By kind invitation of Fabian Hamilton MP, the Henry Jackson Society hosted a discussion with Luke Harding, Journalist and Author of the recently published ‘Mafia State’. Luke will be offering a fascinating insight into his time in Russia and the dark and brutal undercurrent of thuggery, secret police and corruption that is currently engulfing the country.
With Vladimir Putin set to return as Russian President in 2012, the country’s surrender to autocracy deserves increased scrutiny. What went wrong in Russia, which showed such hope in the days of perestroika and after the collapse of communism? The revival of Soviet-era practices has included the systematic intimidation, harassment, expulsion and imprisonment of public figures who question or criticize the status quo.
Luke Harding’s experience as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent testifies to the revival of KGB thuggery, and the Kremlin’s intolerance for criticism. During his time in Moscow, he was subjected to a campaign of harassment, featuring tactics redolent of Cold War-era spy fiction. His fascinating account of his experiences, which saw him become one of the most hated foreign journalists in Russia and led to his expulsion in February 2011, is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the new yet familiar face of Russian authoritarianism.
Luke Harding is a journalist, author and was formerly The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent. Luke moved to Russia from Berlin where he was The Guardian’s Berlin correspondent for four years.
He began his journalistic career at Oxford where he read English and edited the student newspaper Cherwell. After graduating, Luke joined the Sunday Correspondent – which folded soon afterwards – and worked for the Evening Argus in Brighton and then the Daily Mail. He joined The Guardian in 1996. Luke covered Jonathan Aitken’s infamous libel trial for the paper and wrote – with the Guardian’s David Leigh – The Liar: The Fall of Jonathan Aitken, published by Penguin and Fourth Estate. In 2000 he became The Guardian’s South Asia correspondent based in Delhi. In 2001 he spent three months in Pakistan and Afghanistan covering the war against the Taliban, and won Foreign Story of the Year from the Foreign Press Association in 2002 for his reporting of the siege in Mazar-i-Sharif. He spent much of 2003 and 2004 in Iraq.
In 2007, Harding arrived in Moscow to take up a new job as a correspondent for The Guardian. Not long after, mysterious agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, broke into his flat. He was followed, bugged, and even summoned to Lefortovo, the FSB’s notorious prison.
The break-in was the beginning of a psychological war against the journalist and his family that burst into the open in 2011 when he was expelled from Moscow for reporting allegations that under Vladimir Putin the country had become a “virtual mafia state”. The first western reporter to be deported from Russia since the days of the Cold War, Harding has written about his run-in with the new Russia in his recently published book, Mafia State.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Fabian Hamilton, I’m a Labour MP of some years standing, back bencher, and I’m very delighted this afternoon to welcome you here and to chair this meeting in which we have our very prominent guest speaker. Luke Harding is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has reported from Delhi and Berlin. More recently he has been the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent and is extremely well-placed to provide a unique insight into the daily goings-on in the Kremlin and the impact that past and current governments have had on all aspects of Russian society, particularly freedom of expression. His personal account of his time working in Moscow and challenging elements of the Russian political elite’s conduct is fascinating. His work was the target of a clandestine approach from Russia’s federal security service and after months of harassment, including being summoned to the former KGB Lefortovo prison, he became the first Western journalist to be deported from Russia since the end of the Cold War. This incredible story is the subject of his latest book, ‘Mafia State; How One Reporter Became The Enemy Of The Brutal New Russia’. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, Luke Harding, after which we will take questions.
I’m very grateful to Fabian and the Henry Jackson Society, for inviting me here this afternoon. As Fabian said, I was, until earlier this year, the Moscow correspondent of the Guardian newspaper. I recently calculated that I’m the eighth staff correspondent to have reported from Russia since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. My predecessors were a distinguished bunch; the first Guardian reporter was Arthur Ramsden, better known for his stories for children. Ramsden shared a flat with a member of the Politburo, Karl Radek, he played chess with Lenin and he had a passionate affair with Leon Trotsky’s secretary, whom he married and carted off back to Britain. The second Guardian correspondent, back then of course it was the Manchester Guardian, was Malcolm Muggeridge, who lived in Moscow in 1932 and 1933.
