Russia: backing losers

Hichem Karoui

The Gulf Today, February 04, 2012

Russia showed contempt for the entire Arab world, not only because it chose willingly to support an Arab regime involved in crimes against humanity, but also because it literally spat on the Arab League’s initiative, which — despite its shortcomings — is still an attempt to ease the pains of the Syrian people. Russia sided with the losers out of an apparent resentment towards the Arab Spring. Why “losers” and why “resentment,” would you ask? Let’s begin with the second….

Why the resentment?

Moscow has taken what is rightly described as a counter-revolutionary stance in Syria and seems voluntarily siding with a doomed despotic government. Is this a rational choice? Is it dictated by Russia’s interests or by other considerations?

Ostensibly, there are much more similarities between Russia and Syria than Moscow may be willing to admit.

First, although it professes a commitment to democracy, Russia is still far away from it. The corrupt bureaucratic structure of the Putin-Medvedev regime is beyond doubt a receipt for democratic failure, resistance to modernisation, and rejection of peaceful reforms. We won’t be surprised if a revolution (of the Arab kind) spreads over to reach Russia, whose power elite is still convinced of a plot against Arabs. Remember Medvedev’s first take of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. He was shocked: “We must face the truth,” he said. “In the past, such a scenario was harboured for us, and now attempts to implement it are even more likely. In any case, this plot will not work.”

The Russian narrative of the conspiracy theory implicated Western intelligence services in hatching Arab revolutions through the manipulation of social networks.
This is also, what is still officially admitted in Damascus. Yet, when they move away from the paranoid discourse, the Russian leaders adopt a despising attitude towards the Arab peoples. This seems crystal-clear when Putin describing Qadhafi’s regime as “warped and ugly monarchy,” yet argued that “on the whole, it satisfies the local public mentality and political practice.” For the last inheritor of Stalin, to imagine that “the local public mentality and political practice” could be fed up and hoping for a better government was too much.

 

Yet, there is more than the simple “solidarity” between two corrupt regimes. Moscow might well be afraid of these revolutions occurring in the Arab world. After all, Islamists are today the new majorities in Tunisia and Egypt, and who knows where else, next? Why should this wave stop at the borders of Iran? What would prevent it from spreading over towards the Caucasus in the north and Central Asia populated by Muslims? Violence in the north Caucasus has preceded the Arab Spring, and the images of protesters in the streets of the Arab cities may strike the imagination of many people in the Caucasus and trigger the rebellion.
The same may be said about unrest in Central Asia: southern Kyrgyzstan since 2010; an almost imploding situation in Tajikistan; and an Uzbekistan on the verge of revolt because of the despotic regime.

Add to these concerns, the panic about losing such a good “client” as Syria, a key player in the Middle East geopolitical game. This is not new. The former Soviet Union was a long-time ally of Syria and a main supplier of arms to the Syrian military. Soviet advisers and military personnel were welcomed by the late Syrian president Hafiz Al Assad, even as Soviet relations with other Arab governments, such as Egypt, deteriorated after successive Arab defeats in the wars with Israel.

It is estimated that the Soviet Union provided Syria with up to $26 billion worth of arms until 1991. Between 1999 and 2003, Russian-Syrian military relations revived. In 2005, while cancelling most of Syria’s $13.4 billion debt from previous arms agreements, Russia was still and remains to date its primary arms supplier. In May 2010, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev visited Syria, and a little later reports appeared about new arms agreements. Today, the regime is using this Russian arsenal against its own people.

Why is Russia losing?

Before the widespread unrest that broke out on Jan.26, 2011, Syria’s brand of authoritarianism sounded well established. Protesters called for political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights, as well as an end to the state of emergency which has been in place since 1963. However, it is clear today, that a robust security response may never succeed to stem the tide of popular discontent, as the Syrian regime seems unable to find an alternative strategy that might achieve this objective. In short, many observers agree that the regime is now beyond the point where it might be possible to implement a programme of peaceful and gradual reforms.

According to several surveys and reports, the signs are not good for the regime. The increasingly united front in the West against the regime of Assad emphasised the political vulnerability of its trade dependence on the West, becoming Achilles’ heel. The economy is crumbling, as the combination of a crashing tourism sector, falling foreign direct investment, and the tightening of Western sanctions has dried up foreign currency flows.

Some reports suggest that the reserves of the Central Bank of Syria are being depleted at a rate of $70 million-$80 million per week as part of an effort to stem the depreciation of the pound in the parallel market. The situation is not going to improve even with Russia and China blocking the move of the Arab League in the International Security Council.

The most painful blow to the economy has been the restrictions imposed on the trade with the EU, previously the destination for more than 90 per cent of Syrian exports. The expansion of the current account deficit (about 6 per cent of GDP) is expected, as the result of these disruptions. Political uncertainty will also discourage investment by domestic businesses, creating the danger of an increase in unemployment that would reinforce any decline in consumer spending.

If these tendencies continue, and nothing in the current situation suggests that the regime is able to halt or slow the pace of the general collapse, the question that Russia would have to face is: how does it feel to lose with such a stubborn blindness?

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