When the President of Russia is borne down the Mall in the Queen's golden coach this afternoon at the start of his state visit, a myriad ghosts will be swirling alongside. There will be the ghosts of the last Russian Tsars to be so honoured. There will be the ghosts of the Romanov family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, an atrocity that blighted relations between British royalty and Russia for as long as the Soviet Union survived. And there will be the ghosts of the millions who died in the last century and this at the hands of Russia's rulers - the victims of civil war, famine, political persecution and ethnic repression - among whose heirs must be counted the rebel Chechens of today.
For many of us, watching this magnificent spectacle of royal pageantry, two rather more malign ghosts will be in attendance as well. Those of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, the only Eastern bloc Communist leaders to have been hosted in this country at state level. The fêting of Romania's "royal" couple - as it happens, 25 years ago last week - was the most flagrant and disgraceful example of the political uses to which state visits are put.
Romania was then lionised in the West as the "maverick" of the Communist world. Its quasi-independent foreign policy endeared it to a world that automatically regarded the enemies of our enemies as our friends. That the Ceausescus presided over a regime more repressive than that of the late-Brezhnev Soviet Union was an inconvenience the Government and the Palace chose to ignore. When the Communist regimes collapsed a decade later, Romania was the only state whose rulers were, summarily and savagely, killed.
No one, not even Vladimir Putin's worst enemies, would suggest that he has anything in common with Ceausescu. But the reasons why the Russian leader is the beneficiary of a state visit are uncomfortably similar to the reasons why Britain invited the Romanian rulers a quarter of a century ago. State visits are still used as official expressions of encouragement and approval. The government consensus is - or was, before Russia inconveniently sided with France over Iraq - that Mr Putin is a good guy, potentially even "one of us", who is playing a weak diplomatic hand extraordinarily well. There is also a genuine belief in the corridors of British power - a big distinction between the Ceausescu visit and now - that Mr Putin is good not just for "us", but for his own people as well.
This - largely just - distinction is worth stressing. In less than three years, Mr Putin has brought stability to Russia. Institutional reform - of government, judiciary and state bureaucracy - is progressing, if slowly. Land can now be bought and sold, potentially revolutionising Russia's agriculture. The so-called oligarchs who made themselves rich by grabbing state assets as the Soviet Union collapsed are turning themselves into legitimate businessmen. Taxes are being levied and paid, albeit at a very low level. Foreign investment is increasing. The result is a national mood quite different from the uncertainties that prevailed in the first post-Soviet decade.
The pity is that this happier picture of today's Russia will, by and large, not be the one the British public will see. Partly, this is because the serious content of the visit is surprisingly, even shamefully, light. Most of his stay is made up of state ceremonial and glorified tourism.
But the main reason that Mr Putin will not get his due from the British public is summed up in one word: Chechnya. The Chechen lobby in this country is well-organised and well-funded, thanks to money from - among others - the renegade Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, self-exiled in London, and the influence generously exerted by such luminaries as Vanessa Redgrave. So powerfully has the Chechen cause against Russian repression been represented here that anyone venturing another view is drowned out, or excoriated as a mindless apologist for a brutal Russian dictatorship.
The conduct of Russian troops in Chechnya has been ruthless and has, at times, exceeded all norms of civilised behaviour, as has the conduct of Chechen rebels. Their repertoire includes kidnappings, beheadings, suicide bombs, not to speak of the recent Moscow theatre siege. Cruelly expelled from their mountain homeland by Stalin, the Chechens have just cause for hating Russia and all its works. Historically, Russians and Chechens have been at war on and off for two centuries. There is right, and great wrong, on both sides.
But President Putin's dogged refusal to compromise on Chechnya should not be portrayed as a mystery. In the Soviet Union, Chechnya never enjoyed the same legal status as the Central Asian or Caucasus Soviet republics; it was an "autonomous republic", always within and subordinate to the Russian Federation. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Russian Federation remained whole - despite challenges from Tatarstan and, briefly, parts of Siberia. Mr Putin, like Mr Yeltsin before him, sees it as his supreme national duty to keep Russia whole.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union made the southern mountain "autonomous republics" even more strategically crucial than they had been in the Soviet period, as they now formed Russia's national border with the volatile region to the south. To sacrifice sovereignty over any, or all, these regions would be seen in Moscow not only as a national humiliation but as a dangerous weakening of Russia's defences.
In the mid-Nineties, with his authority declining, Mr Yeltsin granted a measure of autonomy to Chechnya that amounted to independence in all but name. The result was not only lawlessness inside Chechnya, but a porous border across which flowed illegal weapons and drugs. When, in 1999, Chechen rebels made an armed incursion, perhaps exaggerated, into neighbouring Dagestan, Mr Putin, then Prime Minister, sent troops to quash it.
That Russia has failed to project its side of the argument over Chechnya, except recently as an extension of the "global war on terrorism", is at least in part because Russians do not see how effectively the Chechens have presented their case or how hazy a view foreigners have about how the Soviet Union broke up. For Russians, the distinction between, say, Estonia or Georgia and Chechnya is so obvious as not to need elaboration. Any outside pleas to Mr Putin to seek a political solution have to start by recognising that difference.
Moscow does seem to have understood that the war is a greater danger to Russia than making peace. And it has quietly made a start. The referendum on a constitution, so derided by exiled Chechens that it was not monitored by any international organisations, was better supported than expected. It contains provision for regional autonomy, short of independence, and for respect of human rights. As with all such flurries of words, of course, implementation is all. And President Putin's own intemperate language about Chechen rebels has done him no favours.
Chechnya is a blot on Mr Putin's short record as President of Russia. But the most compelling argument against this week's state visit is not Russia's policy towards Chechnya, which deserves greater understanding, but the use of state visits to boost the domestic image of Britain's chosen, and often temporary, friends.Reuse content