Russia, Egypt and Libya: A kind-of-silver lining

Russian politics is in turmoil as a result of the uprisings in the Arab world, in particular the Egyptian revolution. Those fed up with an increasingly autocratic political system hope that Russian citizens will be energised, while those who came out on top following the collapse of the Soviet Union are quick to dismiss any implications for the Russian political scene.

The official Russian reluctance to embrace the winds of change in the Middle East contrasts with the reaction of the rest of the world and speaks volumes about the real state of Russian politics. While the invasion of Libya revived the spectre of British/ French/ Italian/ US imperialism on Africa’s north coast –” hardly a welcome development for Russia –” the implications of the Egyptian tidal wave now sweeping away corrupt, authoritarian politicians and their business cronies, without any need for French Exocet missiles and US-Israeli drones, is even more disturbing for the Kremlin, and it has nothing to do with Chechnya or Dagestan, where violence could hardly get worse as a result of a peaceful mass revolution like Egypt’s.

The lack of enthusiasm was a gut reaction by the leadership and has a very good cause, for despite the very different cultures and histories, ordinary Russians face much the same situation as did Egyptians prior to 25 January. Post-Soviet Russian politics has not allowed the real voice of Russians to be heard, as starkly demonstrated in 1993, when Yeltsin violently disbanded the parliament, and then in 1996, when the communist Gennadi Ziuganov won the presidential election, but was kept from office by the machinations of the Yeltsin clique and its Western backers.

Since then, Machiavellian “political technologists” have served up a dish which Ivan Krastev dubbed “sovereign democracy”, a combination of “directed democracy and nationalism”, an antidote to the dangerous combination of populist pressure from below and international pressure from above that destroyed the post-Communist Ukrainian, Georgian and Kyrgyz regimes in so-called colour revolutions.

The political elite managed to avoid the fate of those regimes and stabilise the rule of the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate, but in the process, returned Russia to the undemocracy of the Soviet period, replacing the communists’ social welfare and anti-imperialist foreign policies with a dash of pluralism. The Arab spring is no phoney colour revolution, and what is happening in Egypt is a frightening affair for the Russian elite, both supporters of the more nationalist Putin and those of the more Europhile Medvedev. Though Putin scandalously contradicted his president by criticising the Western invasion of Libya as a “Crusade”, few in Russia take this spat seriously.

Their rivalry may add some spice to Russian politics, but the main ingredients are unchanged. Medvedev strives to carry out the Westernisers’ programme, while Putin plays a rearguard defence, at times praising the Soviet legacy and condemning Western threats and invasions. Indeed, as Israel Shamir notes, “only Putin stands between the people’s anger and the fat cats of Moscow. Russians know that the oligarchs and top Kremlin figures are perfectly integrated into the Western capitalist scheme: they keep their money in Bahamas, they send their children to Oxford, they own houses on the Riviera and Hampstead, they own shares in the transnational companies. And together with their Western chums, they fleece Russians.”

The Medvedev-Putin duo are a packaged deal –” if one goes, the whole post-Soviet set-up totters. The elites they jointly represent have good cause to fear the example that Egyptian revolutionaries have set. However, there is one important plus for the would-be Russian Westernisers in the Kremlin deriving from the unrest sweeping the Arab world. Whereas until a few months ago, NATO visits to Ukraine and Georgia were continuing to embarrass the proponents of the US-Russian “restart button”, the noise of bombs exploding in Libya and tear gas in Yemen and Bahrain is drowning out the calls for NATO’s expansion eastward. Nikolas Gvosdev explains that “both Russia and Poland sense the operation [in Libya] may prove to be a turning point in the future direction of the North Atlantic alliance.”

No longer is NATO pushing eastward, threatening a now compliant Russia, concerned with maintaining its hegemony in its “near abroad”, but posing no threat to Western Europe.

Thus the refusal of Russian UN Ambassador Vladimir Chamov to veto UNSC Resolution 1973, clearly a ploy to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi using pious UN platitudes like “Responsibility to Protect”. Russia last used its precious UN veto in 2008 to prevent sanctions against Zimbabwe, and more famously in 1999 to prevent a UN bombing of Serbia. The Libyan resolution was just as cynical as either of these, but elicited only an abstention. (China merely followed suit so as not to be the odd-man-out.)

The Russian people are strongly against the operation; it is being called Kosovo-2 in Moscow. For them, “a Western intervention is a Western intervention, one of many they were on the receiving end of,” writes Shamir.

The other puzzle here is the refusal of Poland and Germany to jump on the Libyan bandwagon. The answer lies in the implications of this new NATO project for Europe and the central role French President Nicolas Napoleon (excuse me, Sarkozy) is playing in it. If Russia approves NATO’s shift from eastward to southward and moves closer to the West, Poland loses its importance as a frontline state “keeping the Russians at bay”. So it is unhappy with developments. As for Germany, unlike France, it has been anxious to expand economically eastward, to incorporate Russia into a broader Eurasian association where it will call the shots. It was suspicious of Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union, patched together by Sarkozy in 2008, from the start and, like Poland, is against the NATO intervention in Libya.

The Mediterranean Union brings together all the Mediterranean countries and the EU, including Israel, sans Libya. At the same time, NATO has been pursuing the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)), and the GCC+4 (+ Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, US). The latter was heralded in 2007 as the “NATO of the Middle East”, the successor to the Middle East Defense Organisation (MEDO) set up in the early 1950s to include Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and others.

This shift makes sense for both Europe and the US. Afghanistan is a lost cause and will have to be abandoned soon. Much more rational to pour money and effort into the Mediterranean region, integrate Israel and (hopefully) pull in Iraq as this new MEDO gains traction. The invasion of Libya is just the thing to provide an ailing NATO with a new lease on life. AFRICOM, the latest arm of the US military command structure, will be more than glad to help out. The US is already mooting the possibility of sending ground troops to support its Libyan rebel allies, and with stick-in-the-mud Gaddafi gone –” who knows? –” maybe AFRICOM will find a new home in Tripoli. It is still stuck in Germany, as no other African government has dared to offer it residence.

From the French point of view, this shift “from an East-West divide and toward a North-South bridge”, as Gvozdev calls it, will kill no less than three birds with one stone: it gets rid of Gaddafi, it does not threaten European rapprochement with Russia, and it puts France back in the lead within the EU. Ruffling German and Polish feathers is neither here nor there for le général.

The US, like Russia was not keen with the development of events in the Arab world (particularly in strategic Egypt), as the pre-January 2011 order in the Middle East more or less suited the US fine. Much easier to deal with dictators who endure for decades and have sons eager to take their place. What will happen in Egypt now, or Libya for that matter, is far from clear, but it must make the best of the situation.

Like the Arab world, and in particular, Egypt, Russia is ripe for change. And the same recipe for changing the sorry state of things applies in both: a coalition of the left and the other opposition forces (in Russia, primarily the nationalists, in Egypt –” the Islamists). Counter-revolutionary strategy is also identical: more managed democracy, dividing the forces of revolution relying on slick campaigns by political technologists, supplemented by undercover tricks –” possibly “terrorist” acts, planted news items, stock exchange and currency instability, oil shocks and the like.

Egyptian revolutionaries surely wish like-minded Russians well. But as politicians in Moscow (not to mention Paris) watch NATO flounder in Afghanistan and now in Libya, and try out policies which suit their geopolitical needs regardless of their merit, it should be remembered that MEDO fell apart when Egypt had a revolution in 1952. It is not always possible to shape genuine revolutions to suit the needs of the old order and its foreign friends.