It is Muggeridge with whom I feel the greatest affinity. As the son of a socialist MP, a relation of the Fabian Sociey and a writer for a well-respected Liberal newspaper, Muggeridge might have been expected to give a synthetic account of the brave new world being constructed by the Soviets. Instead, Muggeridge was instantly appalled by what he found; tyranny, censorship, hypocrisy, brutality, poverty, and what André Gide writing after the war in ‘The God That Failed’, a brilliant collection of essays by disillusioned ex-Communists, called ‘the extent of the bluff’. Muggeridge reserved a special scorn for the Western journalists who colluded in the great deceit, sending back propaganda dispatches from Russia and ignoring or down-playing the horrors they knew to be taking place under Stalin. In early 1933, Muggeridge managed to evade censorship and see the Stalin-made famines in the Ukraine and North Caucasus. He documented the deliberate genocide against Soviet peasants, some 14 million of whom died as a result of what was, in effect, government engineered murder. Muggeridge smuggled his reports back to the Guardian via a British diplomatic bag. The Guardian published them, somewhat reluctantly, in March 1933. His articles prompted a furious response. In the West, Muggeridge’s revelations were met with widespread incredulity. He was accused of being a liar. He found it impossible to get a job as a journalist and wrote that he’d offended the Liberal consensus which still looked indulgently at the Communist experiments taking place under Stalin. He resigned from the Guardian, and like me was unable to return to Moscow.
One of my favourite books on Russia is Muggeridge’s ‘Winter In Moscow’. Now long out of print, Muggeridge wrote the novel in 1934 on his return from the Soviet Union. It is a devastatingly satirical account of the Western journalists who deliberately looked away from Stalin’s famines and who deceived their readers about the true nature of the Soviet regime. He also, rightly, attacked left-wing intellectuals who allowed themselves to be duped. Muggeridge was especially sardonic about William Durant, the Pulitzer-winning reporter for the New York Times. Durant features in the novel as Jefferson; he was the quintessential useful idiot. In his reports back to New York, Durant denied the existence of famines and was instrumental in persuading Roosevelt to recognise diplomatically Stalin’s odious and tyrannical regime. Re-reading ‘Winter In Moscow’ following my expulsion and unhappy departure from Russia earlier this year, I’m struck by how little has changed. In his preface to the novel, Muggeridge writes about the position of foreign journalists in Russia and the manner in which news about Russia reaches the outside. He says, there is stiff censorship, of course, but it is not generally known that foreign journalists in Moscow work under the perpetual threat of losing their visas and therefore their jobs, unless they consent, which most of them do, to limit their news to what they know will not be displeasing to the dictatorship of the proletariat. They are subjected to continuous persecution, varying from tiresome approaches from petty foreign office officials to the imprisonment and exiling of any friends or relatives they have who are unfortunate enough to be Soviet citizens. The result is that the news from Russia is a joke, either being provided by men whom long residence in Moscow has made completely docile or by men who try to say more than they can who are forced for various reasons to be discreet. He goes on to say, it is even not unusual for agents of the Soviet government to bring pressure to bear in editorial offices where the correspondent is not to its satisfaction. Muggeridge also notes what he calls the thorough behaviour of the OGPU. The OGPU were Stalin’s secret police, a forerunner of the KGB and today’s FSB or Federal Security Service. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s once and future president, is of course the FSB’s former boss.
When I arrived in Moscow, in January 2007 as the Guardian’s correspondent, I was surprised to discover there was the self-censorship that Muggeridge described still existing. Not, perhaps, in the full-throated form which he experienced in the dark years of Stalin’s rule, but I quickly realised there are certain themes when reporting from Russia that is was better to avoid. In the decade since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the Russian press has instinctively absorbed the rules of what can and can’t be reported to the point that the system of self-censorship works without any extra special effort from the Kremlin. The Russian media landscape is, of course, mixed, but television, the main source of information for ordinary Russians, is under straight state control, with opposition politicians and critics blacklisted. Most newspapers are also under the Kremlin’s thumb. There are honourable exceptions; Novaya Gazeta, owned by Alexander Lebedev, is one. As a correspondent in Moscow sitting in a dingy office next to the busy Belorussky railway station, I would also read Kommersant and Vedomosti and listen to the radio station Ekho Moskvy, an important source of news for Russia’s frustrated middles. Russia’s internet is still largely free, and as the success of the anti-corruption campaigner and blogger Alexey Navalnyshows, a vibrant outlet for discussion. But the murder in 2006 of Anna Politkovskaya made grimly clear that there are certain taboo issues that you report from Russia at your peril. I propose to mention three of them.
