British Ambassador Simon Gass says the expulsion of Russian diplomats is amatter of principle, not energy interests, and wants Europe to start delivering policy rather than arguing over institutions
BRITAIN today finds itself in the eye of the newest storm between Russia and the West. The reason is Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the murder of former KGB agent and Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London last November. The dispute has resulted in tit-for-tat expulsions of four diplomats a side.
In announcing the expulsions on July 16, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband made Britain the first western nation to stand firm in the face of what has been a Russian juggernaut of aggressive self-assertion since the beginning of the year.
When I met British Ambassador Simon Gass at his residence in Athens to discuss the dispute, he expressed his government's position with that combination of consummate politeness and principled outrage the British do so well.
"We can't simply watch a British citizen murdered under these circumstances and do nothing about it, " he told me matter-of-factly. He called the expulsion of Russian diplomats "very proportionate" in the face of a "substantial body of evidence" against Lugovoi, whom he was careful never to name.
Russia says it is constitutionally unable to extradite citizens. Britain speedily rejected this, which Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko has called unfair punishment against Russia for keeping faith with its laws.
"Many countries have accepted that in a world where cross-border judicial cooperation is more and more important, they have to modify internal regulations, " says Gass, bringing up the three-and-a-half-year-old Europe-wide arrest warrant as an example.
One troubling aspect of the British expulsion was its timing. On June 22, British Petroleum was forced to sell its stake in one of the world's largest gas fields to Russian giant Gazprom under the threat of having its licence revoked. It was a near-repetition of the strong-arm tactics used to oust Shell from an oil development on Sakhalin island last April.
But Gass unequivocally denied that that played any part in Miliband's decision. "Nobody can object to Russia having a voice on the world stage," he said, but stressed that the Litvinenko affair is a matter of Russia exercising power in a responsible way. "This for us is a matter or principle," he said, calling Russia's behaviour "unacceptable".
Britain and Russia have now parted ways on Kosovo. On July 20, Britain and other backers of UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's proposal to grant the region internationally supervised independence pulled the issue out of the Security Council after Russia threatened to use its veto.
The writing was on the wall when, three weeks earlier, former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov floated the idea of partitioning the province as a way of allowing the Albanian majority to enjoy independence while the Serb minority joins Serbia.
"I am certain I won't be popular when I say that Kosovo should be divided, " Primakov wrote in Belgrade's Politika newspaper in early July. "It is difficult at the moment to say where the border would run. But it is clear that the parts of Kosovo where the Serbs and the monasteries are located should belong to Serbia."
Western powers have rejected that idea, which Gass sees as a slippery slope. "Kosovo is Kosovo, and as soon as you start dividing and subdividing you could go on ad infinitum, " he says, pointing to the 60,000-strong Serb population south of the Ibar River, some in enclaves deep inside Kosovo.
But the subtext here is clear. A Kosovo divided along ethnic lines could have a domino effect across the former Yugoslavia, leading to the secession of an Albanian minority in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) and the tripartition of Bosnia. Above all, it would be an admission of failure to create multi-ethnic states, with repercussions as far away as Israel and Iraq. "I really don't want to speculate, " said Gass when asked to muse on a redrawn map of the western Balkans.
When pressed on the point, though, he admitted that while Britain had hoped for a consensus in the Security Council, it is ultimately prepared to make some people unhappy.
"I do not think that you can expect that there will be some sort of agreed solution... because there is a fundamental difference. The Kosovars will not live under Serb governance, the Serbs will not allow Kosovo to leave Serbia, and this to me looks like the irresistible force meets the immovable object; in which case we have to find another solution, and that solution is Ahtisaari," he said in a flurry.
A relaxed interlocutor off the record, Gass is a very self-controlled interviewee. He delivers responses in near-perfect paragraphs and limits body language to the occasional sip of juice, or an un-selfconscious fiddle with a pair of spectacles in his lap. When his opinions are strong they emerge as didactic tracts, and when he feels he has said as much as he is comfortable saying on a subject he rounds off with evident finality.
The question of consensus is also at the heart of debates over how to most effectively form a European foreign policy. Britain is said to be uneasy about the formation of a European Union diplomatic service - part of a June summit agreement that salvaged parts of the defeated constitutional treaty.
"We think we can be as effective as we need to be using the machinery that we have, " Gass said. Britain wants to keep foreign policy a consensual process between governments. Putting it in the hands of a new bureaucracy could lead individual states to lose control of it.
"Let us suppose you had a foreign policy being delivered through a European diplomatic service, through qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, and Fyrom applied to join Nato under the name given to it under its constitution," Gass suggests. That name, Republic of Macedonia, is one to which Greece strenuously objects but has for years found itself unable to muster international diplomatic pressure on Fyrom to alter.
"Do you think it would be acceptable to Greece if the Greek foreign minister were outvoted and had to come back to Athens and say, 'I'm sorry, we were outvoted, that's what we have to live with?' I don't think that is acceptable, " he told me stridently.
Having said that, neither did he want to entertain the notion of Europeanising the Fyrom name problem.
"Fundamentally, the two parties to the dispute have to resolve [it], " he said. Listening between the lines, though, his hopes for a solution weren't high. He strongly hinted that an Interim Accord, signed by Andreas Papandreou in September 1995, may well continue to be the only basis for the relationship between Greece and Fyrom.
But perhaps some of the emotion in Gass' response was derived from experience. Britain found itself in a minority position in early 2003, when it supported a US invasion of Iraq. Together with Washington it managed to engineer a European coalition with five other EU members including Italy, Spain and Poland; but the split was traumatic to a continent overwhelmingly opposed to the war, and in the eyes of many remains a landmark of apostasy.
Still, Gass was legitimately able to point to policy on Iran as an example of a united front. "Iran has the right to be a rich and successful country in the Middle East," he said. "It does not have the right to destabilise its neighbours or acquire nuclear weapons."
Gass believes that what he calls "sterile institutional wrangling" and voting power spats detracts from a focus on achieving results in the EU.
"Too much energy has been devoted to discussing voting methods and minor constitutional changes which are really only understood by a few experts in many cases, " he said with what seemed to me personal as well as professional conviction.
"We need to deliver in areas that actually matter to people. What we have in the European Union is not a democratic deficit at all. What we actually have is a delivery deficit. It's a deficit in the EU's ability to meet the expectations of people on ordinary questions like migration, security, climate change, the economy, job creation, innovation. These are the things that really matter to people."
The 'institutional wranglings' of the European Union, as well as its foreign policy making, are thrown into a different perspective when one contemplates the prospect of Turkish entry. Not only will that country of 65 million potentially be the biggest member; it will also be the most adventuresome, because it sees itself as a regional power.
As we spoke, 200,000 pairs of Turkish boots were reportedly lined up on the border with Iraq in preparation for a possible invasion to defeat what Turkey and the US see as Kurdish terrorism. Given that Britain, as Gass said, is "committed" to stabilising Iraq "until the job is done", a sudden Turkish involvement could complicate that job enormously.
"I don't want to say too much," Gass intoned thoughtfully. "Turkey will be thinking very carefully not only about the military risks if it crosses the border, but also about the political risks."