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Russia challenges US in the Islamic world

Russia challenges US in the Islamic world
By M K Bhadrakumar


When US President George W Bush named Karachi-born Pakistani American Sada Cumber as the first US envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the White House announcement of February 27 almost passed off as pork-barrel politics on the part of a lame-duck administration. Cumber is a Texan entrepreneur - and so was Bush.

Cumber is founder of CACH Capital Management based in Austin, Texas, which is a high-performance wealth management firm with acumen and expertise in rendering advisory services to Muslim countries flushed with disposable petrodollar sovereign wealth funds. But then wouldn't Bush know the OIC is not an institution for investment selection and portfolio structure?

White House press secretary Dana Perino explained that Bush considered the OIC to be an important organization and that's why he appointed a special envoy. She said, "The [OIC] has a constructive role to play in the world, and the president is signaling our desire to have a greater dialogue with the organization as well as Muslims around the world." But the OIC has been existence for 39 years - and Muslims for over a millennium. Why now?

In June last year Bush first articulated the thought of deputing an envoy to the OIC. Why the delay? When the media asked Perino why Bush had taken so long, she merely said, "He [Bush] wanted to find the right person and he found that in Sada Cumber."

Islamic card in Kosovo
There is reason to believe, however, that it was in the month of February that the Bush administration woke up to a new reality that cultivating the 57-member OIC could indeed make all the difference in the years to come. Around that time, Washington almost instinctively played the "Islamic card" against Moscow, and found to its dismay that what used to be a highly dependable and potent trump card in Cold War politics is no longer so, and, in fact, it turned out to be a dud card.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov succinctly captured Washington's "OIC heartache" when he commented in an interview with the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, "It is not without meaning that many nations, including Islamic states, do not intend to recognize Kosovo's independence."

With a touch of sarcasm, Lavrov underscored post-Soviet Russia's reversal of roles with the US in the Muslim world. He added, "I would like to caution against the temptation to succumb to exhortations that are coming from non-Arab and non-Islamic countries but are addressed precisely to Islamic countries to display Islamic solidarity and recognize Kosovo. For, the situation in Kosovo is the most striking example of ethnic separatism."

He was cautioning the Islamic world to be wary of the US attempt to "Islamize" the geopolitical setting in the Balkans. He warned, "Disturbances have also begun in other regions of the world. To encourage separatist tendencies, I believe, is immoral. You see what is happening in China's autonomous region of Tibet, the way the separatists are acting there ... And then developments in other parts of the world as well suggest that we see only the beginning of an extremely explosive process. And those who follow this path should not call for a show of solidarity, whether Islamic or Euro-Atlantic. They ought to think of their responsibility in the first place."

Soon after his interview in Moscow, Lavrov set out on yet another extended tour of the Middle East, but starting with the eleventh summit of the OIC at Dakar, Senegal, on March 13, which was he attending as an "observer" for the second time in a row.

Among the many laurels that Russian President Vladimir Putin gathers as his eight-year tumultuous stewardship in the Kremlin draws to a close, it is often overlooked that history will most certainly judge him as a great bridge-builder between Russia and the Muslim world. Putin's achievement is extraordinary since Russia had a complex, difficult and hugely controversial relationship with the Islamic world for the better part of the last century.

To be sure, Putin's effective handling of the Chechnya problem helped remove a potentially debilitating embarrassment with regard to the Muslim world. But that shouldn't detract from the singular success of his policy in ensuring that no adversary can today hope to get away with manipulating the Muslim world against Moscow in "civilizational" terms in the fashion in which the West managed to do through the Soviet era.

Russia, instead, today is well placed to offer its good offices to mediate a dialogue of civilizations between the Christian West and the Islamic East. In fact, Lavrov in his speech at the Dakar summit of the OIC drew the attention of the Islamic world to the "situation of Muslims in the European countries and the attempts by some politicians to stir up Islamophobia".

Religions as a panacea for conflicts
Being no longer a citadel of atheism has certainly helped the Kremlin. But it is altogether a new level of exhilaration of the mind and intellect to be able to transmute the newfound religious belief into a hardcore political agenda. Lavrov went on the offensive at Dakar and assured the OIC that Russia is determined to "make its major contribution to ensuring Europe's civilizational compatibility and promoting tolerance, in particular towards different faiths". He expressed hope that "a Christian Europe would have been able to find common grounds with other religions more easily".