First, corruption in high places. It is possible, as president Dmitri Medvedev frequently does, to discuss corruption as an abstract or metaphysical entity, as a knotty conceptual problem that can only be dissolved through a form of modernisation. But it isn’t possible or advisable to talk about corruption in connection with named senior figures inside the Russian government. This is especially true of Prime Minister Putin whose vast wealth is an open secret for the Russian elite. Secondly, it is not advisable to write about the FSB, Russia’s all-powerful and murky domestic counter-intelligence agency. The rise of the FSB over the past decade has been well-documented by two friends of mine, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, in their 2010 book The New Nobility. Suffice it to say, British prosecutors believe there was a clear FSB dimension to the murder five years ago in London of Alexander Litvinenko. Thirdly, it is extremely dangerous to criticise Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, and close ally of Mr Putin. It is also clear that the Kremlin would prefer journalists to cover the North Caucasus from the comfort of their offices in Moscow. The FSB is placing increasing restrictions on the movements of foreign correspondents in Dagestan, Ingushetia and other Muslim republics of the South. These republics are now in the grip of a vicious low-level war between Islamist rebels and local and federal security forces. There are human rights abuses on both sides, but it is surely legitimate to ask whether Moscow’s brutal strategy in the North Caucasus is counter-productive.
During my four years in Moscow, I repeatedly broke all of these taboos. In December 2007, I wrote an article about the war between various Kremlin clans in the run-up to Mr Putin’s departure from the Kremlin in what turned out to be a casting move into the Prime Minister’s office and back to the Kremlin again. Against this feuding backdrop, sources were suggesting that Mr Putin was, in fact, the richest man in Europe with substantial, but undeclared, stakes in leading state and private oil and gas companies. The Kremlin refused to comment on my story. I travelled several times to the North Caucasus, visiting Ingushetia and Dagestan as well as Chechnya including after the murder in the summer of 2009 in Grozny of the human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. Her colleagues from the human rights group Memorial blamed her killing on President Kadyrov, and in November last year I was part of the Guardian team that examined more than a quarter of a million secret and classified despatches from the US state departments released by Julian Assange – he’s had a bad day today – and his whistle blower website WikiLeaks. The cables paint an unbelievably grim picture of Russia as a brutal and despairing kleptocracy in which the activities of the mafia, the Russian government and the FSB are virtually synonymous. The Guardian’s headline on its WikiLeaks coverage of Russia read, ‘Inside Putin’s mafia state’. In one secret cable, in February 2010, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, describes Russia as an oligarchy run by the security services. He is right.
I wasn’t the only journalist to tackle these sensitive themes head-on; there were many other correspondents, both Western and Russian, in Moscow and in the provinces, who reported with integrity and courage as Russia moved from the chaos but relative freedom of the Yeltsin years to the so-called managed democracy of Putin’s vertical power structure. But I was sometimes taken aback by the timidity of some of my Western colleagues, in particular the BBC was extremely reluctant to report on stories that might offend the Kremlin, and despite the efforts of some of its braver reporters, the corporation has so far entirely slumbered through what the Economist’s Anne Aslett describes as the greatest corruption story in human history. Reuters and other news agencies with correspondents inside the Kremlin press pool also struck me as too keen to take the pronouncements of Kremlin spin doctors at face value. They are, understandably, worried about the future of their bureaus. At the same time, a new generation of British and American useful idiots work for Russia Today, the Kremlin’s shiny English-language TV channel. For those of you who have not watched Russia Today, I urge you to do so, if only because it’s so funny. The channel gives a relentlessly pro-Kremlin and anti-US view of the world. In one broadcast earlier this year, it even compared Barack Obama’s America to Hitler’s Germany. Its exposure of nutty conspiracy theorists led one staff member I talked to to describe it as North Korean TV. But the channels mission shouldn’t be underestimated. The Kremlin is fed up with what it regards as Western journalists’ excessively negative coverage of Russia. To fix this, it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on international propaganda, sponsored ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph, an Arabic service for Russia Today, new websites and the services of international PR firms such as GPlus, Ketchum and Portland here in London. The resources show a shadowy army of patriotic, pro-Kremlin bloggers whose job it is to discredit and throw mud at the Kremlin’s enemies, both at home and abroad. These bloggers are extremely active on Western and Russian discussion forums, including the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site. One described me memorably as a North Korean spy and the apotheosis of bastard Western journalism. I’m struggling to work out how I can be both simultaneously, and I currently have twenty-one Twitter clones who have my photo and bio ID but who are tweeting Kremlin press releases.
