Russia backed Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, until he fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, ending 23 years in power.
In early February, as demonstrators massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, President Dmitry Medvedev telephoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in a show of support. On Feb. 11, President Mubarak resigned, ending 30 years in power.
Through June, July and August, Russian diplomats and commentators bitterly sniped at the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Finally, on the eve of a Libya conference in Paris on Sept. 1, Russia recognized the rebel coalition, becoming the 75th country in the world to do so.
Even today, Duma members continue to publicly bemoan the overthrow of Moamar Gadhafi after 42 years in power.
One would think that after backing losers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Russia’s Foreign Ministry would have a rethink. In baseball, three strikes, and you are out.
But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is still at bat.
And now he faces the fourth major uprising of the Arab Spring — Syria.
Governments as diverse as those of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Britain and the United States are all saying, to varying degrees, that the 41-year rule of the al-Assad family should come to an end.
Over the last six months, according to a United Nations’ tally, President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have shot and killed 2,700 protesters, including at least 100 children. Despite this slow motion, nationwide bloodbath, protests show no sign of subsiding.
But when confronted about Syria, Russia’s foreign minister said on Monday that he opposes a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. Instead, he called for dialogue between President Assad and the opposition.
No one knows how Syria will play out in coming months.
But one thing is clear: Russia will emerge as a much reduced player in the Arab world. Until this year, Russia’s has had disproportionate influence in the Arab world, largely due to the momentum of old Soviet relationships and arms deals.
Now, Russia’s Arab friends are in hiding, in exile or on trial. After clinging to aging autocrats, Moscow now faces a steep, uphill battle to rebuild influence among new elites. The new powers in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli clearly recall which side the Kremlin took during the revolution.
Moscow’s reactionary foreign policy reflects a deep, widespread conservatism in Russia today. As Russia’s population ages and shrinks, many people are skeptical of the youth-led revolts of the Arab world.
In American terms, the 2011 Kremlin is like the 1968 White House: Richard Nixon surrounded by a conservative staff of World War II veterans appalled and mystified by the youth revolts going on around the world.
After a disastrous 20th century, many Russians still accept the conservative offer made in 2000 by then-candidate Vladimir Putin – peace and quiet and reasonable economic growth.
For many Russians today, the word “revolution” provokes cynicism at best — hostility at worst.
On a visit to the Kremlin, I once asked Dmitry Peskov, press secretary to then Prime Minister Putin, why Moscow’s riot police devoted so much energy to beating up and arresting “NatBols” – the National Bolshevists who showed up at demonstrations waving revolutionary red and black flags, often tied to sturdy sticks.
Peskov replied: “Hmmm, nationalists and Bolsheviks, black and red. Russia has had very unhappy experiences with both.”
24 hours after Russia Watch was posted, Russiyskaya Gazeta, a state-owned newspaper, published this interview by Russian Foreign Minister, outlining Moscow’s view on the Arab Spring:
9/22/2011 11:16:34 AM MSK
Middle East, North Africa undergo cardinal transformations – Lavrov
MOSCOW. Sept 22 (Interfax) – ‘The Arab spring’ has changed the Middle East and North Africa, which entered a period of transformations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview posted by the Wednesday issue of the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
“In light of the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and later in other countries the Middle East and North Africa region has since early 2011 been undergoing a cardinal transformation. What’s happening is in fact a change of regimes and practices that took shape back at the time of gaining independence by the peoples of those countries, the desire of popular masses for greater democracy, higher living standards and welfare, and unhindered access to universal human rights,” the minister said.
“In our estimation, these processes won’t be easy and the development of events isn’t going to be straightforward, of which there is already ample evidence. It is undoubted that the changes will have far-reaching consequences, resulting in an entirely different countenance of the region.
We are sympathetic to the aspirations of Arab peoples and their desire to live better and we believe that they themselves can and should determine their own destiny.
“So we are fundamentally opposed to interference in internal affairs, the imposition from the outside of ready-made development precepts and scenarios. It is important that the concepts of democratic reforms should be generated by the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa themselves with due respect for their civilizational traditions from outside players.
“Our fundamental interest is to see the Middle Eastern states stable, prosperous and developing along a democratic path. In the present circumstances the main task of the international community should be to help reforms in the Middle East, the elimination of threats emanating from the region to international stability and security, and the settlement of longstanding conflicts.
“Russia, given its close historical ties with the region, is ready for such work. We will continue to build our relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa based on mutual respect and reciprocally advantageous cooperation. These relations rest on a solid foundation, underpinned by decades of mutual friendly feelings of the peoples, rather than a momentary conjuncture,” he said.