US-Russia Relations Against the Backdrop of World-wide Muslim Protests

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US-Russia Relations Against the Backdrop of World-wide Muslim Protests
Published 24-09-2012, 09:46

In recent weeks, the world’s media have been focused on a new wave of anti-American (and broadly anti-Western) protests in Islamic countries, triggered by the appearance on YouTube of a trailer for an obscure amateur film deeply offensive to Muslims. Clearly intent on inflaming believers of Islam and perhaps further exacerbating America’s relations with the Muslim world, the film’s makers have achieved their objectives. Apart from the daring attack on a NATO base in Afghanistan on 15th September that killed two US marines, the most tragic event to date was the murder on 11thSeptember of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other US officials.

An outrage of this kind was certainly not meant to happen in a country that only last year was freed from the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi with the critical support of NATO and, in particular, the United States. Indeed, the flimsy security arrangements at the US consulate in Benghazi speak volumes about Washington’s naivete in believing that the «embedding of democracy” in Libya would automatically turn most of its citizens into America’s best friends.

Russia, along with China, has been the staunchest opponent of the US’s „promotion of democracy” in the wake of the Arab Spring and especially since the outbreak of near civil war in Syria. So it is not surprising that Russian commentators have pounced on America’s travails in the Middle East. For example, Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, American leaders should not expect „one word of sympathy" from their Russian counterparts. For his part, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov strongly condemned the attack in Benghazi, reiterating the necessity of combining forces to fight the evil of terrorism.

  • Do these recent tragic events support the view that Washington should abandon its new cold war against Russia and promote, instead, a Russo-US alliance? After all, both great powers are clearly on the same side in the ongoing „clash of civilizations” eagerly fomented by radical Islamists.

  • Is such a change of direction at all imaginable in the case of Washington? If so, what steps should the US take to make a tangible difference during the new presidency?

  • For its part, should Moscow too make some concessions? Is there not least some truth in the Western claim that modernization of the Arab world necessities at least a measure of democracy?

The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor (New York University, Prague)

Experts Panel Contributions

Anatoly Karlin,

Da Russophile

The American democratization agenda for the Middle East appears to be based around two premises: (1) The Arabs want the strongmen out; (2) They desire a Western-style liberal democracy. Consequently, aggressively supporting the transition should ease the US into the Arabs' good graces – with all its attendant, oily benefits.

The first point is largely true. The second is not. Although large majorities of Arabs support concepts such as „democracy" and «free speech" in opinion polls, they should not be taken at face value. That is because similarmajorities also support stoningfor adultery and the death penalty for apostasy. In these circumstances the very idea of a «liberal democracy" is acontradictioninterms. To paraphrase a relevant sentence from the Tsarist-era book Vekhi, «Thank God for the prisons and bayonets, which protect us from the people’s fury!”

This is because the „clash of civilizations" isn't something that is „fomented" by radical Islamists (or Western Islamophobes, for that matter). It is an actually existing state of affairs and «democratization” will only fully disrobe it, not make it go away.

The Europeanized liberals who were the motor of the protests in Egypt only constitute about 5% of that country’s population. While removing the dictator – be he a relatively benign one like Mubarak, or a bloodthirsty one like Gaddafi – liberates not only the intelligentsia, but also the (far more numerous) Islamist opposition. Of the foreign jihadists fighting in Iraq, it was rumored that Benghazi – focal point of resistance against the Jamahiriya – contributed the most per capita. Now Libya is a chaotic jumble ofheavily armed gangs and militias, many of them with Islamist sympathies. Despite promises not to field a Presidential candidate, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did precisely that and won the elections; since then, the old-regime generals have been replaced and the Brotherhood has consolidated its political dominance over the country. In the meantime, the economy has ground to a standstill.

Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Ben Ali, etc. may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but they did foster an adequate, if non-stellar pace of development; protected the rights of minorities such as the Coptic Christians; and typically maintained non-hostile, constructive relations with the West, Russia, and even Israel. It is unclear whether any of this will be preserved in the years ahead. They will certainly become more „democratic” – Iran, after all, is far more democratic now that it was under the Shah – but to what extent they will (or can) truly respect freedom of speech or worship is another question entirely. As strikingly shown in the past few days, there are problems even with honoringbasic international norms like diplomatic immunity — and these are not without precedent (Chris Stephen’s ancestor by fate is Alexander Griboyedov, the poet diplomat killed and mutilated by a mullah-provoked Tehran mob in 1829).