It was clear to me that my inadvertent knack for truth-telling was never going to be popular with the Russian authorities, but what I was unprepared for was the extraordinary campaign of harassment against me by the FSB. This campaign began within four months of my arrival in Moscow.
My story is typical. I suffered more, I think, at the hands of the FSB than any other recent Western correspondent, but the same insidious methods have also been used against other reporters as well as against diplomats, human rights activists and Russian local staffers working for the British and American embassies. The spark in my case was a story written by two London based colleagues who interviewed Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky is the former Yeltsin-era insider and an oligarch who fell out with Mr Putin and sought asylum in London and who is currently doing battle to … with Roman Abramovich in the High Court. Berezovsky told my colleagues he was plotting the overthrow of the Putin regime. My role was simply to phone Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s suave press spokesman to see whether he had a reaction. My name appeared the following day as the third by-line on the Guardian’s front-page story. From then on, the FSB took a keen interest in me. This scrutiny took many forms. The most outwardly intimidating was the summons from the FSB which opened a criminal enquiry into the Berezovsky story. The FSB insisted, as Fabian said, that I attend an interview at the Lefortovo prison, the notorious ex-KGB jail. Three weeks after the story was published, I found myself outside Lefortovo, a drab, yellow, three storey building lined with spiralling razor-wire. Lefortovo isn’t a place where journalists are normally admitted. After going through a waiting room, empty and without tables and chairs, I proceeded along a corridor decorated with an old red and cream carpet. Old fashioned video cameras recorded my movement from the stairwells. The corridors was lined with a series of identical, anonymous wooden doors. With its atmosphere of shabby menace, Lefortovo reminded me of the Berlin headquarters of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police and another regime that, anxious about international respectability, used covert methods against its enemies. If anything had changed here since Soviet times, I was at a loss to identify it. I arrived at Room 306. I knocked. Major A. V. Kuzney, the young FSB officer who had summoned us, answered. He invited me inside. On the table was fizzy mineral water and three glasses with the initials Cheka, OGPU, KGB and FSB. These are Russia’s secret spy organizations beginning with the Cheka, the first Communist secret police, founded in 1917 by Felix Dzerzhinsky. He then proceeded to ask me a series of banal questions which I realised were pointless, but the real aim of the interview was to intimidate me and to make me think twice before writing anything else displeasing to the Russian regime.
In addition to the Lefortovo summons, the FSB broke into my flat, something the agency would do repeatedly over a period of almost four years. I say broke in; it was only when I read the secret WikiLeaks cables that I discovered that US diplomats had devised another phrase for the FSB’s clandestine domestic operations – house intrusions. John Beyrle, the US ambassador in Moscow, describes, in a November 2009 cable to the FBI, how the FSB’s activities during President Putin’s second term increased to record levels. He writes, “harassing activities against all embassy personnel spiked in the past in the past several months to a level not seen in many years. Embassy personnel have suffered personal slanderous and false appearance attacks in the media. Home intrusions have become far more commonplace and bold and activity against our locally engaged Russian staff continues at a record pace. We have no doubt that this activity originates in the FSB.”
Beyrle gives several explanations for the FSB’s use of KGB tactics. He cites Kremlin paranoia at the prospect of an Orange revolution following the pro-democracy uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, the Cold War mentality of the pragmatic hardliners who run Russia’s security and power agencies, and these hardliners’ lack of personal contact with the West. Whatever the reasons, I found these house intrusions, which also took place at the Guardian’s office, to be unpleasant. In each of these break-ins, nothing was stolen. Instead, the aim was to induce feelings of anxiety and psychological stress and, quite simply, to annoy the hell out of us. Our central heating was disconnected; windows were opened; strange alarm clocks went off in the middle of the night; batteries, fourteen of them, were removed from our burglar alarms; at work, emails disappeared; the office internet modem was pulled out; the phone on my desk was left off the hook. And then there was constant surveillance, bugging of telephones, disruption of telephone calls and, amusingly, once or twice, pimply young men in leather jackets would follow me into cafes and sit like this. Whenever I said the word Berezovsky, Putin, corruption or Litvinenko, my line was instantly cut. At one point, I substituted the word banana for Berezovsky. Amazingly, this worked. The highlight of this, or the anti-highlight, was that on one occasion I found a book on sex and relationships next to my bed in Russian next to my middle class, North London novels bookmarked to a page on orgasms, offering advice. Was I doing it wrong? Was my technique imperfect? Were they trying to spook me? I never found out. I still have the book. This secret war against foreign correspondents didn’t, and doesn’t, just involve the FSP. Last year I discovered that what Malcolm Muggeridge described as the perpetual threat to correspondents of losing their visas and therefore their jobs was still a reality.
