Saturday, August 6, 2011

To Russia, Relations With Arabs Are All About Interests

By Akram Baker
Why anyone would expect Russia to treat revolutionary events in the Arab world any differently than the pathetic and ham-fisted manner of the West is beyond me. Like any major power, Russia has interests; it has no principles. When we look through this lens at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev’s responses to the people power upheavals, we are able to better understand where the bear is coming from.
Russia’s deepest fear in this regard is the spread of these dangerous democratic movements to its own “near abroad” nations, or even the Russian heartland itself. The last thing it wants is an uprising aimed at the corrupt ruling classes anywhere in the regions of central Asia or the Caucasus (especially the north).
However, being a recent inductee into the so-called democratic international community, Russia’s leadership is not free to verbalize this. Both pillars of Russian power, the prime ministry and the presidency – while not always in synch anymore – are lockstep when it comes to this issue. They both pay lip service to democracy and democratic freedoms, but honestly would prefer not to say a thing.
The most critical and obvious factors driving Russia’s thinking toward the Arab region are, as always, twofold: economic and political. As representatives of a sophisticated power, the leaders in the Kremlin do not look at the region as one mass of Arab rebels. Like their American counterparts, they are willing to confront this ruler or that one when it comes to beating up, shooting or detaining their own peoples, and to either look the other way or even openly support others doing the exact same thing.
A case in point: the United States was very, very slow in tossing Egypt’s aging President Hosni Mubarak under the proverbial bus, yet quick to condemn the madman in Tripoli and the kid thug in Damascus. At the same time, they sat so hard on their hands regarding the brutal repression by their allies in Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia), I was afraid they would never get up again.
Mirror this with Russia’s response to the latest events. Moscow has been spending an enormous amount of time and energy trying to gain control over the flow of North African gas to Western Europe in order to solidify its place as absolute kingpin of the European natural and heating gas market. The state-owned economic megapower, Gazprom, has a very substantial stake in Libya’s energy industry, especially the so-called “Elephant” oil field. The Russians are loath to put all that at risk for some pesky democracy protesters.
They are also worried about losing their estimated $4 billion worth of arms contracts with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. So what we hear from the banks of the Moskva is an almost American chorus of “restraint is called for by both sides, a ceasefire is the best possible solution” type of fence-sitting that would make U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proud. Russian saber-rattling was always going to be relatively tame, thereby allowing the West a somewhat free hand (within boundaries, of course) in its response to the Libyan regime.
Syria, however, is a completely different ballgame. Russia’s political, economic, cultural and educational ties run long and deep with the Alawite ruling clique in Damascus. I cannot imagine a situation where either Putin or Medvedev would discard President Bashar Assad like Obama finally did Mubarak. There is simply too much on the line for them. Short of an indigenous coup, where Assad is either expelled or killed, Moscow will not allow the West to do a Libya II on Syria. They would veto any United Nations Security Council resolution, and take real military steps to show that they mean business. And why shouldn’t they? The U.S. goes overboard in propping up the Israeli occupation and the decades-long repression of the Palestinian people – why shouldn’t Russia have its own pet nation?
The point is that Russia, like the Western nations, will only intercede on the side of angels when it suits its perceived national economic and security interests. The peoples of the Arab worlds are proving themselves to be braver and more determined than anyone ever thought they would be. I believe that time will prove them right and the bankrupt policies of both Russia and the West will be relegated to the dustbin of history, along with Joseph Stalin, Ferdinand Marcos and now Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali and Mubarak.
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 05/08/2011
-Akram Baker is an entrepreneur and independent political analyst. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter

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