Mary Dejevsky: Russia has good reason for what it is doing. Why do we have to keep demonising it?

Gas is only the latest example of the West's double standard in its condemnation of Russia

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So it has happened. The snarling Russian bear has reached out its clumsy paw to turn off the gas tap to poor, freedom-loving little Ukraine, just as it threatened it would, and 39 million people face the coldest weeks of the winter without heat or the wherewithal to cook.

Sometimes, even those of us inclined to give Vladimir Putin's Russia the benefit of the doubt have to despair - not about the rights and wrongs of the gas dispute, of which more later, but about Russia's abject inability to present its case and defend itself against the calumnies hurled in its direction. Perhaps it arrogantly believes it should not have to. Perhaps it is so ignorant of the ways of today's world that it thinks it has no need of PR. Or perhaps it has resigned itself to a world that sees the bear always as malevolent and considers that it has no alternative but to pad slowly back into its forest.

You can hardly blame it. The gas dispute is only the latest example of how the countries that used to be bundled together as "the West" - and now usually mean the US and its protégés - have applied a glaring double standard in their condemnation of Russia. The turn of the year has witnessed the flaring of disagreements about the G8, a new Russian law on non-governmental organisations and now gas exports to Ukraine. In each one the underlying assumption, even before Russia has done anything, was that Russia was not a fully paid up member of the developed world and not a fit partner for civilised countries.

The most egregious of these three, and one that could simmer all year, is Russia's presidency of the G8. As soon as the British presidency reached its dog days last month, all that we heard about the G8 was how ill-equipped Russia was to lead it. The size and health of the economy, we were told, nowhere near qualified Russia to sit at the world's top economic table. Its human rights record was lamentable: all Putin's presidency amounted to perpetual backsliding on media, political and civic freedoms. And just look at the company it keeps: selling nuclear facilities to Iran, fraternising with Uzbekistan and murmuring sweet nothings to the Soviet-style dictator of Belarus.

But there is a great deal of lost history here. However was Russia, so weak and riddled with failings, accepted into the then G7 in the first place? Because in 1991, when, incidentally, Britain was president, the West was lionising the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in an effort to save his presidency and his country. When that failed, they hoped the same trick could work with the new Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin.

And over the years, as the G7 plus 1 transmogrified uncomfortably and inconsistently into the G8, not one of its members wanted to cut Russia adrift. They simply badmouthed it behind its back and hoped that a Russian G8 presidency would somehow not come to pass. Now that it has - the seven could hardly flout their own rules, while demanding that Russia obey the letter of every rule they lay down - they are seeking to discredit it.

Then Russia handed them the gift of the draft legislation on NGOs. Every human rights organisation clamoured to denounce Moscow - and Putin - for subverting democracy. A somewhat diluted version of the Bill is now on the statute book.

An objective international discussion of this legislation and what is so undesirable about it, however, has never taken place. The real reason why Russian MPs wanted to clamp down on foreign funding of NGOs in Russia may indeed have been to limit the foreign money available to opposition groups. The spectre of the so-called "coloured" revolutions in parts of the former Soviet Union - Georgia's "rose" revolution, Ukraine's "orange" revolution, Kyrgyzstan's "daffodil" revolution that now looks more like a coup d'état - looms large in the Russian consciousness, and as a disruptive, rather than democratic, force.

But Russia is far from being the only country that uses the law to keep foreign money out of its domestic politics. The US is not far behind, nor is India, "the world's largest democracy", nor is post-apartheid South Africa. Why should Russia alone be demonised for trying to do the same?

And so to the gas dispute with Ukraine. How often have you heard news bulletins over the past week state precisely how much Ukraine was actually paying for its gas from Russia? Precious few. Mostly, they say that Russia wants "to quadruple" the price. Almost never is it said that Ukraine, a country generously rewarded - by the US and others - for "choosing freedom" a year ago, was paying less than 25 per cent of the world price.

Ukraine may have a case that Russia is "bullying" its erstwhile ally. But there is another side to this dispute: the Russian side, that has rarely been heard. It is 15 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, quite long enough for Russia and Ukraine to have sorted out more commercial terms for their energy relations. If there is a contract dispute, as some Ukrainian officials insist, this is a matter for the courts, not for a new cold war.

But Ukraine, and its US patrons, have not resorted to the law. They have spoken instead about Russia's unconscionable "blackmail" or "brinkmanship", about Russia's desire to "punish" Ukraine for choosing a westward course and about the unacceptable use of natural resources as a political weapon. But who says Russia is trying to punish anyone?

When the Ukraine joyfully took the course it did a year last December, one of the first responsibilities of the new leaders was surely to recognise that relations with Russia would change. It was unrealistic to expect that a 75 per cent discount on gas would continue once the other aspects of the alliance - spoken or unspoken - were annulled.

It is all very well for Ukraine, the US, and other energy-poor countries to object to the use of natural resources as a political weapon, but what about the deterrent effect of superior armed forces, superior firepower, the power of the dollar. Is it any more laudable to use such advantages as weapons? And what about the rules of the free market that the US and others extol so highly?

Russia is trying to join the World Trade Organisation. Among the conditions being set, however, is that Russia must phase out the subsidies it grants to domestic energy consumers. So it is quite all right, indeed necessary, for Russia to freeze its own children and pensioners, but when it comes to income-earners in a poorly-run foreign country such as Ukraine, this is bullying. What are Russians to make of this?

In the last days of the year, Russia offered Ukraine a loan to offset the higher gas prices it proposed to charge. It also offered a three-month moratorium on the increase. Ukraine, with US support, dismissed both offers as unreasonable. Having sniffed around the West's double standards, is Russia really so wrong to slope off to more predictable friends from the past?

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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