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You might not guess it from its ruthless suppression of dissent and its crushing of Russian democracy, but the Russian government is a delicate creature. As a case in point, two top Russian officials this week denounced the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for supposedly violating diplomatic etiquette in some recent remarks he delivered.
Professing offense on the government’s behalf, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov claimed that McFaul was sowing “discord” in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Ushakov cautioned that McFaul “should not try to be undiplomatic.” Next it was the turn of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which took to Twitter to pronounce itself “utterly shocked” at McFaul’s remarks, insisting that they were “far beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette.”
So, what awful slander against the Russian state did McFaul utter? As it turns out, not much of one. In a lecture last Friday to the Higher School of Economics, McFaul said that in 2009 Russia had “put a big bribe on the table” to get the government of Kyrgyzstan to evict the U.S. from an airbase that it had leased to support military operations in Afghanistan. For a corruption-steeped government that routinely rigs elections, the suggestion that Russia may have paid a bribe was apparently beyond the pale.
Blunt phrasing aside, it’s not clear why the statement should have elicited a government uproar. McFaul’s statement was patently true and well known to be so. The “bribe” in question was a reference to the $2 billion Russian loan that served as a not-so-subtle payoff to Kyrgyzstan’s former dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who in return promised to shutter the U.S. base. But then the United States offered to triple its rent for the base – also technically a “bribe,” as McFaul acknowledged in his remarks, though on a smaller scale – and Bakiyev agreed.
It might be taken as a diplomatic gesture that McFaul did not go on to tell the remainder of the story, which arguably reflects even worse on Russia. After the U.S. upped its rent, Bakiyev reneged on his promise to Moscow. Deciding that it had been cheated, Russia proceeded to retaliate by fomenting a revolution inside Kyrgyzstan. To that end, Russian state media launched a full-on propaganda assault against Bakiyev, likening the client-state autocrat to a brutal dictator in the Genghis Khan mode (something that had not prevented Russia from cosseting him when it was convenient). As further punishment for Bakiyev’s perfidy, the Russian government threatened to expel the one million Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia. Most decisively, Moscow cancelled subsidies for energy exports to Kyrgyzstan. The resulting surge in energy prices sparked street protests that ultimately forced Bakiyev to flee the country in 2010.
While it’s hard to despair for the deposed regime, the episode was a prime example of what passes for diplomacy in Russia; the idea that the Russian government is in a position to be lecturing anyone about proper diplomatic conduct is hard to credit. But what makes the government’s faux-outrage at McFaul this week particularly preposterous is that for months the Kremlin has been waging a vicious and deliberately orchestrated smear campaign against the ambassador and the U.S. generally that makes a farce of its appeals to diplomatic politesse.
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