Anne Pringle replaces Tony Brenton as HM Ambassador in Moscow, to official Russian smirking. This is, I think, the most senior diplomatic position in terms of batting weight ever achieved by a woman in HM Diplomatic Service. Yo.
One of the problems as a senior diplomat posted overseas is how far one goes in public in making noises critical of one’s host government when it is behaving in a way which falls far short of its public pronouncements.
Sir Edward Clay went for it as our High Commissioner (‘Ambassador’ in a Commonwealth country) in Kenya, finding the corruption there intolerable. And having left Kenya he now finds himself declared ‘persona non grata’.
Tony Brenton – after due consideration with HQ in London – associated himself with Russia democratic opposition by both attending and addressing a high-profile Russian opposition gathering just before the St Petersburg G8 Summit in 2006.
The Kremlin pounced on this as a personal, calculated act of defiance by HM Ambassador towards his host government at a uniquely inappropriate time. And from then on his posting saw a sustained campaign of unpleasantness aimed at him personally.
The problem is that one can get away with quite a lot of criticism of a host government as long as it is done quietly. But if an Ambassador is deemed to have stepped over the line and taken sides – however obliquely and politely – in domestic politics, his host government find it easy to justify their poor behaviour by piously adopting the highest tones of synthetic indignation, sniping away until the posting ends.
The Ambassador in other words becomes a ‘player’, not an informed spectator – and can be ruthlessly fouled.
That said, Western Ambassadors in Moscow face an unenviable problem – how to avoid giving the impression to democracy’s friends and foes alike that crass repression of Russia’s best democrats by the current authorities is acceptable, or at least tamely accepted?
No easy answer. Tony Brenton did not shrug and walk away from the struggle.
I would have been a strong candidate for to replace him had I not decided to leave the FCO, and Do Something Else.
So, good luck Anne. You will need it.