On Sunday I spoke with Luke Harding, the Guardian (UK) Moscow bureau chief who was expelled from Russia on 5 February 2011. “For you Russia is closed,” he was told when returning to Moscow after a trip to Britain. His Russian visa was annulled and he was bounced out of the country, despite lobbying from friends and associates, despite having a home in Moscow (which the Russian secret police had previously broken into – in order to intimidate Harding’s family). The Kremlin has a special means of communicating with uncooperative journalists: you break into their home, you rearrange objects, you open the tenth floor window of a child’s room, and if all else fails you expel the unwanted critic from the country.
Political fallout from such moves cannot be avoided. But, says Harding, those who dominate Russia – the siloviki – are not really interested in good relations with Britain or America. They do not care for our good opinion. They are more interested in controlling dissent; and punishing a British journalist by denying him access to Russia is a warning to all foreign journalists in Moscow. Do not criticize the Russian state. Do not criticize the FSB or Prime Minister Putin. “I think it’s important to be honest about the Putin regime,” Harding explained. And the Russian government violently disagrees.
Harding is brave, and perhaps lucky. He could have been abducted and killed, like his Russian associate Natalya Estemirova (a friend of Anna Politkovskaya, a Putin critic who was herself gunned down on 7 November 2006 – Vladimir Putin’s 54rth birthday). While the murder rate of Russian journalists is higher than that of Western journalists, a Western passport is no guarantee. Paul Klebnikov of Forbes Magazine died after being shot four times on a Moscow street on 9 July 2004. The publisher of Forbes’ Russian edition expressed the opinion that the murder was linked to Klebnikov’s “professional activities.”
Harding has written a book about his experiences in Russia, titled Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia. It is the account of a decent man who entered into an indecent political zone. Harding wanted to impress upon me the distinction between the warm, good-hearted Russian people and the gangsters in charge of the country. “Russia is not our enemy,” he said. The bosses in the Kremlin, along with the security services, are the problem. Describing Putin’s mentality as “stuck in the Cold War,” Harding said the Russian state was a chaos of competing interests, with Soviet attitudes dominating the top level. “They do not like the United States,” he emphasized.
Is there any hope for positive change? Harding thinks there is no immediate prospect of an Orange-type revolution in Russia. “Perhaps in four years, or ten,” he explained. There seems little doubt that Putin will be elected president next year. I asked Harding about former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk’s claim that Putin is “one step below” the real rulers of Russia. Harding dismissed this idea, saying that Putin was clearly in charge; though Harding elsewhere admits that the Russian system is murky. In his book he wrote: “In a city prone to rumors and conspiracy theories, it is fair to say that during the Medvedev period very few people in Moscow really know what is going on at the top of the Kremlin. Even Russia’s cabinet seems largely in the dark.”
We must not forget that Harding is writing about a country that has thousands of strategic nuclear warheads, including the most advanced ICBM on the planet (the SS-27). The fact that Russian television is under the thumb of a KGB officer, that journalists are routinely assassinated (and the assassins remain at large), is only the tip of a much larger Cold War iceberg. The chill, as it were, is still on. If the “new” Russia can be characterized as a regime of assassination and censorship at home, is there an ongoing Russian campaign of subversion and espionage abroad?
I asked Harding about former KGB officer Alexander Lebedev, a Russian billionaire who presently owns two British newspapers. “He is not your typical Russian oligarch,” said Harding, who described Lebedev as “charming,” cultured and elegant. “How do you feel about a former KGB officer owning two British newspapers?” I asked. Although Harding likes Lebedev pesonally, he is not altogether at ease with Lebedev’s position.
Does Lebedev use his ownership of British newspapers to slant the news in England? Supposedly, Lebedev doesn’t interfere with editorial policy, “But his newspapers have failed to review my book,” Harding admitted with a laugh. Is this an innocent oversight? I asked Harding why Lebedev doesn’t get along with Putin critic and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Harding admitted that Lebedev was probably a Kremlin operative.
So what has changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union? The Communist label has been removed, and ideological indoctrination no longer occurs. But the instrument of dictatorship continues, with its Soviet mentality and its vast nuclear arsenal; oppression and censorship at home, subversion abroad.