In November, I travelled back to London to work on the WikiLeaks cables. While I was in the UK, I had a call from a Russian foreign ministry official summoning me to an urgent meeting. He refused to say what it was about. On November 16th last year, and back in Moscow again, I met Oleg Shirinov, one of the foreign ministry press department bosses. Unlike one of his predecessors who’d suggested two years earlier that something unfortunate might happen to me if I stayed in Russia, Shirinov was polite. After an excruciating preamble lasting 23 minutes, he finally got to the point; the Russian government wasn’t renewing my visa, was, in effect, expelling me. His justification for the move was so ridiculous as to be quite droll. I had gone on a Greenpeace press trip with a permit issued in the name of one of my Guardian colleagues. The FSB had also detained me in Ingushetia. This was true, perfectly, but the president of Ingushetia had invited me to interview him. The foreign ministry was using one of the Kremlin’s favourite tools; Soviet-style legalism. The same, selective bureaucratic methods were applied against NGOs, against errant oligarchs and others to defend powerful interests. Exiting the foreign ministry, the first Moscow-based, British staff journalist to be booted out of Russia since the Cold War, I thought of General Franco’s authoritarian dictum; “for my friends, everything – for my enemies, the law”.
The British foreign office succeeded in having my expulsion postponed. After a week of negotiations, the Russian foreign ministry agreed I could remain in Moscow for six months so that our two children could finish their school year. I collected a new visa, valid until May 2011. I returned to London, wrote a book with my colleague David Leigh on WikiLeaks and poor old Julian Assange and then, in early February of this year, flew back to Moscow to rejoin my family. I got as far as passport control of Moscow’s airport. Here I was detained. A young official, Nikolay, announced that I was being refused entry to the Russian Federation despite having a valid visa. “For you, Russia is closed,” he told me. Nikolay explained that I was going to be put on a plane and flown back to London. He seemed mystified by the decision to report me and asked if I’d done anything wrong. I couldn’t think of an answer, unless writing articles sometimes critical of the government was the reason, so I replied no. Russia’s Federal Border Agency is a part of the FSB. It was clear that the FSB had taken the decision to deport me, apparently indifferent to the small and brief international scandal this caused. Compared to the fate suffered by some brave domestic critics of the Putin regime, I had been fortunate. I say in my book that I received what amounted to VIP treatment. But Russia’s record on press freedom is dismal. Last year, Reporters Without Borders placed Russia 140 out of 178 countries in terms of media freedom. Twelve journalists were killed, ninety were detained by the FSB, and there were fourty-five criminal prosecutions. With Putin’s return to the Kremlin now guaranteed in April of next year, and Russia facing a long period of stagnation and the elite still keen to secure their assets, there is no reason to think this record will improve any time soon. The situation with regards to press freedom isn’t as bad as in Soviet times, but as the Guardian observed in the media following my expulsion, it is bad enough. Over the past twelve years, Mr Putin has systematically restored many of the less attractive aspects of the Soviet regime. This restoration also extends to the way the Kremlin deals with the foreign media. The Kremlin’s continued used of KGB tactics and extra-judicial punishment against journalists who break the rules is deeply worrying.
