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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 December 2007, 12:07 GMT
Russia's deep suspicion of the West
Rupert Wingfield Hayes reports on Russia's view of the outside world after its foreign minister accuses Britain of deliberately sabotaging relations with Moscow.

Putin
Putin's rule has reversed moves to turn Russia towards the West
Living in Moscow, you often get the feeling Russia would really prefer it if the rest of the world just went away and left Russia alone.

Take Moscow itself for example. It is Russia's biggest, most developed and most cosmopolitan city.

But if you can't read the Cyrillic alphabet getting around is almost impossible.

Only in the last year has the immigration department finally relented and starting printing immigration cards in English.

Before that foreign tourists arriving at Moscow's ghastly Sheremetyevo airport could be seen scratching their heads and muttering things like: "What the hell does this mean?"

Lack of trust

And it is not just tourists that find it hard.

I was recently chatting to the manager of a large Scandinavian company that is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in Russia. I asked him how his company was treated by the authorities.

"Well, it's not so easy," he said with a grin and a shrug. "You often get the feeling they don't really want us here."

"That's extraordinary," I said. "You are bringing investment and jobs and technology to Russia."

"Yes," he agreed.

Russia's attitude to the outside world could be summed up as: "We don't trust you" and, "Thank you, but we can do it ourselves."

Deep suspicion

File photograph of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
Listening to Mr Lavrov, you would think the Cold War had not ended
Take the announcement this week that almost all the British Council's offices in Russia are to be closed.

In the 1990s Britain spent millions of pounds setting up 15 British Council centres across Russia.

They established English teaching programmes, set up libraries, helped local schools improve their language teaching, and gave out scholarships to study in Britain.

It was part of a grand post-Soviet plan to engage Russia, to pull it out of its isolation and into the Western sphere.

But from the outset the British Council was viewed by the authorities with deep suspicion.

The KGB, or FSB as it has now become, clearly saw it as a front for British spying. In other words: "We don't trust you."

Teenage zealots

Nashi demonstrator
Youths were told to "take control" of key buildings
In the last few weeks Russian suspicion of the outside world seems to have reached a new level of hysteria.

The day after Russia's parliamentary elections last week we awoke to find thousands of fanatical young Putin supporters patrolling the streets of Moscow.

They had been told by their Kremlin masters to take control of "key buildings" to prevent any attempt at a political take-over by "foreign-backed groups".

Among the buildings targeted for special attention were the British Embassy and the BBC bureau.

When I went outside to ask them why they were picketing us, the group of callow youths were hard put to come up with an answer.

"We are here to make sure no-one tries to steal our victory," one young woman tried.

Her comrades looked sullen and cold. I felt sorry for them.

I wondered if they really believed their own rhetoric. Where was all this paranoia coming from?

Inferiority complex

It just so happens that the day Russia ordered the British Council offices to close down this week, I was sitting down inside the massive granite edifice that is the Russian foreign ministry, to interview Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Lavrov is tall and urbane. He speaks beautiful English, French, and according to his biography, Sinhalese, which he learned while posted to Sri Lanka in the 1970s.

He spent more than 15 years living in New York. Surely no xenophobe he.

Russia is in a deep funk about its position in the world. It is a huge country with an equally large inferiority complex
But to hear Mr Lavrov you would think the Cold War had never ended.

He described a world in which America is seeking to contain Russia.

He said Russia had watched as America has pushed the borders of Nato ever further eastwards, swallowing up Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Next it will be Georgia.

He described Washington's plans to build missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of a network of new missile bases from Alaska to Japan, all designed to encircle Russia.

Blame game

What is clear is that Russia is in a deep funk about its position in the world. It is a huge country with an equally large inferiority complex.

In the 1990s it lost an empire, and with it, the respect and prestige it feels it deserves.

It blames the West and particularly America and Britain.

Last week Andrei Lugovoi, the man wanted in Britain for the poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinienko, was elected to parliament as an ultra-nationalist MP.

At the time the sole surviving MP from Russia's pro-Western liberal parties lost his seat in parliament.

Speaking afterwards one of his colleagues put it to me this way: "In the 1990s we had an opportunity to turn Russia outwards towards the West. But we failed. Now it's gone, and it won't be back for at least a generation."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 15 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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