In a major political initiative at Dakar, Lavrov sought the support of the OIC for a Russian proposal that an "advisory council of religions" should be set up under the auspices of the United Nations, predicated on the estimation that "the involvement of the religious factor could be of help in settling different conflicts through strengthening confidence and concord of all parties based on international law with full respect of the UN role in international affairs".

The proposal altogether elevates Moscow's two-year "dialogue" with the OIC since it gained observer status in the organization to a qualitatively new level. Moscow would know that Washington cannot match the Russian initiative, but at the same time would be hard-pressed to oppose it. Washington's predicament is that it has no effective way of countering Moscow's insistent claim that as a multinational and multi-faith society with a centuries-old history, "Russia is also a part of the Islamic world", to quote Lavrov.

Moscow identifies with Palestine


But it isn't a matter of one-upmanship. Russia currently enjoys several advantages over the US. The entire regional scenario in the Middle East is loaded against the US. The Bush administration is seen as primarily motivated by Israeli interests. There is a pervasive trust deficit even among the old US allies.

Israel-Palestine relations have deteriorated recently. The acute humanitarian crisis has further deepened in Gaza, compounded by the mindless Israeli military operations with tacit US support. The level of violence has increased sharply since mid-January. The peace process of the Annapolis conference of last November has run aground. The continued exclusion of Hamas by Israel and the US as a full-fledged political participant makes nonsense of the peace process.

On all these fronts, Russia today happens to be standing on the right side of the fence. Moscow has stepped up consultations and coordination with Syria; it unequivocally condemns the construction of Jewish settlements; it seeks the lifting of the Israeli blockade against the Palestinian territories; it keeps in regular touch with the Hamas leadership - Lavrov again met Khaled Meshal in Damascus last week, and, furthermore, he has got Israel to learn to live with such contacts.

The resonance of Russia's Middle Eastern stances in Arab opinion is extremely favorable for Moscow. Meanwhile, Iraq weighs around the American neck as an albatross. Moscow has sized up that the US is bogged down in a protracted guerrilla war in Iraq. As a Moscow commentator wrote recently, "The end of this conflict is not in sight. Intensive mine warfare is being waged on Iraqi roads. Not a single allied convoy passes without an explosion. Road mining has assumed such a scale that the US Air Force is using its strategic B-1B bombers for remote mine clearance. Weapons and ammunitions are freely crossing Iraq's lengthy and difficult-to-control borders, while the continued occupation is increasing the mobilization potential of the guerrilla movement."

Again, if three quarters of politics in the Middle East are about public perceptions, it works to the advantage of Moscow when it insinuates that American oil companies are siphoning off Iraq's oil wealth and are making a killing out of high oil prices (though these are also provideing Russia with a windfall); that the US strategy is to establish political and military control over the region; that the US "simply does not want stabilization in Iraq, and will keep a sustained conflict"; that the Bush administration may deliberately launch an intensive air attack against Iran with the sole purpose of crippling Iran's military and economic infrastructure, which would make Tehran's "claims to regional leadership unrealistic for a long time to come", to quote Moscow commentators.

Russia is now shifting gear and is extending its involvement in the Middle East by directly challenging the US's traditional dominance of the region. Lavrov made as the signal tune of his regional tour the Russian proposal to sponsor an international conference on the Middle East. The Arab countries have nothing against the Russian proposal, though they doubt its efficacy, but Israel bristles. Moscow is aware that Washington expects Israel to stifle the proposal. The issue, again, becomes one of public perceptions. Lavrov tauntingly told the Western media while on a visit to Paris on March 11, "My trip to the Middle East next week will make it clear finally who is ready for a [international] conference, and who is not. If all the parties are ready for that, we will hold such a conference."

Lavrov claimed all the so-called Quartet members - the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - have "already shown an interest" in Moscow hosting the international conference. Washington would be seething with irritation that it couldn't afford to publicly contradict the Russian claim.

