Thursday, May 25, 2006

Russian-Swedish Diplomatic Difficulties

Today, Swedish Radio reports on a rising diplomatic dispute between Russia and Sweden. Recently, a Swedish diplomat in Moscow and a Russian diplomat in Stockholm were declared persona non grata by their respective host countries. Who made the first move in this reciprocal affaire is still unclear, but it only serves to further deter diplomatic relations between Moscow and Stockholm.

In February, a Russian researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences was arrested on espionage charges by the Swedish security police. This provoked stern reactions from Moscow, and Russian media claimed that the allegations were prefabricated. It was thus portrayed as simply yet another example of Sweden's increasingly Russophobic policy. Swedish media, on their part, reported that the Russian researcher had collected data on research and his fellow colleagues at the agricultural university for the Russian Embassy in Stockholm. The Russian researcher spent some time in police custody before facing spy charges. As his activities were not regarded as a rightout threat to Swedish state security, he was let off with expulsion from Sweden and the time spent in jail.

The Russian diplomat that has now been expelled from Sweden was the embassy contact man of the "spy scandal" researcher. A reasonable assumption would thus be that Sweden made the first move in PNG:ing a Russian diplomat. However, this is not self-evident as Stockholm has tried to put an end to the mutual expulsions of citizens and diplomats as well as spy allegations that have tarred Swedish-Russian relations in recent years.

However, if the Russian measure to expel a Swedish diplomat a few weeks back was a unilateral move, it would be somewhat out of the ordinary. Such a move would be in clear breach of diplomatic rules of reciprocity. Practice is that bilateral measures of this character are proportionate to each other. If so, the expulsion of an ordinary Russian citizen from Sweden recently, would then have resulted in a reply on the diplomatic level instead.

Also, Russia's rigid practice of strict reciprocity, regardless of whether there is just cause, only adds to further straining relations. A telling example of Russian expulsions is that the current head of the East European branch of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs is among Swedish diplomats previously declared PNG by Russia.

If Sweden this time made the first move, Russia's reply is, of course, simply business as usual in Moscow's diplomatic decorum. As is practice in such matters, little is said on the true circumstances surrounding an affaire like this. It must be noted however, that the number of Swedish citizens and diplomats expelled from Russia, seems to have been on the rise during recent years. The corresponding situation with expulsions of Russians from Sweden remains unclear, as Sweden often is much more discreet in these matters.

Another spy scandal arose six years ago, when two Swedish defence researchers were arrested for espionage by Russian authorities on a very weak pretext. The incidence was concurrent to a general Russian tendency of not granting visas to security researchers from the Nordic countries.

Also, Russia's increasingly disproportionate practice of reciprocity in expulsions has reached outside the realm of diplomacy. Thus, last autumn, Swedish State Television Moscow correspondent lost his accreditation in Russia with no explanation whatsoever, Kommersant reports. Rumours held it though that this was in response to not granting prolonged accreditation in Sweden to the correspondent of Russian newspaper Tribuna. The Swedish motive was that Tribuna's correspondent was paid not by his newspaper but by Gazprom, why he was no longer considered a journalist. The difference in status between a state television representative and a correspondent of a rather small newspaper is obvious, which only adds to the impression of disproportionate Russian countermeasures spreading from diplomacy to media and other areas.

That both countries have to put an end to this negative development is obvious. The alternative would be further deterioration of Russian-Swedish relations. Sweden has long been regarded by Moscow as one of Russia's greatest critics in the European Union. This should however not serve to conceal the fact that Stockholm's policy towards Russia has become increasingly conciliatory during the last few years. Thus, Stockholm now criticises Russia only in much severer cases of e.g. human rights' abuses than before. The difference is perhaps that there today is so much more to criticise in Russian behaviour. The threshold for critique has risen but so has also the number of severe cases. It thus seems that Russia and Sweden all the more are heading into a dead end in relations. It remains to be seen whether they will have the will and ability to turn developments around.


Yahor said...

Thanks for your detailed articles.

Does Russia have such tense relations with all Nordic countries or only with
Sweden? If so, why does Sweden pay so much attention to Russia?

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Denmark had its Zakayev case a couple of years ago, Norway has the conflict on ocean borders, and Sweden seems to be getting its "fair" share as some sort of regional quasi great power in the North. The only one who seems more or less unscathed is Finland, which was "subdued" in WWII. Last year, however, even Finland was hit by a series of border violations. It is obvious that Russia has difficulties in dealing also with its neighbours in Northern Europe. So, why should Sweden and others pay so much attention to Russia? The answer is simple. Because Russia is where it is, or to quote Alexander I: "La géographie la voulait ainsi" - Geography wanted it this way.