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Should Australia court the Russian bear?


Kirribilli, NSWDisasters attract crowds. They break down barriers too, although usually only fleetingly. There's nothing like a catastrophe — a fire in the warehouse at the end of your street, say — to bring the neighbours out in their pyjamas. People who would never acknowledge each other by day start sharing stories in the flashing lights of the fire engines. Hopefully nobody dies, of course. The danger past, everyone goes back to bed. And next morning? A small wave to the person next door on your way to work, perhaps; then a week later, nothing.

The global financial crisis has had a similar effect on world leaders. G8; G20; loads of important people, all with something in common to talk about! But how many of these relationships will last beyond the crisis and past the usual diplomatic pledges to 'learn from our mistakes and build closer bonds'?

Russia is one of the countries that Australia has been bumping into at these crisis meetings.

Russia is one of the 'BRIC economies' (Brazil, Russia, India and China) which are heralded as the emerging economic heavyweights. As such it isn't hard to imagine frantic requests heading backwards and forwards to and from our Prime Minister's office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as advisers scrounge for interesting angles, to be deployed by Kevin Rudd as an icebreaker at his next meeting with Dmitry Medvedyev.

If you were sitting in a Sydney skyscraper, looking out over the harbour, chewing a pen, trying to think of some precedent for Australia's connection with distant Russia, you would have the answer sitting in front of you. At the northern foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is Kirribilli Point. But for most of Australia's white settlement, it has been known as Russian Point, for it was here that the first Russian ship, the Neva, dropped anchor in 1807, received with fireworks, friendship and a gala ball by Governor Bligh.

In the first century or so following that meeting, Russians developed a keen interest in Australia and her way of life, variously describing it as a 'working man's paradise', a 'key trading partner for the future', a leader in farming that could help Russia restructure her agriculture, and a land of egalitarian people even more sports-mad than the British: a sunny place 'where every farm has a tennis court'.

Most of all, the records suggest Russians admired a new people that had given the world 'the most systematic demonstration of democratic principles' anywhere, and a country which possessed 'the most democratic constitution in the world'.

During the First World War, the Financial Review even editorialised that Russia should supplant Germany as a strategic European post-war trading partner. But then came the October Revolution of 1917 and Russia's descent into social experiment. It put an abrupt end to bilateral relations.

Today, Russia faces great challenges. Just as in the mid-1980s, a sharp plunge in oil prices has exposed Russia's over-reliance on this plentiful resource, at the expense of making the hard and unglamorous efforts to develop a more sophisticated, diversified modern economy.

Russia's hundreds of banks are in dire need of better regulation. Petty corruption remains all too common. The denuded Russian agricultural sector needs expertise and technological renewal. The World Bank estimates that the crisis has pitched six million Russians out of a fledgling middle class.

These are facts, but not criticisms: Igor Stravinsky once said 'the right to criticise Russia is mine, because Russia is mine, and because I love her, and I do not give any foreigner that right'. His words give voice to a deep-seated part of the Russian soul. They are a cue to those world leaders who would seek to work with Russia most effectively.

Russia in the 21st century is, for all its faults, its own country. Others can press reset buttons; Australia might do differently. Australia can be a genuine partner in Russia's efforts to grow and diversify its post-crisis economy. Along the way, the southern land it so admired over 100 years ago will no doubt offer examples that Russia might benefit from, on its own terms.

Australia can benefit too: many of the areas in which Russia most needs a genuine partner are matters in which Australia has great expertise.

Australia's forgotten historical relationship with Russia has potential for building a shared future. Will it be realised? Will a relationship of depth and substance emerge?

Or when the fire is put out and the fire engines have left, will these neighbours head back sleepily to their beds and emerge the next morning without acknowledging one another?

Only Mr Rudd and Mr Medvedyev can answer that.

Luke Fraser is a transport and agriculture industry executive based in Canberra. He is also a Russian scholar and member of the Australia-Russia Business Council. His views are his own. His extended essay on the history and future of Australia-Russia relations can be found here. Photo by Rodney Haywood.

Topic tags: Australia, Russia, Global Financial Crisis, rudd, Medvedyev, Kirribilli Point, Russian Point, neva, bligh



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Existing comments

Luke Fraser is a fine essayist. I didn't know about the nineteenth century Russian admiration for things 'Australian'. As we didn't have our own distinctive Australian accent until the 1830's, I guess we would have been English Colonists in those days. It would have been great if Luke had referenced some of his fascinating quotes.

The year 1807 was the year of the Battle of Trafalgar. Could that have sweetened the arrival of England's Russian ally in the opinion of Governor Bligh? What does Luke think?

Claude Rigney | 09 September 2009  

Claude, thanks for your kind words. I'd imagine that 6 months out from the Rum Rebellion, Bligh was just happy to see another British Naval officer! As to the references, you can find the bulk of them sourced in Elena Govor's definitive work Australia in the Russian Mirror: Changing Perceptions 1770-1919. Melbourne University Press should be able to dig you out a copy.

Luke Fraser | 10 September 2009  

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