Carl Thomson looks at the parliamentary assembly in the Council of Europe to discover that whilst Conservatives sit with Putin’s centre right United Russia in the Council, Labour, by contrast, has allied itself with a party led by a man who is not averse to using his fists to resolve political disputes, and a group which was shut down for having views too nationalistic even for the Kremlin’s taste. He asks if the GPS on Gordon Brown’s moral compass has stopped working in Russia?
The Conservative Party has announced that, in light of recent events in Georgia, it is to review its membership of the European Democrats group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where they sit with, amongst others, representatives of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The decision was prompted by an attack on the Conservatives by Labour MP Denis MacShane, who told the Guardian that David Cameron’s “tough on Russia” stance was hypocritical when he leads the only major European party that works with the Kremlin in the Council of Europe.
Labour has tried to accuse the Conservatives of racism and extremism by association in the past. They have said that David Cameron’s plans to pull Tory MEPs out of the European People’s Party would leave the Conservatives sitting with “Jean-Marie Le Pen, Alessandra Mussolini and Robert Kilroy-Silk” in Brussels, and have accused UKIP of colluding with racists and homophobes by allying themselves with Poland’s Law and Justice Party in the European Parliament. The Conservative Party has already pointed out how ridiculous this attack is, given that Labour’s representatives to the Council of Europe sit as members of the Socialist Group, which also includes Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s comical nationalist outfit, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. The Conservatives, quite rightly, say Zhirinovsky’s statements that Russia is “entitled to carry out a preventative nuclear strike” against Poland and that Georgia is trying to create a “mono-ethnic state and fascist dictatorship” hardly makes his group a better choice of partner than United Russia for any mainstream British political party.
These quotes from Zhirinovsky are hardly the worst ones that Conservative Central Office could have used, as Labour’s allies in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are hardly the friendly sort of Russians who invite you back to their flat in Moscow to discuss Pushkin. The LDPR leader has been accused of everything from anti-semitism and misogyny to corruption and demagoguery. He has been filmed throwing juice at his opponents, grabbing a female reporter by her hair and brawling in parliament. In late 1999 the LDPR held a series of demonstrations in Moscow in which signs reading “the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen” were displayed. In 2003 Zhirinovsky wrote a book which described Saddam Hussein as a hero of his people. After the death of Alexander Litvinenko, Zhirinovsky’s bodyguard warned exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky “not to taste any food” at Litvinenko’s funeral or else he would suffer the same fate. During this year’s presidential election campaign Zhirinovsky called a representative of Andrey Bogdanov’s Democratic Party of Russia “a sick man, a schizoid and a bastard”, and told another bodyguard to “take this scoundrel outside and shoot him”. The man’s temper and language is worse than John McCain’s. He even gave an interview to a Russian website in which he said that Condoleezza Rice was a “cruel and offended woman who lacks men’s attention”, and that she needed to be “taken to the barracks where she would be satisfied by soldiers”.
United Russia and the LDPR are not the only Russian representatives to the Council of Europe. The Socialist Group also boasts as a member Aleksandr Babakov, the former leader of the nationalist Rodina party which was “encouraged” to merge with a pro-Kremlin party in 2006 after it showed too many signs of independence. Rodina, which fought the 2003 legislative election in Russia under the slogans of “Vote for the real communists” and “When will Chubais [the architect of Russia’s botched privatisation plan] be in prison?” has also been accused of harbouring unpleasant tendencies. In January 2005 fifteen of its deputies in the State Duma signed an open letter calling for all Jewish organisations in Russia to be closed down. Later that year the party ran a television advert that described dark skinned immigrants from the Caucasus as “trash”, and supported legislative amendments that would have excluded people from employment in the retail industry on the basis of their nationality. Although he served as party leader, Babakov was always a minor player in Rodina, and he has since tried to reinvent himself as a European-style social democrat, much in the same way that Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili ditched his nationalist rhetoric after 2003. However, it seems the Labour Party do not make checks into the backgrounds of their own political allies as stringently as they do to those of the Conservatives.
Whether or not one agrees that the Conservatives should sit with United Russia in the Council of Europe, the fact remains that it is the largest political party in Russia with a centre-right ethos, and although Putin has done much that is controversial, he still retains as Prime Minister and party leader the overwhelming support of the Russian people. Labour, by contrast, has allied itself in the Council of Europe with a party led by a man who is not averse to using his fists to resolve political disputes, and a group which was shut down for having views too nationalistic even for the Kremlin’s taste. It seems the GPS on Gordon Brown’s moral compass doesn’t work in Russia.
Carl Thomson, The European Journal, October 2008.