Friday, 14 May 2010

Change at Westminster prompts hope of Kremlin thaw

A change in government is prompting cautious hopes of a thaw in UK-Russian relations after the coalition of David Cameron's Conservatives and Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labour rule in London.

The entente between Moscow and Westminster has been decidedly less than cordial in recent years, with on-going high-level spats over the death of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko and the western reaction to the 2008 war in South Ossetia dominating political exchanges between the two countries.

Presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko admitted that relations had reached "a point close to freezing", and urged Cameron's Westminster coalition with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to show "the political will to improve bilateral relations".

Among Russians current living in the UK, the new-look coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats seems to match the voting preferences of many.

A poll on the election suggested 45 per cent of numbers supported the Tories, with 26 per cent backing the Lib Dems and just 11 per cent favouring the outgoing Labour government.

For most expat Russian, however, the main concerns are not connected with high-level politics, but with day-to-day issues such as tax and public services.

Comments on the Rupoint forum focused more on changes to income tax thresholds and fears of an increase in VAT (the UK's sales tax, reduced to 15 per cent to stimulate spending during the economic crisis but back up to 17.5 per cent at the start of 2010).

Not even fears that a Conservative leadership would take a tougher line on immigration were enough to dissuade Russians from leaning towards David Cameron's party.

Tatiana Sukhoparova studied in the UK and continues to work there. She told The Moscow News: "People fear that those without citizenship or at least an unlimited leave to remain in Britain will inevitably have difficulties in staying here long term.

This also concerns me, since I am planning to apply for citizenship in the near future. I feel strongly connected to British culture, having spent most of my adult life here, and I feel part of a community here and care about what happens in the political, social and economic systems in Britain."

But she added that she had become frustrated with the consistent negative portrayal of Russia as a hostile nation, mired in mafia and KGB spooks.

"As a patriot I do feel resentful when Russians are spoken of badly," she said. "Our relations have to move on to a new phase and not just stand still.

"I believe that Cameron in coalition with Nick Clegg will bring in a new and fresh view on this relationship. They are of a different generation and seem to have more of an open mind - which is clearly shown in their coalition deal and makes me hope for a warmer attitude towards Russia."

But some feared the old wounds would take time to heal.

Neil McGowan, managing director of tour operator "The Russia Experience" which provides tailor-made excursions for Britons in Russia, has first hand experience of the damage done to tourist and study links between the two countries.

Accusing out-going British foreign minister David Miliband of "vicious bigoted hatred" of Russia, he claimed that the seeds of the clash dated back to then-President Vladimir Putin's refusal to support the Iraq war prompting a string of tit-for-tat measures.

"I believe that the hostility in relations - begun by David Miliband on his third day in office as Foreign Secretary - has been extremely damaging to British business interests in Russia, and likewise to the UK's potential to attract inward investment from Russian businesses," McGowan told The Moscow News.

His own tourist business also suffered, particularly amid repeated attempts from the British government and media to portray Russia as the aggressor in the 2008 conflict with Georgia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, followed by a sharp hike in visa costs on both sides.

"In terms of tourism into Russia, it's been catastrophic," he added. "We experienced dozens of cancellations from people who didn't want to go to the country that invaded poor little Georgia. How many more people changed their views on Russia as a destination we'll never know - we can see the hole in the figures though."

But joy at seeing the end of Miliband was tempered with concern at the arrival of William Hague as the new Foreign Secretary, particularly given his willingness to work with explicitly anti-Russian parties in former communist countries within the European Union.

"Hague is a silly ‘Little Englander' whose knowledge of countries other than America is mostly confined to the cheese section in Marks and Spencer's," McGowan added. "Perhaps he will mature into the job, although I have never thought of him as having one diplomatic bone in his body."

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