But you can’t turn the clock back; we will have to learn to live with the new regimes emerging out of the Middle East unrest. One can hope for two things. First, that the West realizes that in terms of civilizational values, Russia and even China (all part of the „Functioning Core”, to borrow from Thomas P.M. Barnett)are far closer to it than most of the Muslim world, and adjusts policy accordingly. Second, that it takes a more balanced and realistic view towards these developments in the Arab world. For instance, it could recognize the Syrian conflictas a civil war, as opposed to a universal uprising against the dark lord Assad (and as such stop making unrealistic demands for him to step down as a precondition for talks).

Realistically, however, I suspect it will be a winter’s day in hell before the West's infatuation with the Arab Spring is over.

Sergei Roy

Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News

It would be very nice if the «US abandoned its new cold war against Russia” and promoted, instead, a «Russo-US alliance”. That would surely benefit all – America, Russia, the world. 

However, if that ever happens, it will not be because «both great powers are clearly on the same side in the ongoing «clash of civilizations”.” 

Russia and the US are definitely not on the same side in the clash of civilizations – if the latter is to be interpreted realistically, as the conflict between the Western world with its post-modernist values and ways and the more traditionalist world, including Muslim and Christian, with a different set of values and modes of life. The difference between the two is precisely in diverging views on what is civilized and what is not, in different sets of taboos.

To take these two latest examples of «cultural” life – the American film and the most recent pictures in a French magazine caricaturing the prophet Mohammed. Russia demonstrated a while ago that it has a legal mechanism for punishing sacrilegious behavior. More importantly, that legal decision met with the approval of the absolute majority of the people –Christian and Muslim alike. 

In the wake of the Benghazi shooting, US President Obama has been talking mostly about protecting the lives of US citizens. He clearly means to do so relying primarily on military power, whereas those lives would in fact be most effectively protected if outrages like that film were properly punished in the US (obviously, this would to some extent work as prevention against future outrages). No such legal move is contemplated by US authorities, as that would contravene the precept of free speech in its post-modernist acceptation: it is taken to be an absolute, to be practiced regardless of the moral injury it does to vast sections of humankind, consequent riots, loss of life, etc.

No wonder people in predominantly traditionalist, pre-post-modernist societies –Muslim, Christian, or any other – feel most acutely an abhorrence toward the more vicious abuses of freedom of speech and self-expression and, by association, toward the very concept of Western-style democracy that brings those abuses in its wake.

Here we come to the second, and quite vital, point of difference between the US and the West generally and Russia. With the demise of Communism, Russia has lost absolutely its messianic zeal and, concerned mostly with rebirth and survival, has no intention at all of thrusting any ideas, ideals, or modes of existence – Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Judaic, least of all Communist – on the world. Moreover, it robustly supports the view that any progress toward democracy, freedom of self-expression and similar desiderata should come from within the given society, and all attempts to make societies «happy” by outside force are morally repugnant and politically doomed. 

Contrariwise, the US and its allies labor under the promotion of democracyslogan – and are not exactly succeeding, for obvious reasons. First, there is the fallacy, discussed above, of imposing post-modernist values on basically traditionalist societies. Second, these values are «promoted” from outside these societies by means that defeat the very conception of democracy – by the use of force and inciting strife that leads to untold suffering and loss of life among the very people expected to reap the boons of democracy. Third, in too many cases this promotion of democracy jingle is too ludicrouslyhypocritical – say, when the US supports an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia as an instrument of bringing democracy to Syria. Fourth (which should of course have come as No.1), whenever «democracy” is successfully promoted – or merely said to be so – oil begins to flow much more freely Statewards. 

For these and other reasons, a Russo-US alliance of the type implied above is a very distant prospect. This does not mean, of course, that one should cease working toward that distant goal. For the moment, though, «Lost causes only accepted” seems to be the proper motto for such an undertaking.


Alexander Rahr

German-Russian Forum, Berlin

Russia and the West have entered a new phase in the «clash of civilisations”. This is demonstrated by the trial and conviction of three members of the punk group Pussy Riot. People in the West think Russia has gone back to the Middle Ages and thepunkers were tried solely for criticising the «Putin regime".

