Last night I found myself surrounded by Russians baying for
blood vodka at the makeshift bar in the garden of the Russian Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
It wasn’t some bizarre dream. I was a guest at the Conservative Friends of Russia launch, an organisation which sources inside the Conservative Party tell me ‘is probably not affiliated’ with the Tory Party.
Probably a good thing.
There was many a whisper and a giggle at the expense of the hosts of the event, as Westminster regulars sniggered to each other about who the house band might be (yes, a Pussy Riot joke) and whether or not the raffle at the end of the night was rigged. “Corruption?! In Russia?! Perish the thought!” One guest chortled.
But behind the alcohol enforced smiles was a distinct uneasiness. Most attendees either didn’t know what they were doing there, or didn’t want to be there. Such is the case with many a Westminster Summer Reception, you might add. But there was something even more sinister about this one.
While the intentions of the organisers may indeed be good, that didn’t stop the many dozen people I spoke to questioning the motives of the group. Lots of business people were in attendance, interested in how they could sell into Russian markets. Many politicos were angling for a trip to Red Square.
But in bartering with the Ambassador to Vladimir Putin, these men and women are realising a severe deficit on matters of conscience.
Not even a week after the increasingly authoritarian Russian government was complicit in the sentencing of Pussy Riot stars to two years in prison for blaspheming in church, Tory politicos were rubbing shoulders with representatives of Putin’s politburo.
As my colleague Dr. Alan Mendoza yesterday stated, “True friends of Russia believe that there is a desperate need for reform in the country, and that opposition voices must be heard.”
While it would have been quixotic to imagine opposition voices appearing in the fray last night, it is of great concern that the CFoR appears to be aligning itself with Putin’s representatives in London, instead of reaching out to a dissident community who are more interested in rooting out corruption and furthering the cause of a liberal, transparent democracy in Russia. What happens to the group remains to be seen. Perhaps it was a smart move by CFoR’s Honorary President, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, to pull out just fifteen minutes before the event.
UPDATE: The Conservative Friends of Russia have tweeted at me to say that Sir Malcolm Rifkind ‘is in Scotland and was never due to attend’, contrary to what I heard on the night.