I recently attended a debate on Russia organised by Global Strategy Forum at National Liberal Club in London. I was a little surprised to see former British Ambassador to Russia Sir Tony Brenton KCMG making a strong pitch for more comprehensive UK-Russia engagement even by overlooking provocations like the "Skripal" episode. Displaying an exceptional understanding, or even empathy, towards Russian position on a host of issues including Crimea, the former British Envoy to Moscow made a series of interesting observations on how the Western policies could be causing anxiety to Moscow. He was, however, emphatic on the need for Britain to engage Russia. Conceding that UK-Russia bilateral ties had touched one of their lowest points recently, he shared anecdotes on how Russians "disliked" Britain for the latter's tough global stance against their country.
Diplomats are often a distrusted community. Their difficulties increase when the relations are not so buoyant with the host country where they are posted. However, most Ambassadors do sincerely attempt to find common grounds on which they can contribute to building endurable ties between their home country and the host country. It is virtually impossible to live in a country and make friends and still not see its positives. Sir Tony Brenton not only demonstrated a remarkable depth in his understanding of Russian psyche and Russian political position on many of the contentious issues, but acknowledged the contribution of President Putin in bringing an order and stability in that part of the world despite there being concerns on health of democracy. His emphasis on finding common grounds for cooperation, especially on the issue of terrorism, must be heartening both for the Russians and votaries of closer UK-Russia ties in his own country. He recommended avoiding any move that could potentially antagonise President Putin, pushing him to over react.
There is absolutely no doubt that a clean and transparent democracy has to eventually gain roots in every part of the world for a safer, fairer, just and more equitable global order. Virtually everyone who has grown up in an open and democratic environment can appreciate concerns or even indignation of the Western world over non-democracies or societies with weaker democratic traditions. However, the West has always engaged and dealt with non-democracies, and at times even at the cost of their ties with more liberal democracies, on considerations of real-politic and national security. The stance of many of the experts in the West towards Russia appears rooted in history of cold war and continuation of some of those sentiments or anxieties. It will of course be one of the biggest challenges in the history to re-write the script in this direction to see warm friendly ties between Russia and NATO countries. Let us hope that leaders across all divides pursue it in a quest for a safer and more secure world and especially to combat radical religious terrorism.
From Indian perspective, especially for those Indians who have grown up in 1970s and 1980s, it is extremely difficult to take any position on the ongoing confrontation between the Russia and the West. Russia (or the erstwhile Soviet Republic) has always been looked as one of the most dependable friends of India who consistently stood by the latter, notwithstanding ideological or political divide between an elected democracy and a single party controlled centralist totalitarianism. The then Soviet support to India at UNSC over Kashmir issue used to be a tale in 1970s that virtually every Indian child knew. Considerations of bi-lateral economic interests and common position on democracy have brought India much closer to the West and Russia is no longer the global power that Soviet Republic used to be. Despite this, Russia and Russian people do have a strong connect with large number of Indians who at the same time remain committed to contemporary liberal and democratic ethos attributed to the West. Russia has a formidable task at its hand to smoothly transition into a more open and transparent society with firmer roots of democracy to regain it economic clout at the global stage. This will certainly enhance its global acceptability and credibility. From the governance perspective, one has to concede the role of President Putin in bringing stability in a somewhat volatile context, as acknowledged by former Ambassador Tony Brenton. The toughest challenge in transition to democracy has always been maintaining stability. After initial turmoil, Russia has succeeded in addressing this challenge.
Democracy takes a longer and arduous journey to build and consolidate institutions on which it can sustain itself and grow. People have to get used to the idea of handling their political opponents without developing a sense of animosity. This has been a difficult proposition even in democracies. In transitional polities, this becomes much more challenging. In a country as small as Maldives, which displayed remarkable maturity in transitioning in to a democracy almost a decade back, when President Gayoom stepped down from Presidency after eventful 27-28 years at the helm, the process of democratisation soon ran into rough weathers. First democratically elected President has been slapped with terror charges and he is currently in exile with most other opposition politicians either being jailed or facing some or the other criminal charge.
In this context, I believe that democratic countries, especially those with well established credible institutions, do have a responsibility to share at least their knowledge and experience of running institutions that can sustain robust and efficient representative governments. Despite decline in its military and political stature, the Great Britain probably commands the status of the biggest soft power in most parts of Asia and Africa. This is not entirely due to its colonial past. Rather, it is credibility and integrity of the British democratic institutions and values that have helped it earn such distinction.
Russians are among a host of people who have adopted London and Great Britain as their home. I recently heard a Russian gentleman observing during a casual chat that "the London courts were one of the cleanest anywhere in the world." He added that 'it gave a huge sense of security to stay here or keep one's family even though one may have business interests in any part of the world.' Secure social space and clean efficient judiciary are probably the biggest strengths of Great Britain, distinguishing it from even some of the other advanced democracies.
Probably, it would be an excellent idea that retired judges or experts in the British judicial system explore possibility of taking initiative in sharing their knowledge and experience of running transparent and autonomous judiciary in those parts of the world where integrity of criminal justice system is in doubt. This must be done not with an intent to exactly replicate all the British procedures but with an open mind to engage and persuade them to create and devise something that may be more consistent with local realities but would still move towards transparency in judicial processes. Results may not be instant but such a move is bound to make a strong impact.
Democracy thrives largely on integrity of its institutions. Efficient and transparent criminal-justice system is probably one of the most critical among these. Liberal laws and inclusive values of the United Kingdom thrive under the protection of transparent and efficient judicial system. The contemporary world would certainly have been a poorer without such example of the United Kingdom. The ardent champions of democracy in the UK should look beyond building commercial and economic ties with both friends and potential adversaries. An attempt to share the knowledge and experience on functionality and processes of some of the important institutions of democracy in the UK can be more effective way of reaching out to people many parts of the world. This can go a much longer way towards building and consolidating democracy globally than an aggressive diplomatic pressure or policy of isolation.