The Western public assumes that the protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was legitimate from the point of view of civil law and contemporary art. The liberal West, heir to Roman law, tells Russia that freedom of speech and the protection of minority rights is indisputable in modern Europe and more important than anything else. These rights should be recognised by Russia as well as by Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, and other countries where there are human rights conflicts. If a state lacks a critical mass of civil society, that country is not modern and can become an international pariah.

However, in broad and predominantly conservative sections of Russian society, which only 20 years ago returned to religious consciousness and Orthodox traditions, the blasphemous performance in the country’s main cathedral received a hostile response. Russia, in religious terms the heir of Byzantium, will not accept a law that contradicts its perception of morality and justice. Russia criticises the West for replacing its traditional Christian culture with the pseudo-morality of liberal values. While the West has long been living in a post-Christian civilisation, Russia is returning to the lost origins of Christian Europe.

The West, which used to criticise the atheist authorities in Russia during the Cold War for destroying religion, is now accusing the Russian Orthodox Church of an excess of fundamentalism. People in Russia, however, believe that the religious feelings of the majority of Russian believers, who themselves were not entitled to practise their faith for almost the entire 20th century, should also be protected from blasphemy and sacrilege. In that way, Russians think similarly to the elites in the Arabicstates who also attack the West for its atheism.

In the Protestant churches of Europe, rock concerts and dances are allowed and women can have access to the altar. But in Russia the centuries-old dogmas of Christianity are still treated with profound piety. The world views of the West and Russia have pretty much swapped places.

But Russian society is not homogeneous. While two-thirds have views that could be described as conservative and traditional, one-third – mainly the educated new middle class – look at the Pussy Riot trial through Western eyes. These people want to live the way people do in Europe; Russia, with its «special world view” is alien to them. The number of „educated Westerners” is growing rapidly, and in the next generation, they will constitute the majority of Russians.

In the modern world, and especially in politics – and thepunkers’ case reached the sphere of high-level international politics – nothing is simple. The strength of feeling between a West that does not understand Russia and a Russia that rejects Western teachings will grow. The conflict between the two civilisations will also agitate the young post-communist Russian society. The Russian authorities need to understand that point. This complex situation can only be clarified by dialogue between the authorities and all sections of society.

Civil society in Russia is by no means developing only on liberal soil. The «student revolution” took place in Germany and France 23 years after the end of the Second World War. One of its causes was the desire of the educated generation born after the war to have a stronger influence on their countries’ political and social systems. Another cause was the desire to make a rapid transition from the vestiges of the authoritarian pre-war past to liberal values. In fact, the student revolution of 1968 did not happen. The authorities met the protesters halfway on some points, while intimidating society with the «communist threat” from the East. The state institutions stood their ground, public order was restored, and people were fully immersed in their everyday life and consumerism. It cannot be ruled out that a similar outcome awaits the current Russian passions.

Edward Lozansky,

President, American University in Moscow,

Professor of World Politics, Moscow State University 

The recent wave of violent anti-American protests in Islamic countries and around the world poses a natural question about its origins. Has it been triggered by the obscure and offensive to Muslims film or does it have deeper roots? Many observers and experts believe that the attacks on US embassies were planned in advance and timed for September 11. The film in question, which was already around for a long time, just came handy for this purpose.

In Libya, the country which was supposedly brought to democracy with Western help, we witnessed not a demonstration but a major terrorist attack, carried out by people with access to mortars and other weapons most likely delivered there by the US and NATO. So much for the US led democracy promotion campaign.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist or for that matter a cynic to understand that the word "democracy" here is conveniently used to gain geopolitical, security, economic and other advantages for the «democracy promoters”. I am not talking, of course, about many dedicated human rights activists who sincerely believe in their cause but of those in high places who misuse this noble cause for self-interested political manipulation.

If this is the case then the obvious question is whether „democracy promotion" campaign in Russia or, putting this in plain language, the continuation of the cold war, serves the best strategic interests of the United States?

I would identify two schools of thought on this subject. First, there are those who, nostalgic for the Cold War, genuinely believe that this is the way to proceed. Color revolutions or Arab Spring failures not with standing, they keep pushing and pushing like the Bolsheviks of yesteryear obsessed with their utopian ideas, without realizing that this policy in the long run is extremely harmful to US interests. 

