Brenton Offers Advice After 4 Rocky Years

MTAmbassador Brenton greeting a reporter ahead of an interview this week at the British Embassy as an aide watches.
British Ambassador Tony Brenton is stepping down at the end of this month to write a book about Alexander Menshikov, who was the de facto ruler of Russia after Peter the Great's death.

During his four-year tenure, which Brenton described as "bumpy," ties between London and Moscow have plummeted to post-Cold War lows over disputes involving oil companies, former KGB spies and English-language lessons.

In addition, the ambassador and his wife were robbed in St. Petersburg in 2005 and hounded by members of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, in 2006 and 2007.

"Yes, I think it's been pretty bumpy," Brenton said in an interview this week at the British Embassy.

But he dismissed suggestions that he was disillusioned.

"I really love Russia and wish to maintain links with Russia," he said. "One of the most wonderful things about the country is its colorful, dramatic history and its colorful and dramatic people that populate that history."

Top among them, he said, was Menshikov, the flamboyant statesman and general who rose from pastry salesman to the country's de facto ruler after Peter the Great's death in 1725.

Speaking in a far-reaching interview, Brenton, 58, criticized Russia's invasion of Georgia and the involvement of government agencies in the TNK-BP dispute, saying both incidents had sent worrisome signals to Western investors. He praised a recent telephone conversation between the two countries' foreign ministers that included profanity, calling it positive because it showed the two sides were talking.

Brenton said his successor, career diplomat Ann Pringle, faced a tougher start than he did but that she should build upon the positive fundamentals that continue to govern London's relations with Moscow, despite the series of crises between both sides.

"She is inheriting in some ways a more difficult situation than I did," he said.

While issues like Russia's refusal to extradite a suspect in the murder of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko and London's refusal to extradite businessman Boris Berezovsky remain unresolved, there are many good things to focus on, he said.

"My advice to my … successor will be: There is enough good there, there are enough positive things for us to work on, to help build the relationship in a positive direction," Brenton said.

He also advised her to travel around the country more often than he did, explaining that he found himself "trapped in Moscow by a succession of crises."

"When we want to take a country really seriously, we send a Scot," he said, joking about Pringle's nationality.

Earlier this summer, he said, both sides began to get over some of the problems as Prime Minister Gordon Brown "had a good meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev" on the sidelines of a Group of Eight summit in Japan.

But then the war over Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia struck. "Until Georgia came along, things were on the mend," he said.

As London took a critical stance toward Russia's military invasion into its southern neighbor, it seemed that both governments would have a hard time avoiding clashes. Last week, a telephone conversation between Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and David Miliband resulted in a damaging newspaper report that said Lavrov swore at his British counterpart. Lavrov later denied swearing at Miliband and said he had mentioned a Western diplomat's unflattering description of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Brenton took pains to point out the positive aspect of that conversation, while stressing that its contents were confidential: "The media reporting was unfortunate, but the important fact is that Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Miliband are talking to each other, that they are talking straight to each other. That it is not mere diplomatic politesse, that they are saying worthwhile things to each other."

But the ambassador said Moscow's response to the conflict over South Ossetia went way over the top. "Russian troops marching into an independent sovereign country has been very, very damaging from every point of view," he said.

"The whole Georgia thing was a shock for Western public opinion and particularly for Western investors," he said.

Brenton suggested that President Dmitry Medvedev should now follow up on his domestic policy promises. "The most effective thing that Mr. Medvedev can do is actually to pursue the agenda he annunciated for himself when he became president: … building up the rule of law, dealing with corruption, getting the state less involved in business activity," he said.

"If he can be seen to make real progress on them, then that will regenerate some of the business confidence that has been lost — partly as a result of Georgia, partly as a result of TNK-BP," he said.

Brenton identified the shareholder dispute at TNK-BP as a worrying signal for investors.

While struggles among owners were not unknown even in the best-run companies, he said, it was "very unfortunate" that various Russian government agencies became involved. TNK-BP was searched by police for alleged tax violations earlier this year, while the Federal Migration Service blocked visas for the company's foreign staff.

"The effect of that is to give business the impression that the Russian state is taking sides in a private shareholder dispute, and it is in Russia's own interest to avoid giving that impression and to show foreign investors that there is a level playing field for investors," Brenton said.

Brenton also took pains to praise the French-led mediating efforts in Georgia as a "huge success" for Europe. "They had to move fast. Inevitably there were confusions," he said.

Lavrov has repeatedly complained that official documents prepared by Paris had different wordings in Moscow and Tbilisi.

Brenton said the main point was that Europe succeeded in stopping the fighting in five days. "After further clarifications, there is now an agreed way forward, and all the signs are that both Russia and Georgia are observing that. I think that is a very big success for both French and for EU diplomacy," he said.

Brenton noted that pointing to the U.S. role in Georgia just produced inflammatory rhetoric. "The danger that has been revealed by the Georgian situation is that it has brought out a lot of Cold War dinosaurs on both sides," he said.

He explained that many commentators in Russia are suddenly criticizing the United States, while many commentators in the West "are only too pleased to say the bear is back, Russia is on the march again. I think all those commentators are wrong," he said.

"We had a particular issue in an area we all know is highly combustible and dangerous. Our job now is to get the fire under control and get the peace process moving," he said.

On all areas of dispute, Brenton was adamant that London had adopted the right stance.

"My job is to represent the British government, and my view is that we have always responded as reasonably as possible to the various pressures," he said.

Yet he refused to hand out blame, saying merely that "lots of things have gone wrong from both sides' point of view."

The key, he argued, was to leave the past behind. "We had the British Council affair where our feeling is that the Russian government behaved very wrongly but where again we now are in a position where we have to look forward rather than back and try to solve that problem as well," he said.

The dispute about the legal status of the British Council, a government-sponsored agency that promoted British culture and offered English lessons, among other things, is still unresolved, Brenton said. "There is a huge hunger here for the British Council all over the Russia. We need to establish a clear status for the British Council for the offices," he said.

Brenton said he was "100 percent confident" that British culture was in high demand: "As I travel round the country, everybody tells me, 'We want the British Council.' 'Where is Shakespeare?' they say to me."

Brenton suggested that he was leaving the Foreign Service to write the book because he had achieved everything he could hope for. "They do not have a more interesting job than ambassador to Moscow, so it is time to move on," he said.