Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: the Kremlin gets the missile shield diluted

E!Sharp, 1st November 2009 09:45

Russians can be prickly negotiators.

For years, the Kremlin complained about US plans to build a missile defence shield in eastern Europe. Moscow’s outrage was off the meter, even by the Kremlin’s standards. Vladimir Putin deployed his trademark biting rhetoric, and his presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev, took up the baton. The two men warned of a new arms race, spoke darkly of a new Cold War, and accused the US of breathtaking imperialism.

So when US President Barack Obama scrapped the plans, you might have expected a warm welcome from Moscow.

“So are they dancing in the streets of Moscow?” one of my editors asked me. The truth is that the Kremlin was delighted. It just didn’t want to show it.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, therefore did his uncharitable best to play down the move’s significance. It was, he suggested, the logical correction of a Bush-era mistake. It was not long before he started complaining about the new US missile defence plans too. It was a vivid illustration of how the Kremlin sees the world.

For Moscow, geopolitics is a zero sum game. Someone wins and someone loses. Displaying too much satisfaction in such a case is weakness. It would have suggested that Moscow had to give something in return, such as getting tough with Iran.

Obama’s move was also awkward in another way. For years, state TV here has revelled in anti-Americanism. So when Washington does something that Moscow likes, of course it has to dismiss it and look for something else about America to dislike. Anti-Americanism is after all one of the Kremlin’s favourite tools for distracting its own population from its daily woes. Such a tool is not discarded lightly.

Justice in Russia can be as elusive as public expressions of satisfaction from the Kremlin. I recently interviewed two women whose daughters had been raped and murdered.

The cases were horrific. One of the girls had been gang-raped and then beaten to death. Her mother and her lawyer believe a group of policemen was responsible. The other girl had been raped and then hung from a tree. Her mother believes the girl’s school teacher, a relative of a powerful official, was responsible.

The girls were murdered in 2002 but seven years later their parents are still searching for justice. Like many others, they are doing the only thing they can in the circumstances: turning to the European Court of Human Rights.

As Russia’s failed justice system continues to plod on, the Strasbourg court is filling up with Russia-related cases. The Russian state is frequently found wanting and ordered to pay victims compensation. The Kremlin is uncomfortable.

The payouts are hitting its wallet and the bad publicity its image. Its anxiety does not appear to stem from any empathy with the victims, however, but from the bitter taste of legal defeat.

President Medvedev, a former lawyer himself, has admitted there is a problem and that Russia’s legal system is “imperfect”. But though he has spoken frequently of root-and-branch judicial reform, he has done little to make this happen. Until he does, Strasbourg’s Russian caseload will only grow.

One area where Russia is trying to make real progress, however, is road safety. Around 30,000 Russians die on the country’s roads annually, a staggering statistic. It was only recently that the government decided it might be a good idea to force people to wear a seatbelt.

A lobbyist recently tried to pique my interest in a new law that sharply increased fines for drivers who do not give way to pedestrians trying to cross the road. “Surely, you’ve noticed the difference between now and the 1990s,” she asked. I had to confess I hadn’t and found myself laughing out loud. Being a pedestrian in Moscow is hazardous. Speeding cars seldom stop to let you cross the road and pedestrians do not have priority over cars when they walk on the pavement, let alone when they step foot on a road.

A restaurant near my office is a case in point. Situated on Moscow’s busy garden ring road, it has a gigantic Soviet-era pavement in front of it. Just don’t try walking on it. An armada of expensive cars and jeeps parks on the pavement every day. Walk on it and you will often have a car driving behind you close to the back of your knees and another one driving close to the front of your knees. It is another reminder that the difference between the Russia that exists in the statute books and reality is vast – an endless source of amusement for Russians who scorn the law.

A Russian man once boasted to me that this is the freest country on earth. “You can do exactly what you want,” he said. “Not like in your country where you have laws for everything.” In some ways, he is right. Just don’t try crossing the road. Or walking on the pavement.