Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Konstantin Maler
From Moscow’s perspective, Margaret Thatcher would undoubtedly be the best choice for prime minister. Mere mention of the Iron Lady’s name is enough to prompt a smile from older Russian diplomats, who admired her “what you see is what you get”attitude. With a swoosh of her handbag even the most wizened silovik melted. Sadly for the Kremlin, Lady Thatcher is dead and the next best thing, Meryl Streep, is not standing.
Obviously, the electorate can only play with the cards on the table. Compared to Thatcher, or even Tony Blair, that deck is short on aces. With Russia-UK relations at close to an all- time low, Britain’s Russian community will be hoping the next Westminster administration prefers Tolstoy’s happy epilogue to the main sections of War and Peace.
To describe David Cameron as “disliked”in Moscow is probably charitable. The truth is that he’s about as popular among the Russian elite as the tax collector Zacchaeus was in Jericho. That’s probably not a shock to British readers but the reasons for it might be. Russians don’t just dismiss Cameron because of his chilly rhetoric towards their president, Vladimir Putin.
Instead, Moscow thinks he’s failing to act in Britain’s best interests and weakening his nation. They believe Cameron does this by slavishly following American diktats and alienating Britain from its European partners. Many Brits might not agree, but Russians view the Washington-London relationship as being one between master and slave. No prizes for guessing who they believe is the master, either.
Ironically, Russians would probably find Boris Johnson more palatable as Conservative Party leader. He’s perceived as being stronger and more pragmatic than Cameron. Sure, the London mayor is more anti-Europe than the incumbent Tory leader but he’s also believed to be pro-British to a greater extent and less likely to follow “instructions” from Washington. Ironically, the only way for Johnson to become Conservative leader in the short term is if Cameron loses the election and falls on his sword.
Visit any racetrack and you’ll observe that bookmakers generally leave in more desirable cars than punters. That’s because they are rarely wrong. Bookies are putting the odds on a Labour minority government as the most likely outcome next month.
We know that Ed Miliband has a 93-year-old second cousin in Moscow called Sofia Davidovna Miliband, a celebrated Russian orientalist and historian. If Ed was taking soundings from her that would be encouraging, given her experience and knowledge. It appears that instead he’s taking George Clooney’s advice on Russia sanctions.
The Daily Mirror reported in January that Ed and George had “discussed beefing up restrictions on Vladimir Putin’s regime over a meal at a London mansion”. I doubt that Barack Obama talks Ireland with Liam Neeson or Ukraine with Mila Kunis, both of whom would know more about those issues than Clooney about Russia. I labour the point because one wonders if Tony Blair’s “showbiz” style of politics has rubbed off on Ed, who served as a minister of state under the former prime minister. If so, despite their hostility to Cameron, Russian officials might soon be pining for the certainty of his tenure. Somehow, I can’t imagine the Tory leader shooting the breeze with Clooney over Russia.
Of course, two small parties loom large over this election. Both Ukip and the SNP have a serious chance of holding the balance of power come May 8. Both are fairly well disposed to Russia but for wildly different reasons. The Scottish Nationalists are pretty anti-Nato and until 2012 had officially opposed the US-led alliance for 30 years. Russia is useful to them as good bilateral relations prove that Scotland can maintain a foreign policy independent from that of England.
While SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has never publicly outlined her position on President Putin, her Ukip counterpart, Nigel Farage, hasn’t been shy in expressing his admiration. Farage has described Putin as the politician he most admires. Furthermore, the Ukip chief has objected to anti-Russia sanctions. In fact, Ukraine means nothing to Farage, who believes the West should make an alliance with Moscow to combat the threat from Islamic State.
Ultimately, Russia will have to deal with whatever administration the British people elect next month. While Farage leading the government would be a dream scenario, it’s about as likely as Alexei Navalny taking power in Moscow. Instead, Russia will hope for either the SNP or Ukip to hold the balance of power. Failing that, while Miliband at first looks less hard line than Cameron, the Kremlin may find that it’s better the devil they know.
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist who focuses on Russia and international geopolitics.
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