The Hard Lessons of the Harding Affair

Let me start with a disclaimer.  I don’t particularly like or remotely agree with most of what Luke Harding writes. When you sheer his stories of the details, and true sometimes the details do matter, his basic premises are rooted in the orientalism of Western encounters with Russia since the 16th century.  For the most part all his reports could lead with the words of the Marquis de Custine, “The Russian government could never have been established elsewhere than in Russia; and the Russians would never have become what they are under a government differing from that which exists among them.”

All that being said, though I don’t agree with Harding, something is indeed rotten in Denmark when the he is told “the Russia Federation is closed to you.”  There is simply no justification for this, no matter how much of a “hack” or “anti-Russian” he may be.  But the fetidness doesn’t emanate from the specter of a further media clampdown.  It comes from the Russian government’s own lack of confidence in its hegemonic power.

As Julia Ioffe notes, Harding’s expulsion is hardly surprising.  He’s been the victim of repeated direct and indirect intimidation in his years as the Guardian‘s Moscow correspondent.  So the Harding Affair has a much longer history, which inevitably poses the question: Why now?  I, too, don’t buy that Harding’s Wikileaks reporting tipped the scale.  The Wikileaks cables were reported extensively in Russia, including the infamous one about Russia being a “virtual mafia state,” a notion that, shock, many Russians already believe.  It could have been his interview with father of Mariam Sharipova, the young woman who blew herself up in the Moscow metro in March 2010.  Showing sympathy for the terrorist, let alone painting the terrorist has human is a definite no-no in every country fighting the good fight.  But while the interview certainly didn’t ingratiate Harding to the Russian authorities, the story was written eight months ago.  So then what is the real reason?

For a partial answer we have to turn to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  While MID isn’t going to give the whole truth, or even a smidgen of it, it’s worth looking at what they’re saying and read between the lines.  In an official statement, the Ministry explained that Harding committed a “whole host of violations” the most recent of which was: “In particular, after requesting and receiving an extension of his press accreditation last November, Harding left Moscow to London on his own accord, without receiving written certification as a foreign correspondent although he that he needed to do so.”  Now, anyone who’s been to Russia knows that violating the intricate and often confusing minutia of Russian travel regulations is a surefire way to get the boot.  The bureaucrat is king, and, if he so desires, he wields his rules and regulations with a might force.  Granted, I don’t believe MID’s reasons for a second.  We all know how these things work.  Harding’s alleged slip only gave the government the legal means to deny him re-entry.  I imagine that the process went like this.  When Harding exited Russia, his passport was recorded.  When he entered, it came up with a red flag that he wasn’t supposed to leave.  Busted.  Irritant removed.  So while everyone is rightly hemming and hawing about his expulsion, the Russians can now point to their laws and say: “You criticize us when we don’t follow our laws, and you criticize us when we do. We are a sovereign country are are duty bound to enforce our laws.”  But this is how things work in nation states.  The law is a tool for enhancing state power, not for its restriction, and when necessary, it functions as a good cover for disposing of “problems” big or small.

The Russian government has never been known for its tact or subtly.  History has shown that its edge is blunter and bloodier than most. In this case the incident might prove to be more trouble than it’s worth.  The story is everywhere in the Russian press.  International outcry will certainly mount.  Harding is now cause celeb.  His career is made not because he writes stellar stories, but because the Russian government is for some reason disturbed by them.  Unless, short term memory kicks in, the Harding Affair will prove (and I think it already has) just another PR disaster.  So Harding writes unflattering stories about Russia.  So what?  Perhaps it’s time the Russian government get it through its thick skull that the Hardings (not to mention the Nemtsovs) don’t present any real danger.  I’m sure that some Russian officials think Harding is a spy, but the same officials think every foreigner and probably anyone who has ever been to the West is a spy. Some paranoias die hard.  Some day, though I can’t imagine that it will be anytime soon, the Russian government will have enough self-confidence in themselves and their system to see that the best way to deal with irritants is to ignore them, or better yet defuse them through positive recognition.

This is after all what mature liberal democracies do, and as Gramsci taught, consent is always more effective than force. The best of liberal democracies realize that there are acceptable forms of opposition that don’t shake the system and when necessary can be quite easily subsumed into the maintenance and even the expansion of power.