Similarly, the Kremlin's policy criss-crosses the "Shi'ite-Sunni" divide that the Bush administration meticulously tried to erect on the Middle East and the Persian Gulf chessboard in recent years. Moscow stresses the "civilizational" aspect of the crisis and dilutes the relevance of the sectarian barriers that the US encourages in the Muslim world. In his message to the Dakar summit, Putin stressed the "danger of the world divided between religions and civilizations", while he called for efforts "aimed at preventing an inter-faith and inter-ethnic divide".

To be sure, the Russian policy spontaneously strikes a chord of affinity in the Muslim psyche when Moscow blames the Western world for portraying Islam as a religion that drives international terrorism, whereas, the issue, Russian thinkers maintain, really concerns manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism. As the doyen of Russian "Orientalists" and former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov wrote in an essay some two years ago when the Kremlin's new thinking towards the Muslim world began to surface, "Islamic fundamentalism is about building mosques, observing Islamic rites, and providing assistance to the faithful. But aggressive, extremist Islamic fundamentalism is about using force to impose an Islamic model of governance on the state and society."

With a strong undertone of irony, Primakov pointed out, "History knows of periods when Christian fundamentalism grew into Christian-Catholic extremism: Remember the Jesuits or the Crusades."

Economic gains of friendship
But everything in the Russian policy is not about politics and history, either. Ultimately, Moscow places emphasis on the expansion of economic interests. The "peace dividend" of Russia's growing friendship with the Islamic world is already not inconsiderable in economic terms. In January, for instance, Russia won an US$800 million tender to construct a 520-kilometer railway line in Saudi Arabia. The Russian arms export monopoly, Rosoboronexport, is on record that Russia was discussing supply of T-90 tanks and armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia worth $1 billion.

Again, Russia delivered to Egypt upgraded S-125 Pechora-2M and Tor M-1 air defense systems despite US control over Cairo's military-technical policy. On Tuesday, Russia signed a path-breaking agreement with Egypt allowing Russian companies to build nuclear power plants in Egypt and envisaging Russia providing training for Egyptian nuclear technicians and supplying nuclear fuel.

Evidently, Cairo expects that cooperation with Russia will be more advantageous since the US imposes strict conditions, including regular inspections and control. The US has been pressuring Egypt to place its nuclear program under American control, even as a tender is expected to be floated later this year for Egypt's first nuclear power plant estimated to cost about $2 billion.

Indeed, politics and business are developing between Russia and Egypt on parallel tracks. Speaking after the signing of the Russia-Egypt nuclear power agreement in Moscow, Putin said in the presence of visiting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the two countries will work together as "mediators" to end Israel-Palestine violence and that they saw eye-to-eye on the criticality of an accord between Hamas and Fatah before progress could be made on forming an independent Palestinian state.

No less important is the return of the Russian oil company LUKoil to Iraq. The company had a contract with the regime of Saddam Hussein, signed in 1997, to develop Iraq's largest oil field, West Qurna-2, which has estimated reserves of about 6 billion barrels of oil.

On Wednesday, following talks in Baghdad by a Russian team led by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Saltanov, the prospects have brightened for reviving LUKoil's production-sharing agreement over West Qurna-2. (Chevron has been reportedly keen to jettison LUKoil and secure West Qurna-2). Again on Wednesday, one of Russia's largest engineering firms in the oil sector, Stroytransgaz, signed a protocol on reconstructing the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline connecting north Iraqi fields to the Syrian port of Baniyas.

Coincidence or not, the very next day, on Thursday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Moscow, "We are urging political and religious leaders in Iraq to do their utmost to end this fratricidal conflict, creating the necessary conditions for building a democratic and prosperous state. Moscow is convinced that a path to settling the crisis in Iraq lies through comprehensive dialogue, the search for compromise, and the achievement of real national reconciliation and accord between all ethnic and religious communities in the country."

The Russian challenge is indeed becoming serious for Washington. Kosovo was a wake-up call over the decline of US influence and the rise in Russia's prestige in the Islamic world. Conceivably, the White House press secretary had a point when she admitted Bush had a hard time locating a personality endowed with the genius of a Renaissance man to be the US's special envoy to the OIC. Cumber's background at CACH Capital does give him a keen insight into how economic integration affects the political and cultural relationship between the US and the Muslim world.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

Asia Times Online :: Central Asian News and current affairs, Russia, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan

 

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