By Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Only a few years ago Britain was the main opponent of the Kremlin in the international arena. From ex-president Vladimir Putin we heard barbed attacks and sharp reproaches. Putin’s inner circle grew used to accusing Britain of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs. Institutions such as the British Council came up against impossible obstacles in Russia.
But we shouldn’t forget that when Putin had just come to power, Tony Blair thought him his best friend in the world. Blair, then prime minister, saw Britain as a conduit for renewing Russia within a new system of international relations.
So why in the middle of the 2000s did Russian-British relations radically deteriorate and end up in a dead end? First and foremost, Britain didn’t justify the hopes of the authoritarian leadership emerging at the time in Russia. Britain did not turn a blind eye to the shutdown of democracy and the encroachment on human rights in our country. The British justice system repeatedly demonstrated its independence. Courts refused to hand back dozens of Russians who, once home, could have become victims of a deliberately biased prosecution and ended up in a Russian jail, where it’s difficult to survive. Among those granted asylum were employees from my oil company, Yukos.
Now the situation is changing. The conditions are there once again for Britain and Russia to become leading partners in Europe, and for David Cameron to turn the “mini-cold war” page in relations between our two nations.
This is connected to the fact that Britain remains a magnet, a centre of gravity, for thousands of energetic Russians. A multitude of Russian businessmen and professionals today work in the UK and consider it their second home. They educate their kids in British schools, and are drawn to Britain by business and personal interests. This layer of society, which to an extent influences Russian policy and the attitudes of our ruling class, is keenly interested in restoring friendly bilateral ties.
Britain may be of interest to us Russians as it has demonstrated its ability to throw off historical complexes and phantom pains. It has parted ways with the burden of an empire that long outlived itself. And it has, in the process, managed to build a fully fledged, efficient, democratic and free nation state.
The special relationship between the Russians and the British is deeply rooted in history: British industrialists and merchants played a significant role in the establishment of Russian capitalism and in the technological rearmament of Russia from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. (One of the best-known Russian folk songs, Dubinushka, begins with the words: “The Englishman is wise, in order to work faster, he has invented machine after machine.”)
By the 21st century, the UK had become one of our top foreign investors, while Russia is the UK’s 12th largest export market overall. These ties could deepen in the years ahead, as the UK economy grows out of recession and energy demand increases. As North Sea oil begins to decline, demand for imports will only rise. It is clear that the future of our two countries has been, and always will be, intertwined.
So today, Britain and Russia are once again standing on the threshold of a possible strategic partnership. The only question is what can and should be the conditions of such a partnership?
Britain shouldn’t allow itself to forget that Russia remains an authoritarian state with an extremely high level of corruption. The export of this corruption to Europe is already visible, and presents no little danger to the UK. The fear and uncertainty for British and other foreign companies doing business in Russia stems from the Russian state’s refusal to respect the rule of law.
In contrast to Britain, the principle of equality before the law and an independent court system are virtually absent in Russia. The most vivid example of this is the fabricated case [of fraud and tax evasion] against Yukos, which has had disastrous repercussions, both financial and human, for Russian citizens and investors from Britain and elsewhere. My personal fate is the most eloquent testimony to this.
The coalition government can set out its principled conditions. It can strive to make real the declarations by Russian leaders on democratic values, human rights, the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption. Russia must have a modern political and legal system not only in words but in deeds as well. This is of the greatest importance to us Russian citizens, but neither can those who are not indifferent to the future of Russia be indifferent to this need.
Compared with other European states, Britain’s reliance on Russian energy is not excessive, especially given the recent diversification of oil and gas supplies to western Europe. The cardinal task proclaimed by President Dmitry Medvedev is to modernise Russia and to “reset” relations with the west. Without active facilitation and participation on Britain’s part, this will be seriously difficult.
I, as a Russian political prisoner, would very much like Britain to understand the fate of 150 million people, capable and talented, that are searching for their way out of the darkness of totalitarianism into the light of freedom. I want to believe and hope that in the process of re-establishing full-scale partner relations with Russia, David Cameron and the British people will firmly take the side of democracy.
I hope the prime minister will support everyone who has suffered from corruption and arbitrariness, and will offer Russians not only mutually beneficial economic co-operation, but an interaction based on clear, transparent standards in the realm of politics, civil liberties and human rights.
Only in these circumstances can a new partnership between Russia and Britain become truly strategic and long term.