Friends Like These
On 14 January 2014 I saw Jack Straw speak at the Westminster Russia Forum at the Baltic Restaurant on Blackfriars.
The Forum, formerly known as Conservative Friends of Russia, was launched in August 2012. Leaked e-mails from Russian officials soon appeared, saying they had been urged to use the organisation to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster. CFoR tweeted photographs of the anti-Kremlin head of the Parliamentary Committee on Russia, Chris Bryant, in his underpants. The Russian diplomat liaising with the group was Sergey Nalobin, first secretary in the embassy's political section (his father was a senior figure in the KGB and FSB). They were accused by the Guardian, World Affairs and Private Eye of being a lobby group for the Kremlin.
The former head of CFoR, Ladbrokes public affairs manager Richard Royal (his blog is called Lionheart’s Lair), denied this. When I asked him why he had set up Conservative Friends he said it was because he was a Russophile, though he didn’t speak the language and had only recently visited the country for the first time, as a guest of the Russian federal cultural agency Rossotrudnichevstvo. The board of Tory grandees, including the honorary president, Malcolm Rifkind, resigned and that seemed to be the end of it. But instead CFoR was renamed the Westminster Russia Forum (now bi-partisan). They organised a discussion about gay rights in Russia with Peter Tatchell. John Redwood gave a speech at the Erarta Gallery about geopolitics. And now they had Jack Straw as speaker.
Sergey Nalobin sat in the corner in a classy black suit and black-rimmed glasses, probably the best dressed man in the room. At my table was a friendly Brit who works in energy PR; an Italian woman who trades gas; another Italian from the state energy company ENI whose role in Russia expanded along with Putin and Berlusconi’s friendship; and an English energy chairman-of-the-board type who wanted to make contacts before going into business in Russia. Straw mumbled and we could barely make out what he said but it was something about how thankful he was for Russia’s involvement in Syria and how the easiest thing one could do in diplomacy was pick fights and one shouldn’t. The speech went down well with the Russians in the room.
It reminded me of a Western Chamber of Commerce party at the Tverskaya Marriott in Moscow a decade earlier. A nod towards politics but the real interest was networking. A couple of people had heard of the alleged Kremlin lobby-spy scandal but no one minded. If anything it may have made the attraction greater as there would be better opportunities for business contacts.
Then Royal spoke. It was his valedictory speech as he was stepping down to run for elected office. He's now the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hartlepool.
Nicholas Cobb, the chairman of Westminster Russia Forum, writes: 'WRF is simply a group of people interested in the subject area of Russian and Eastern European history, politics and culture, and takes no political stance. Indeed numerous events have been held at which speakers have been openly critical of Russia and its policies.'