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Friday, January 25, 2008

Latynina on the British Council Outrage

Writing in the Moscow Times, hero journalist Yulia Latynina rips the Kremlin several new ones over the British Council outrage:

The foreign policy scandal concerning Russian authorities' efforts to close two branch offices of the British Council happened to coincide with another event, which took place in Japan. A rather insignificant Japanese bureaucrat was arrested and charged with attempting to pass confidential documents concerning the activities of the prime minister's office to a Russian diplomat.

It is interesting to compare these two incidents. Japan's charges of espionage against the alleged spy were concrete, mentioning the day and time the act took place, as well as the payoff involved. In contrast, Russia has made only vague and contradictory accusations against the British Council, claiming on the one hand that the organization is not registered in accordance with Russian law, and on the other hand that it owes back taxes.

What's more, these vague charges were accompanied by much broader and quite bizarre allegations. We heard, for example, from a former chief of the undercover branch of the KGB's foreign intelligence division, Yury Drozdov, that Britain even plans to occupy Russian territory as far as the Urals.

As a true patriot, this particular allegation horrified me. But I would really like to find out one thing: Exactly who among the employees of the British Council was planning to occupy Russia and just how and when was this endeavor to take place? If Federal Security Service chief Nikolai Patrushev knows that such a plan existed but doesn't know who was behind it or when it was to take place, then he should be fired on the spot for gross incompetence. And how could a foreign organization that is fomenting plans to occupy a huge chunk of our territory get off with only a fine for back taxes?

In reality, Russia designs its foreign policy for the benefit of oil-trading company Gunvor, based in Switzerland. Gunvor, which sells a significant portion of Russia's oil exports, is owned in part by Gennady Timchenko, who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Gunvor wants to derive one main benefit from Russia's foreign policy -- to increase the tensions in international relations so that oil prices rise. This explains Russia's continued willingness to defend rogue states and to keep all existing international conflicts active. This has become the trademark of Russian diplomacy. Although the Kremlin has achieved its goal of high oil prices during Putin's two terms, this victory comes at the expense of the country's prestige.

Putin believes that all world leaders are hypocrites when they criticize him because they act in the same way. Putin also feels that Western leaders treat him as if he were a drunk in a fancy restaurant; although they may not punch Putin in the face, they don't invite him to sit down at their dinner table either. He is clearly offended by the West's condescending attitude toward him and finds an outlet for his indignation by harassing the British Council, among other things.

Another very important aspect of the Gunvor matter is that the company's accounts are located in Western banks. Therefore, Putin doesn't want to provoke or anger the West to the point were it retaliates by exposing -- or freezing -- those bank accounts. Putin is smart enough to know how far to take his aggressive foreign policy. Thus, he would never dare to arrest British Council employees, for example -- as much as he would really like to do this in his heart of hearts -- or charge them with plotting to seize Russian territory. Instead, he settles on petty acts of harassment.

In this way, Putin's foreign policy reminds me of the bully in a communal apartment, who will happily spit in his neighbor's soup but will never do anything more serious that could provoke his fellow apartment dweller to call the police on him.

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