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A Response To Russian Embassy In United Kingdom – OpEd

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On 2 November, the Henry Jackson Society hosted a parliamentary event featuring Luke Harding, The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent and the first Western reporter to be deported from Russia since the Cold War, timed to the release of his new book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became An Enemy of the Brutal New Russia.

The event was an opportunity for Mr Harding to describe his tenure as an investigative journalist in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and to give an account of the circumstances of his deportation.

Prior to the event, HJS had an email from the Russian Embassy in London requesting that Minister Counsellor Alexander Kramarenko be allowed to attend to “take the floor and express his opinion.” HJS replied that Mr Kramarenko would certainly be welcome at the event to “ask a question and express his opinion.”

By this we did not expect a seven-minute pre-written statement to be read out, beginning with a quotation from Winston Churchill. But, evidently, that’s exactly what Mr Kramarenko thought he had license to do.

On 3 November, the embassy issued a press release accusing HJS and the event moderator, Fabian Hamilton MP, of denying Mr Kramarenko his “freedom of speech”.

Uncharacteristically for an embassy press release, this one went on to provide a helpful historical lesson about where such alleged restrictions on open and honest debate may lead: “[I]t was the choice of living in denial, in an intellectual cocoon and being closed to a free reasoned debate that ultimately doomed the neocons in the US and earlier the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union with similar destructive consequences for both countries and the wider world.”

For a verbatim account of Mr Kramarenko’s intervention at the Luke Harding event, please see the following transcript:

Fabian Hamilton MP:

Thank you, Luke. I know we have a guest from the Russian Embassy here; would you like to ask a question?

Alexander Kramarenko, Minister Counsellor of the Russian Embassy to the United Kingdom:

I would like to speak up, to speak my mind.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

The main aim of this meeting is obviously to let people ask questions and get responses from our guest, Luke Harding. I’d be more than happy for you to ask any questions you wish and I’m sure Luke will respond to them. I’m trying to discourage statements; I appreciate you want to respond.

Alexander Kramarenko:

I think I have accepted the invitation, which I value, on the condition that I am able to speak my mind.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

How long do you want to speak for? We are limited for time.

Alexander Kramarenko:

Seven minutes.

Davis Lewin, Political Director of the Henry Jackson Society:

Sorry, the conversation with the embassy was very clear that the invitation was accepted on the basis of a very brief intervention, certainly nothing that alluded to a seven minute statement.

Alexander Kramarenko:

What about freedom of speech?

Fabian Hamilton MP:

Well, that is what this meeting is about, we are talking about that. I am in an awkward position here because obviously we have a lot of people in this room who want to ask questions. I’ll be more than pleased to hear your comments or questions that you wish to ask, but I think seven minutes is a long time and we have to be out of here by seven.

Alexander Kramarenko:

It means that you are not interested.

Luke Harding:

We are interested.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

Can I ask you, sir, where you can abbreviate your seven minutes perhaps to three or four minutes. Is that possible?

Alexander Kramarenko:

I will try to. I have a written text but I will be as quick as I can be and I hope for your indulgence. Winston Churchill also wrote…

Davis Lewin:

I think we’re not talking about something to do with Winston Churchill. We’re talking with something to do with perhaps a communications problem in the office, because, as I said, it was quite clear on the phone with your colleagues that we were talking about a short intervention, something like two minutes or asking a question, so I don’t think that it’s something that goes into the realm of freedom of speech or not. We were very clear about it. If there is something that you have to contribute in that kind of frame, then I think that we should, but otherwise, I’m sorry, we did discuss this with your office under those parameters quite clearly.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

If, say, you’d like to make a short intervention, then I’m sure we’d be very happy to hear it. I’ve been trying to cut down people’s length of questions so we get as many in as possible. I don’t really want to waste anymore time. If you are able to give us a short intervention…

Alexander Kramarenko:

You think that a debate is a waste of time.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

I certainly don’t, but in a way, this isn’t a debate. This isn’t a debate, it is a chance to hear what Luke has to say, and to ask him any questions about the points he has made, and we would be more than pleased to hear any points or questions you have to ask, but I do want to give everybody the chance to ask their questions too.

Alexander Kramarenko:

I am feeling disappointed.

Fabian Hamilton MP:

I am disappointed too.

Alexander Kramarenko:

Nobody is interested, what is the point of my presence here?

Davis Lewin:

Sir, sorry, I just simply don’t accept the premise of your intervention. I do not for a moment accept that this is an issue of freedom of speech. We had a conversation with your office that called our office and asked if you could make a very brief intervention. The lady on the phone was clear what kind of an intervention we are talking about. It was not a second panellist; it was an intervention from the floor, something that takes no longer than two minutes, or a question, and frankly I think we are done wasting time discussing the nature of the intervention. If there is something that you would like to contribute, please do, otherwise let’s go back to the floor now.

We regret that Mr Kramarenko chose to leave the event rather than ask a question of the panelist.

The Henry Jackson Society will be releasing the full transcript of the proceedings in the coming days.

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The Henry Jackson Society

The Henry Jackson Society: Project for Democratic Geopolitics is a cross-partisan, British-based think-tank. Its founders and supporters are united by a common interest in fostering a strong British and European commitment towards freedom, liberty, constitutional democracy, human rights, governmental and institutional reform and a robust foreign, security and defence policy and transatlantic alliance.

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