U.S. Envoy Ignites Russia Controversy With Bribe Accusation

Russia accused U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul of breaching diplomatic protocol by saying his host country bribed Kyrgyzstan to close an American air base.

McFaul in a May 25 lecture at the Moscow Higher School of Economics said Russia bought off the impoverished Central Asian state in 2009 as part of geopolitical rivalry with the U.S., according to the Russian state news service RIA Novosti. The remarks were “unprofessional” and went “far beyond the limits of diplomatic etiquette,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website late yesterday.

“This is not the first time that statements and actions by Mr. McFaul, who holds an important position, have been a cause for concern,” the ministry said. “Our understanding is that an ambassador’s role is to promote bilateral ties and not to spread blatant falsehoods through the media.”

Ties between Russia and the U.S. have become strained over Western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a bid by U.S. lawmakers to sanction Russian officials for human rights abuses and a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe.

President Vladimir Putin, who was re-elected to a third Kremlin term in March, stepped up anti-American rhetoric during the campaign, when he was facing down protests by tens of thousands of people over alleged fraud in December parliamentary elections.

Stirring Up Unrest

McFaul, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on Russian affairs, was accused by state television and pro-government lawmakers in January of seeking to stir up revolution after hosting opposition activists during the mass unrest.

In March, McFaul apologized for calling Russia a “wild country” after journalists from state-run NTV channel followed him to a meeting with a human-rights activist in Moscow.

A former Stanford University professor and non-career diplomat, McFaul has been using Twitter Inc. and the blog-hosting site LiveJournal to broadcast his message, and posted links to the online account of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The ministry also criticized McFaul for questioning the professionalism of state English-language satellite broadcaster RT’s reporting in the U.S.

In response to the statement, McFaul said on his Twitter Inc. account that he is “still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically.”

Kyrgyz ‘Bribe’

Kyrgyzstan, the only country in the world that hosts Russian and U.S. military installations, decided in 2009 to evict the U.S. from its Manas air base after receiving a $2 billion aid package from Russia. The Kyrgyz government later that year reversed the decision when the U.S. raised the rent to $60 million a year from $17.4 million to keep the facility, used to supply troops in Afghanistan.

“I won’t be diplomatic, I’ll say openly that your country paid off Kyrgyzstan to kick the Americans out of Manas,” McFaul was quoted as telling the students by RIA Novosti. He added that the U.S. also “offered a bribe” to Kyrgyzstan, “but 10 times less.”

The U.S Embassy in Moscow, which e-mailed a slide show used by McFaul at his May 25 speech, couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters today that McFaul should be more diplomatic if he wants to defend U.S. interests.

Be Diplomatic

“He himself said when he was speaking about Kyrgyzstan that ‘I won’t be diplomatic,’ but it seems to me that ambassadors actually should be diplomatic,” Ushakov said. “When ambassadors are defending their countries’ interests, they should focus on being positive.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last month said comments by McFaul that his country won’t accept any restrictions on its missile defense plans were “arrogant,” according to RIA Novosti.

“The Russians can be pretty rough on ambassadors they disapprove of, as I know,” said Tony Brenton, U.K. ambassador to Russia from 2004 to 2008, who was hounded by pro-Kremlin youth activists after attending an opposition conference.

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