The second school advocates a process of evolutionary democratization by means of mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the West in as many areas as possible. Unfortunately, the followers of this school are at present in the minority. This is to the large degree due to the Western media being somehow transformed into a Soviet-style propaganda machine in the service of the first school. There are some media outlets, which share the ideas of the second school, but presently they are also in the minority. 

Witness, for example, the resent editorial in the Washington Post, which since Ronald Reagan’s time holds the dubious title "Pravda on the Potomac." Never mind the $16 trillion national debt and the growing number of counties on the verge of bankruptcy. Reincarnated «Pravda” hysterically calls for the doubling of democracy promotion funds for Russia. And this despite the fact that these funds, ironically enough, would most likely need to be borrowed from Communist China. Like wise, the editorial chose to ignore President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s expression of Russia’s solidarity in connection with the recent killings of US diplomats and their repeated call to cooperate with Russia in the war on terror.

Regrettably, there is not too much difference in US policy on Russia between Republicans and Democrats. At first glance Obama is more reasonable; in contrast to Romney, he at least does not view Russia as the enemy. Thank you very much for that, but even the Obama administration keeps turning down repeated calls by Russia’s leadership to build joint security infrastructure. At the same time, as Secretary Hillary Clinton has pledged, the funding for democracy promotion in Russia will continue using some "innovative methods” – whatever this means. All this may sound too pessimistic, but those who share the views of the second school should not give up.

Dmitry Mikheyev,

Former Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, teaches «Leadership in the 21st century” at various business-schools in Moscow

To answer the question «Is such a change of [anti-Russian] direction at all imaginable in the case of Washington?” I would start with the assumption that «both great powers are clearly on the same side in the ongoing «clash of civilizations” eagerly fomented by radical Islamists.”

There are, I would argue, not one but three Americas. A modern, liberal and humanistic America (about 20% of the population); a moderate conservative America (some 40%), and a fundamentalist one. The fundamentalist America is thinking in black and white terms, recognizes no compromise and eagerly awaits the «end of time”. The fundamentalist America shares arguably equal responsibility with radical Islamists for fomenting a «clash of civilizations.” It is in the eyes of this ignorant, racist, violent, paranoid, and apocalypticallyminded fundamentalist America that Russia is a number one foe.

Unfortunately, the world is already caught in the cross-fire of «war of civilizations” conducted by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. I am afraid little can be done to change their minds because they draw their wisdom from Holy Books, not from facts and scientific arguments. The fundamentalist America commands about 40% of votes and might quite possibly deliver a Mormon President, which would be true disaster. Perhaps we can help to persuade sufficient number of sane conservatives (those who don’t believe that humans rode dinosaurs and that Russia remains an Evil Empire), to vote for President Obama.

Andrew Liakhov 

Counsel at Withers Bergman LLP

1. As an idea Communism is not better or worse than what the West is collectively preaching at the moment. Its Russian/Soviet interpretation was, in my view a horrible aberration of the idea. That aberration called bolshevism is still very alive, but changed its coat from Communism to human rights - there is very little difference in the methodology between Bolsheviks of old and the current human rights activists (in the widest sense) - same zealosy, tunnel vision, "those who are not with us are enemies" principle, etc; and 
2. Soviet/Rissian diplomacy warned the US about many things in the past with such warnings (been correct in every case) having been  totally ignored: 

A. 1969 warning about the internal instability of the Iranian Shah regime and danger of radicalisation of Iran; 
B. 1988 warning about Al Quaeda - a 30 odd pages memo was passed by Kriuchkov to the CIA director; 
C. A 1991 warning about Osama Bin Laden - a 26 pages transcript of a meeting of a Soviet official with OBL was passed to Clinton via the US Embassy in London; 
D. A 1992 warning about Taleban after Yeltsin ceased weapons supplies to President Nadjibullah. As a result Nadjibullah was crucified on the gates of his palace together with his 12 year old daughter. 
E. A 1999 warning about Mr. Tachi and the Kosovo Liberation Army. Not only this one was ignored, the response was "he is a friend of the US, and a legitimate businessman". This was said about the person who (still) runs the largest illegal body parts and organs trading business in the world and controls drug trade and prostitution in Switzerland, several former Yugoslavia states and Southern Germany..... 

Which makes me think that something is SERIOUSLY wrong with modern US foreign policy - spreading of democracy through and by criminals is a sure way for the democracy to fail...
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