Foggy business, as usual

The visit to Moscow this week by Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has shown so far that it’s business as usual between Russia and Britain.

In this context, that means that the two governments are seeking to make money and political capital, while both avoiding and exploiting the problems that divide them.

The Kremlin and Downing Street have the interests of big business at heart, but they appear to be following slightly different rules. The Russian authorities seem to follow the old KGB rulebook – weakness invites aggression and Britain is still seen as “perfidious Albion.” Cameron’s neoliberal government still seems to be following the rules of cricket learned on the playing fields of Eton – a lingering belief in Britain’s imperial past and the divine right of financial markets to rule the world.

Cameron’s meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday were doubtless not easy. He had to convey the simultaneous impression of outrage over the treatment of British businesses such as BP, Shell and Hermitage Capital, while touting for better business and trade links. And on the 2006 poisioning of Alexander Litvinenko, he had to walk a tightrope between reminding Moscow of London’s continuing demand to extradite suspect Andrei Lugovoi, but also a willingness to move on.

From the traditional Russian viewpoint, Cameron’s position probably looks weak enough – given Britain’s debts, riots and other problems – that Moscow isn’t required to make any concessions at all.

Lugovoi – presumably with some encouragement from his friends in the security services – appears to feel confident enough to taunt Cameron, asking somewhat optimistically for a meeting with the British PM. But most of the media headlines that will come out of this visit are pure theater. What Cameron and BP boss Robert Dudley want is the same as Medvedev and Putin want: maximum profit from a very lucrative business partnership.

The other sensitive issues Cameron is supposed to be raising, from Litvinenko to Magnitsky, are sideshows. Any tough deals that are done behind closed doors in Moscow are not following Russian or British rules of fair play – just those of Macchiavelli.

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #70”

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