I just want to leave you with one final thought which is, is there anything we can do about this? There’s an interesting foreign policy debate between moralists who think we can do something about Russia and realists who say there’s no possible way we can change their behaviour at all. The thing we have to bear in mind when trying to formulate a policy with Russia is that Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, if you were a bureaucrat, you aspired to nothing more than a dacha in the country, a holiday once a year on the Black Sea and perhaps a silver limousine, but these days those at the top of the Russian elite, millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires, and their assets are in the West. Their children are very often educated in Britain, their properties here in Central London. Now, I’m sure a lot of you are aware of the Sergei Magnitsky case, the Russian lawyer who was essentially deprived of medical treatment who died in prison last year. Interestingly there have been efforts to freeze the assets and block the visas of those corrupt Russian officials who were involved with his death. Perhaps we can discuss this, but I think this is the one great lever that Western policy makers, the British government in particular, have that by denying visas, or considering denying visas, to people who infringe human rights, and by freezing their assets – this is the Putin regime’s Achilles heel. Thank you very much.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
Thank you very much, Luke, and that was absolutely was absolutely stunning. I would also like to thank the Henry Jackson Society for organising and arranging this evening’s meeting. I don’t know if you heard Martin Sixsmith’s programmes on the BBC, Russia: The Wild East, but I recommend them as an excellent history of Russia. Really, really brilliant, from medieval times to the present day.
The biggest failing of the Kremlin regime is intellectual. The problem is that Putin hasn’t come up with a new national idea. He’s restored this classic, authoritarian model that obviously he feels comfortable with, and he’s kind of dusted down the KGB handbook and it’s being used to club people like me over the head with. What strikes me and what made me want to write about this in my book, is that it is kind of daft that these kind of techniques in terms of harassment that were used and rolled out in the 1970s and 80s, they just don’t work in 2011 in the world of Twitter and Facebook and LiveJournal, but in terms of athlete’s heel, it’s money. This is a regime which doesn’t have any kind of great ideology, it doesn’t have any great metaphysical needs. All it cares about is staying in power, partly for powers sake and partly because that’s the only way it has to guarantee its assets. I think it also explains why Putin, who I think plausibly didn’t want to come back to a presidency , decided to come back because the alternative was that he could face potential law enforcement investigations.
On FSB and SVR, it’s been true that there has been red rubber between these two organisations. If you believe, as I think the British government does, that the murder of Alexander Litvinenko was an FSB plot, then the SVR were apparently understandably furious at this because this is kind of their territory. This was a domestic operation. I guess you could say it was successful on one level , but was also a catastrophic PR disaster and absolutely wrecked British relations. I think that’s entirely possible that that might happen.
With Ingushetia, I never got as far as the president. I got the invite, but the FSB guys with Kalashnikovs detained me, finger-printed me and gave me a hard time, and then booted me out. So, I never found out his views on the Caucasus. It seems to me that the Russian government has come up with no new policies on the Caucasus and what was at one point a kind of regional conflict following two brutal Kremlin wars in Chechnya is now threatening the whole of Russia existentially, which is why we’ve seen attacks in European Russia in Moscow on airports and on the metro and so on. The picture is bleak.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
Thank you, Luke. I know we have a guest from the Russian Embassy here; would you like to ask a question?
I would like to speak up, to speak my mind.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
The main aim of this meeting is obviously to let people ask questions and get responses from our guest, Luke Harding. I’d be more than happy for you to ask any questions you wish and I’m sure Luke will respond to them. I’m trying to discourage statements; I appreciate you want to respond.
I think I have accepted the invitation, which I value, on the condition that I am able to speak my mind.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
How long do you want to speak for? We are limited for time.
Sorry, the conversation with the embassy was very clear that the invitation was accepted on the basis of a very brief intervention, certainly nothing that alluded to a seven minute statement.
What about freedom of speech?
Fabian Hamilton MP:
Well, that is what this meeting is about, we are talking about that. I am in an awkward position here because obviously we have a lot of people in this room who want to ask questions. I’ll be more than pleased to hear your comments or questions that you wish to ask, but I think seven minutes is a long time and we have to be out of here by seven.
It means that you are not interested.
We are interested.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
Can I ask you, sir, where you can abbreviate your seven minutes perhaps to three or four minutes. Is that possible?
I will try to. I have a written text but I will be as quick as I can be and I hope for your indulgence. Winston Churchill also wrote…
I think we’re not talking about something to do with Winston Churchill. We’re talking with something to do with perhaps a communications problem in the office, because, as I said, it was quite clear on the phone with your colleagues that we were talking about a short intervention, something like two minutes or asking a question, so I don’t think that it’s something that goes into the realm of freedom of speech or not. We were very clear about it. If there is something that you have to contribute in that kind of frame, then I think that we should, but otherwise, I’m sorry, we did discuss this with your office under those parameters quite clearly.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
If, say, you’d like to make a short intervention, then I’m sure we’d be very happy to hear it. I’ve been trying to cut down people’s length of questions so we get as many in as possible. I don’t really want to waste anymore time. If you are able to give us a short intervention.
