Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Increasingly Crude Diplomatic Language Points to Trouble Ahead

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 17 – Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s use of a four-letter word during his meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband certainly pleased many Russians. And as has been the case in the past, his offensive remark equally certainly will be excused by many in the West as Moscow’s “playing to a domestic audience.”
But this coarsening of diplomatic discourse almost certainly points to more trouble ahead, because it makes it more difficult for those in the Russian government who oppose the new aggressiveness of the Russian leadership and because it will be harder for Western governments, which have failed to object to such outbursts in the past, to object now.
In an article entitled “The New Language of Russian Diplomacy” posted online yesterday, journalist Anna Vrazhina provides details about how Lavrov’s statement leaked out in Britain and then resonated among Russians and what is more about how Vladimir Putin set the stage for this by his remarks (
On September 9, the blog of London’s “Daily Telegraph” newspaper reported that Lavrov had lectured the British diplomat several days earlier about the latter’s objections to Russia’s military actions in Georgia. “Who are you,” Lavrov was reported as saying “to f****** lecture me?”
Subsequently, the blog reported that sources in the British government had told him that Lavrov employed this word more than one: “It was F-ing this and F-ing that,” something that the sources said had left British diplomats, more accustomed to the normally polite language of diplomacy, in “a state of shock.”
Three days after this story appeared on its blog, the “Daily Telegraph” published a story about how Lavrov had used foul language during his meeting with Miliband, Vrazhina relates. And that sparked a firestorm in the Western media, most of whose writers professed to be shocked, and in the Russian blogosphere, where the reaction was more divided.
Some Russian bloggers, Vrazhina writes, immediately suggested that Moscow should “apologize” for Lavrov’s words, but many others countered that the Russian foreign minister had said exactly what the British “needed” to be told and in exactly the right way.
The British foreign ministry did not comment on any of this, but an official representative of its Russian counterpart on September 13th denied that Lavrov had used this language. And the following day, Lavrov did the same, saying that he had been quoting the remarks of others rather than cursing the visiting British minister.
The interesting thing about all this, Vrazhina says, is that “until Lavrov provided this explanation, no one protested energetically or doubted the correctness of the story as laid out by the “Telegraph.” Because that silence, she suggests, indicates that there are people in both the West and in Russia who found the story entirely credible.
For some, especially in the West, this was a horrific confirmation of what they see as the tough new line in Moscow, “the latest manifestation of ‘Russian barbarism.’” But for others, especially in Russia, this story suggested that the Russian government was finally prepared to stand up to the West and tell it like it is.
As many Western media outlets have pointed out, Vladimir Putin used foul language about the Chechens to the delight of many Russians, and recently his successor as president Dmitry Medvedev has compared Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to Saddam Hussein – and some Russian have even draw a parallel between Saakashvili and Hitler.
Moreover, other Russian officials, such as Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative at the United Nations, and Nikolay Rogozin, who has been representing the Russian Federation at NATO headquarters, have also employed the kind of language diplomats typically avoid.
That has disturbed some in the West – but apparently not yet sufficiently for anyone to protest either directly or in public when and where Russian representatives act in this way. And consequently, it is entirely likely that these Russian officials and their successors will be inclined to use even worse language and possibly worse behavior in the future.
Not only do there seem to be no penalties from the West for doing so, but as Vrazhina points out, this language is extremely popular among a growing number of Russians. Indeed, she writes, Lavrov’s phrase “Who are you to f****** lecture me?” is now employed by many Russians as a way to put an end to any argument.

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