Thursday, July 19, 2007

Playground Politics

The Kremlin
Back to the bad old days?
The last few days have seen a bit of a blast from the past with the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, first by the UK government of Russian embassy staff from London then a retaliatory expulsion on British diplomats from Moscow. Events like these seemed pretty commonplace up until the mid 1980s, but have been increasingly uncommon, at least between two states of any real international significance since the fall of Eastern Europe's communist regimes.

Obviously the casus belli is the refusal of the Russian government to extradite a suspect in the case of the appalling poisoning of Russian émigré Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of the Putin regime, in London. It was a deeply repugnant act and I too would hope that those against whom a firm case can be made against should face appropriate charges. I'm certainly no fan of the Putin government either, one which practises a particularly crude form of politics to bully and intimidate both internal opposition and critics beyond its borders, even if it does stop short of some of the atrocities and genocides of its forebears against the former. I do doubt that the murder was in any way directly on Putin's orders, simply because the political risks would always outweigh the limited advantage, but I'm equally sure that he wouldn't shed any tears over the terrible way the victim died.

For all of that the current situation has left me not only incredulous at the puerile ways our lords and masters carry their foreign policies at times, but also wondering whether, in the case in hand, Putin and Russia are actually in the right.

I mentioned in a posting at the time of his appointment that time of his appointment that I found David Miliband as Foreign Secretary quite an interesting choice and with the ability of foreign affairs to often rise above any particular party political standpoint, one that I would genuinely watch with an open mind. The opening salvos from the Miliband Foreign Office have, I'm afraid, not been promising.

We've moved on from a flurry of contradictory briefings from various senior NuLab figures that may, or may not have indicated a shift in Foreign policy towards a more Eurocentric and less Atlanticist position with no apparent managerial control from the man at the top. When Miliband himself did speak, the kindest thing you could hope that he was simply fluffing an attempt to be deliberately obscure on the matter rather than simply being out of his depth and just adding to the confusion.

Now it has got worse. I'm not sure if tit-for-tat expulsions of each others diplomats was ever an especially effective tactic, even at the height of the cold war. I suppose, in those days, it at least was a bit like a bluff in a poker game with incredibly high stakes; functionally useless but it increasing the pressure on your opponents in a game they could not afford to lose. We are not in a cold war now though, and for all the ridiculous behaviour by Putin, it doesn't seem that likely we are going to find ourselves in another one even after recent events. In today's changed world it is charitable to call the approach 'childish'.

I've no doubt whatsoever that the surprisingly microbrained Miliband was simply trying to appear tough on an issue that the British people, rightly, would like to see some action taken on. The way he chose to do it was laughably predictable. I can't think of anyone, in the media, or in real life who expected anything other than like-for-like retaliation from the Russian government with no change in their policy. What do the Foreign Office think they are trying to achieve? Impress the Russian government with their seriousness? They already knew, just didn't give a damn. The press? They all, friends and foe alike, accurately predicted the inevitable outcome these actions without praise. The British public? Even the man on the street knew it would achieve nothing.

Maybe it's just one of 'the ways things are done' in the arcane world of the Foreign Office, but here out in real world, when we realise we are doing something pointless we think about doing something different instead rather than wasting our energies on tasks of complete futility. I suspect the Skoda minds of the British Civil Service may well be revving beyond their limit once again.

It would be more forgivable if at every level their cause was just, but as I alluded to earlier, I'm not sure it is. At one level it has merits. The idea that someone should answer, where sufficient evidence exists, a charge made against them, is of course a case worth fighting for. The rule of law is a precious gift, which is why it is all the more strange that the British Government should be angrily demanding that Russia should abandon it. Regardless of whether Mr Putin would, or would not care to extradite the suspect in question it would, as Russian law stands, to carry out the extradition would not only be illegal, but also unconstitutional as such practises are specifically outlawed. Russian law does provide for its citizens to be tried in Russian Courts for offences committed overseas, and will accept the evidence of overseas law enforcement agencies, but as this prospect has not even been mentioned in this case it can only be concluded that the case against the suspects in question is not especially strong anyway, and this might be nothing more than a fishing expedition, once again to give the impression of the the government 'doing something'.

It would be fair to say that if Russia want to be fully accepted as part of the world community it will have, one day, to change this provision of its constitution, but even were it to do so today it would hardly be likely to have retrospective effect. It makes it very hard to see what the Foreign Office is demanding the Russians should do. Turn a blind eye to their own laws? Tear up a constitution that was agreed by the Russian people in a popular vote in 1994? For all it's faults it at least has provided some constraint over Putin's actions, and one of the few truly clever moves by Boris Yeltsin was to ensure that there were many checks and balances that make it hard for any successor to amend it in their favour.

As it's probably the same bunch of chinless second-raters who are among the strongest proponents of there being no say for the British people over any EU constitutional treaty, its probably the later they seek, incapable as they are of understanding how unreasonable that demand is. As much as we might dislike some of the things Moscow does, perhaps in terms of understanding the importance of constitutional stability, inviolability and the importance of public respect for a constitutional settlement, it might be that the Russians could teach their Foreign Office counterparts a thing or two.

They won't of course, as long as our officials and their political masters keep playing the same old tired public schoolyard games.

Update Saturday: Yury Fedotov, Russian Ambassador to the Court of St James's, makes the same case in today's Telegraph. One of the commenters does highlight that there is a construction that could be put on the constitution that would allow for a federal law permitting deportation to be introduced. This however does not fundamentally change the situation though. Such a law would need to be introduced, not simply have the constitutional provisions be ignored. Even it this is legally possible, the practice of instituting laws with retrospective effect, designed to target specific individuals has been frowned on by mature democracies for centuries. We should not expect to Russia to ignore sensible constitutional conventions and provisions that we consider to be part of the ethical basis of our own systems of government. Are we really suggesting that Russia should introduce the type of Bill of Attainder, that was such a notorious feature of old British government that they were specifically outlawed by the American constitution, before we also dropped the practice in the 1800s? It seems to be another example of bad cases making for bad law.

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