You think that a debate is a waste of time.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
I certainly don’t, but in a way, this isn’t a debate. This isn’t a debate, it is a chance to hear what Luke has to say, and to ask him any questions about the points he has made, and we would be more than pleased to hear any points or questions you have to ask, but I do want to give everybody the chance to ask their questions too
I am feeling disappointed.
Fabian Hamilton MP:
I am disappointed too.
Nobody is interested, what is the point of my presence here?
Sir, sorry, I just simply don’t accept the premise of your intervention. I do not for a moment accept that this is an issue of freedom of speech. We had a conversation with your office that called our office and asked if you could make a very brief intervention. The lady on the phone was clear what kind of an intervention we are talking about. It was not a second panellist; it was an intervention from the floor, something that takes no longer than two minutes, or a question, and frankly I think we are done wasting time discussing the nature of the intervention. If there is something that you would like to contribute, please do, otherwise let’s go back to the floor now.
I think that Luke Harding has raised a host of issues and two minutes is just not enough, you see.
There are many other outlets for the Russian viewpoint. This isn’t one of them.
Fine, I accept that…
Fabian Hamilton MP:
I am sorry.
On oil and gas, despite the discovery of Shell and everything else, I think that the cards are still very much all Putin’s. Russia is the largest exporter of oil and gas, and what he has done, very cleverly, is succeeded in dividing the European Union by having all sorts of financial agreements. The French and the Germans he has worked with very closely on energy. He has also succeeding in buying a lot of key European politicians. One of the things we know from Wikileaks is that he has actually bought Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is on the payroll. It’s all in the Wikileaks. The Americans are furious with this. He hired Gerhard Schröder to be on the board of Nord Stream, so I don’t see people who want to try and resist Russia’s energy dominance in Europe, I don’t see them winning.
When…reported this huge crime, we never knew how integrated crime was in the Russian government. We’ve since found out. We’ve since come to the shared conclusion that the integration of organised crime and the Russian government goes up to such high levels that it is essentially all the way up to the top, and my question is, for you, since you seem to share this opinion in the name of your book ‘Mafia State’, do you believe that British legislators and British politicians understand this? And if they don’t, what do you think can be done to basically pull the wool away from their eyes?
On Sergei Magnitsky, I think people do get it, actually. I think two things have happened. Wikileaks was just fascinating. I had my own view that Russia was really this kind of dismal kleptocracy and then there I am sitting in the secret bunker a year ago on the fourth floor, ploughing through all these cable written by John Bell and others, and it turns out that despite the Obama re-set with Moscow, that actually American diplomats are as depressed as I am and share the same pessimistic views. And so, I think, post-Wikileaks, people get it; policy makers in Britain and elsewhere. I think the other thing that means that people get it is Putin’s decision to come back for a third presidential term. There was a school of thought, a rather feeble school of thought, that for the first couple of years of Medvedev thought that maybe Medvedev was more progressive, that he represented liberal forces, that he was antipole to Putin and that by boosting him as an interlocutor you could get better, more decent, more progressive Russian government, and that’s clearly untrue. Putin despises Central Asian dictators, he thinks they are beneath him, but that is kind of what he’s becoming with his eternal lifetime rule.
What would you suggest to your colleagues who will go back to Russia what would you like to suggest to them who are still there? Now you can speak openly, what is your message to others who are still there?
The last question, what can Western journalists do, I think what Western journalists can do is continue to blog and use the internet because it’s the only real free space there and despite the fact that these Kremlin trolls are active on Western and Russian internet forums, I think the internet is the way to go.
I was wondering, in my experience once you get to the other side of the Urals, most of the Russian people don’t care very much about what you’re saying about corruption and about what happens in Moscow and St Petersburg and their participation is virtually zero.
On the Urals; obviously people beyond the Urals, they don’t care, but also they suffer from the same kind of ubiquitous corruption that everyone else does, whether they’re in Vladivostok or any of these places; they still pay bribes to get their kids into kindergarten and I think they understand the system perfectly well.
What is the likelihood of sclerosis induced by the regime?
