply want something with Russian-related news which very few international agencies provide." CFoR doesn't endorse any articles that appear on the website, Royal noted, while adding that he had just included the independently owned Moscow Times to the news feed.
Following our email exchange, Royal and CFoR took part in a 10-day trip to Russia paid for by Rossotrudnichestvo, a new state "cultural agency" that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sees as "play[ing] an important role" in the furthering of Russian foreign policy. Royal used this government-funded excursion to see what he calls the "real Russia": He did a spot on Russia Today -- the Kremlin-controlled television channel that veers between feverish anti-American conspiracy and nothing-to-see-here coverage of Russia's domestic turmoil -- in which he explained that he and his retinue (members of which he elsewhere refused to identify) met with politicians and "opposition" figures. I asked which ones.
"We met with lots of representatives from United Russia, A Just Cause, LDPR, Communist Party," Royal replied, naming officially tolerated opposition parties in the Duma, "and chairs of foreign affairs committees, energy advisers and so on." So no one from the protest movement, which held a 50,000-strong rally in Moscow while Royal was in the country, or from the besieged civil society sector, such as the election monitor Golos or the human rights watchdog Memorial? Nope. Two of the organizations Royal mentioned meeting with are part of the Kremlin's new "public diplomacy" outreach, including the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Fund and the Russian International Affairs Council (here's Lavrov expanding fondly on them). A third was the Agency of Strategic Initiatives, a government-run business development group on whose advisory board Putin sits. All was not Potemkin theater, however: "Several of us also attended a 'Free Pussy Riot' concert," wrote Royal.
Pretend naiveté about an increasingly authoritarian regime competes with CFoR's general posture, which Nabokov might have called yuppie "poshlust." The group's monthly calendar of events displays a passion for kitschy networking opportunities. Young Tories seeking lucrative consultancy gigs with Gazprom won't want to miss "Pancakes until 6pm" at Mari Vanna (a pricey restaurant in Knightsbridge) or the standing Saturday-night "Russki London Party" at the Harrington Club ("DJ A-Lex will treat you to selection of best club hits and many Russian popular remixes.… Best place to celebrate your Birthday Party 'Russian style'!")
This is quite a distance for the Conservative Party to have traveled from Thatcher's Iron Lady stolidity. With a few notable back-bench exceptions, the younger generation of Conservatives has tended toward softness on the new master of the Kremlin, a disposition that predates the party's return to government in the last election. When Prime Minister David Cameron was still just an opposition leader, he yanked his party out of the dominant center-right voting bloc in the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in favor of joining with Putin's United Russia along with a few far-right European political parties to vote on recommendations and investigations into human rights, the state of democracy, and the rule of law in member countries. The Conservatives even campaigned to have Mikhail Margelov, a former KGB officer, appointed president of PACE. Despite a promise to cancel this affiliation following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, during which Cameron traveled to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and sounded as hawkish and anti-Kremlin as he ever has, Conservatives continue to caucus with United Russia, probably for the unremarkable reason that both parties are ideologically opposed to pan-European institutions or treaties in the first place.