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As Others See Us: The View from Russia (3)

THERE was a certain chilling gravity about the way the old Kremlin's news wire service would announce what amounted to official communiques.

"Tass is authorised to declare...." the agency would begin some of its most important dispatches. The phrase stuck, becoming the title of a now retro-cult spy thriller on early 1980s Soviet television.

The outlet, now renamed Itar-Tass, has lost some of its Cold War gravitas. But far from all of its Kremlin links.

So the ears of Scottish Russia watchers pricked up when the agency's London bureau published a quiet, routine report on Hogmanay.

Great Britain, the dispatch said, was "extremely interested in the support of Russia, as holder of the G8 presidency, in two vital areas in 2014: the Afghan pull-out and the Scottish independence referendum".

This was a Kremlin mouthpiece matter-of-factly reporting that No 10 wanted Russian help at the big G8 events of 2014 on two of its big "foreign" policy priorities. And one of those priorities was how we vote in September.

The Sunday Herald this weekend revealed the Tass dispatch to an English-language audience - and the SNP's angry response.

Alex Salmond and senior SNP ministers - who have their own global charm offensive and meet the same diplomats as their UK counterparts - suspect their cause is being rubbished by unionist politicians in Europe's diplomatic salons. Their opponents say nationalists are "paranoid".

Whitehall since Sunday has said it is "ridiculous" to suggest it was trying to use Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman president to whom Tass is ultimately responsible, to win Scottish "hearts and minds".

Fair enough: they are right; it would be ridiculous, which is why nobody has said that is what they are doing.

No, what Tass was suggesting - and the agency didn't appear to think this was remarkable - was that the British have to deal with Putin if it wants to get its message on Scotland over at the big G8 summit the Russian president is hosting in Sochi this June.

Reporters are itching to know what the message is. But we don't, not yet anyway. Is Cameron telling foreign leaders everything is OK and there's going to be a No vote? Or that the indyref, a proper democratic process, is a matter for the Scots?

Maybe, but Tass had another clue. It cited its No 10 source saying independence here would "send shockwaves across the whole of Europe".

The UK Government, while apparently distancing itself from claims it was asking Putin for help, seems to agree.

A source close to the Prime Minister told reporters that the Tass report reflected "the fact that the impact of Scottish independence will not just be felt in the UK but will have ramifications abroad".

Reporters were also told that Russian diplomats were concerned about the spread of separatism. Again, fair enough. Russia hasn't made any such concerns public. But its often compliant state media has been brutally hostile to independence.

Their worry: that Scottish independence will begin a "domino effect" as the multinational states of western Europe - such as the UK, Spain and Belgium - tumble like those of the east, the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, a generation ago.

Another Kremlin mouthpiece, Voice of Russia, once the Soviet-era Radio Moscow propaganda machine, has taken a staunchly unionist position on independence for what it calls our "subsidised region".

Voice of Russia recently aired the views of Igor Kovalyov, of Russia's Higher School of Economics, after he dismissed the likelihood of a Yes vote as "negligible".

The academic told the station: "Sovereignty would lead to colossal economic and political consequences both for those who separate and for those who do not.

"The seceding state would automatically lose its attractiveness for investors. Established economic ties would fall apart. And a whole series of serious political problems would emerge."

The state-owned broadcaster, in the same report, then cast doubt on the "sobriety" of the nationalist financial calculations for independence before getting to the main thrust of its analysis.

"Practically we are present at the beginning of a chain reaction," the radio station said. "If everything goes according to the worse-case scenario, a couple of dozen new mini-states could emerge on the European continent."

It went on to cite example after example of independence movements, from Portugal's Azores to Poland's Silesia. But no further east.

This is a typical narrative from Russia on our big vote next year. The same Voice of Russia has already talked of a "epidemic of separatism" in Europe. Other outlets and experts in Moscow talk of a "parade of sovereignties", the very language echoing the rush by Russian regions, such as Tatarstan, to declare "sovereignty" in the early 1990s as they sought greater autonomy.

Does this angst sound familiar? Lord George Robertson, the former Nato general secretary and Labour grandee, repeated Gordon Brown's famous warnings of the "Balkanisation of Britain" this month in the Washington Post.

So scroll forward a few months and imagine the leaders of G8 nations - including those, such as France, Canada, the United States believed to be hostile to the Yes project - gathering under Putin's roof in Sochi. Do you think they'll want to ask Cameron about Scottish independence as the ambassador's wife hands out the champagne and Ferrero Rocher?

Parts of this blog appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Herald on January 12, 2014.

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