Basically I think Russia’s in for a long period of political and economic stagnation. My liberal Russian friends are despairing at the idea of Putin restoration, but I think things are happening. I think Russians are increasingly less receptive to Kremlin propaganda which they get from their TVs; I don’t think that’s working anymore. Obviously people’s standards of living are falling, and so one school of thought is that this regime will go two years, four years, ten years and then there will be something, whether it’s the Caucasus or some other kind of trigger, which will act as a sort of revolutionary change. That theory works in so far as there’s no peaceful succession mechanism, there’s no way of voting Putin out or getting rid of the current ruling configuration. I don’t see it; Russians are fantastically kind of politically apathetic and disconnected and just amazingly stoical. Compared to the tragedy and disaster of the last seventy years, things are undoubtedly better, so I can almost see a Brezhnev-style scenario where Putin in 2020 is sort of wrestling pythons which have mysteriously escaped from Moscow zoo, has had another facelift and is going on and on and on, a bit like the president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev. We could have a seventy-plus year old Putin still running the show. I’d put the chances of a revolution at about 5-10% in the next ten years.
One of the biggest things that we’ve done as mentioned before by Luke, was getting the idea of these events and that started with the US Congress to ban sixty of the Russian people involved in the Magnitsky case. The Dutch parliament in July voted unanimously to ban the Russians and the government are now in a bit of a quandary; do we do what our parliamentarians want or not? On Friday the Canadian parliament accepted a Magnitsky Act which would ban the Russians. This year I’ve been to eight or nine countries across Europe giving testimony to Human Rights committees about the case and increasing the concept of these visa bans punishing individuals from a country, because not it is not all Russia’s fault that it is being run by crooks. I’m interested to know, when you got in trouble, so to speak, how did the British government help you because our experience is that the British government in helping us has so far been weak, weak and weak. It just refuses to get involved. We keep getting lots of platitudes about we will…at the highest levels. What is your reaction to the way the British government deals with British citizens in situations of trouble.
The British government were pretty friendly. They said some wise things. I had a lovely meeting with the senior most civil servant in the Foreign Office who, when the harassment got particularly bad and I flew back to London for advice, said to me, the problem with the Russians in the government is that they don’t think the way we think they should think, which is consoling philosophically, but not much use practically. As an idea it was delightful. They did complain, to be fair, to people on my behalf and the harassment did stop for about three or four months, and then it started to be slowly revved up again, and it got particularly bad after the war in Georgia in 2008. The problem is, sure, the British government could do more, but actually it is tricky for the Brits because they’re not the Americans. The Americans appeal to Russia’s super-power fantasies and being at this sort of top-table. Tony Blair was very clever when he said that the thing about dealing with Russia is that you have to treat them like a super-power even though they aren’t a super-power anymore. Britain hasn’t been a super-power for a very long time, so I don’t think our purchase is as great unfortunately.
I was just wondering if, during your time in Russia, you saw the ‘mafia state’ really leak into local governments, specifically in rural areas, and how those kinds of societies structured themselves around that kind of oppression?
Quickly on the rural areas, the way that the corruption system works is on a micro-level, so you can be driving your car down a country lane and be flagged by a traffic cop who will demand a 500 rouble bribe of which he’ll take 100 and 400 will go up, and it can work at a macro-level where we’re talking about billions, but it applies to everybody. The corruption, everybody understands it and it’s not just an urban phenomenon, even if that is where the money is spent, but it’s everywhere.
When I was involved in the North Caucasus and Russia, one of the things I found most sinister was the degree to which it seemed to me there was a sort of closed KGB and FSB elite, and how many of the key appointments that were made of any political or economical significance, really had the cup with the seal of approval of this group, if not directly from this group. I’d like to hear a bit from you on that. Coupled with that, could I just ask you whether you became as exasperated as I was that by their atrocious policies in the North Caucasus, they are actually provoking Islamic extremism and driving people into the arms of extremists and so on? We in the West fail to make it a major point in our contact with them. We may make it, but we don’t actually say, we’re all preoccupied with global insecurity and terrorism and the rest , and you’re actually making the situation worse by the way you behave in the North Caucuses.
To Lord Judd’s great point, I completely agree. The Russian policies in Chechnya and Dagestan and in Ossetia are totally counter-productive, because what we have, as you know if you’ve been there, is federal and local forces acting with total impunity and sweeping up innocent people, burning down houses of relatives and often killing people who are innocent and planting weapons on them subsequently. We should mention it, we should mention it at every single interaction and I think it’s important that at every ministerial contact these things are raised, because that’s the only way we can solve the situation.