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Russia Is Closed
The Decision to Bar Luke Harding May Not Have Had the Blessing of the Kremlin or Foreign Ministry, but It May Still Harm Ties With the UK

Russian Foreign Ministry TowerIn an apparent roundabout turn, possibly done to limit damage to the ties with Britain, Russia's Foreign Ministry has said that British journalist Luke Harding can return to Russia if he gets his papers in order, despite being barred entry by the secret services. The Guardian's Harding was held at passport control at a Moscow airport on Saturday, where a security services official apparently uttered the Bond villain-esque "for you, Russia is closed." Harding was then placed on a flight back to London and his Russian visa was annulled.

Members of Parliament in London subsequently urged the Foreign Office to spike the UK's invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who is due on a visit to London next week. Later that day the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Harding was simply denied entry because he infringed a "whole raft of rules of work for foreign correspondents," and he had not picked up his newly extended accreditation from the Foreign Ministry toward the end of last year. "In this way, if L.Harding is still interested in working in Russia for the duration of his current entry visa's validity, then he must sort out the problems linked with his accreditation," it said.

It is unclear how Harding is supposed to pick up his accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, given that his Russian visa has been annulled. The Guardian, meanwhile, was "baffled" by the ministry's response. "Failure to collect his press card before leaving urgently on a trip to London is manifestly not a plausible reason for detaining Luke at the airport and refusing him entry to Russia," it said in a statement.

Analysts say the Foreign Ministry's apparent reverse decision last night actually provides a rare glimpse into the decision-making processes in Russian politics, as the U-turn suggests that whoever ordered Harding's expulsion has now been overruled by another figure. "I would suggest that there has been a mis-coordination between different agencies and different political players," said Masha Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Moscow Center.

"The Foreign Ministry statement was probably an attempt to repair the damage. For many in the West, this expulsion sounds like Russia has gone back to Soviet practices," Lipman added. Indeed, a major Russian broadsheet points to the same conclusion. Quoting presidential and Foreign Ministry "sources," Kommersant reported today that Harding's Saturday expulsion was a "misunderstanding," and that the FSB unilaterally took the decision to bar Harding without even consulting the Kremlin or the Foreign Ministry.

If true, the mixed signals emanating from the two powerful government bodies fly in the face of the common Western perception of the Russian government as a cohesive power, and instead hint at bureaucratic chaos and opaquely divided factions.

But another explanation of the debacle is that barring him was meant as a warning signal to Harding. "Maybe they wanted to warn him against infringing the rules that he did and wanted to send him a signal that his behavior in the North Caucasus is not entirely in line with the Russian Federation's law," said Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Observers say the motivation for his apparent expulsion could have been Harding's overtly critical Russia reporting and recent reference to Russia as a "mafia state," as well as Harding's April 2010 run-in with the authorities in Ingushetia. "It's strange and a little funny," said Melnikov. "There are some bureaucratic peculiarities to this matter, but on the other hand I can imagine that not everyone in Russia liked what he wrote."

The Guardian said that Harding was actually expelled from Russia in November, but that the British government managed to have his visa extended until May this year by lobbying the Russian government. "We did not make this public at the time," a spokesperson for the Guardian was quoted as saying, "but it discredits attempts to portray this week's expulsion as an administrative error."

Foreign Minster William Hague was on the first UK visit to Russia under its new coalition government, trying at the time to herald a thaw in UK-Russian ties while still recognizing irreconcilable differences, such as disagreement over extraditions. Still, at the moment it seems as though there could be more diplomatic fall-out to come after British Member of Parliament Chris Bryant demanded that Sergei Lavrov's planned visit to the UK be blocked.

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