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    Central Asia
     Feb 24, 2006
Russia and the 'war of civilizations'
By Andrei Tsygankov

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Russia has demonstrated a renewed activism in the Middle East and larger Muslim world. Aside from ambitious economic projects

and weapons sales to India, Iran, Syria and Palestine, the Kremlin has proposed two wide-ranging and much-debated initiatives.

The first seeks to address growing suspicions of Iran's intent to obtain a nuclear bomb and to encourage Tehran to send its spent nuclear fuel to Russia. The second initiative is to open political dialogue with leaders of Hamas, who won the recent Palestinian elections but continue to refuse to renounce violence against Israel or recognize its right to exist as an independent state. Although Russia has had regular relations with Muslim nations and even sought to join the Organization of Islamic Conferences, the Kremlin's initiatives are bold new developments.

Successfully implemented, they may put Russia in a position to influence the future of regional and world politics strongly. A nuclear Iran is sure to change the security dynamics of the Middle East, and Hamas' participation in peace negotiations with Israel will clearly turn the process into something very different from the Oslo-shaped one.

Russia has also strongly condemned the recent publication in Denmark and some other European nations of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed as an "inadmissible" provocation against Muslims. Several officials shared the assessment of the situation by Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a "global crisis" with a potential to escalate beyond the control of governments, while laying partial responsibility for such a development on the Danish government. Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "If a state cannot prevent the publication of things like this, it should at least apologize for them."

What drives Russia's new turn to the East has become a subject of wide-ranging discussions. Many observers pointed out inconsistencies in Russia's position. How can it pressure Iran if the two have so many commercial and geopolitical ties? Is it admissible to shake hands with Hamas if Russia is a member of the Quartet (including the United States, the European Union and the United Nations) and a signatory to the roadmap for peace? Why is it that Russia does not recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization if the Kremlin fights Chechen terrorists to the bitter end and refuses to enter negotiations with them? Is Moscow seeking to challenge the West's global supremacy, and is it developing Eurasian, rather than European, strategic orientation?

Finding coherent answers to these questions is all the more difficult as the Kremlin has been tight-lipped about its true motives. Putin offered a mere couple of paragraphs explaining his decision to invite Hamas to Moscow, and the Russian Foreign Ministry is yet to substantiate and elaborate on the president's vision.

We are witnessing a foreign policy that has roots in both global and domestic developments. Globally, the Kremlin has been re-evaluating its relations with the United States. Many of Russia's post-September 11, 2001, expectations have not materialized. Military cooperation in Central Asia and Afghanistan is now replaced by rivalry over controlling security space and energy resources. Instead of rebuilding Afghanistan, which is quickly becoming a new safe haven for terrorists, the US launched a war in Iraq.

It also soon became apparent that Washington's strategy of changing regimes and expanding liberty is not limited to the Middle East. The so-called Rose Revolution in Georgia in November 2003 replaced the old regime by popular protest over a rigged parliamentary election and emboldened Washington to apply the strategy elsewhere in the former Soviet region. While the military option was excluded, the emphasis was still on providing opposition with relevant training and financial resources for challenging the old regimes in power.

Moscow has responded by building stronger ties with China, condemning the colored revolutions on its periphery, and taking domestic precautions against possible encroachments on national sovereignty. The Kremlin no longer views Russia-US cooperation in the region as primarily beneficial, and it thinks US presence there invites terrorism, rather than eradicating it.

Russia's perception of the US role in the region as destructive corresponds with perceptions by many Muslims across the world, who view the US "war on terror" as a war on them. What began as a counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan with relatively broad international support is increasingly turning into a "war of civilizations", or America's crusade against Muslims and their style of living. Instead of engaging moderate Muslims, US policies tend to isolate them and give the cards to radicals.

For instance, the new radical Islamist regime in Iran is a product of the isolationist stance adopted toward the nation by the United States over two decades. US leaders failed to engage moderate politicians such as former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, who were clear in their intentions to put the 1979 hostage crisis behind them and normalize the relationship with the United States. With aggressive foreign policies pursued by Washington, it was only a matter of time before a large and culturally independent nation such as Iran would empower its own hardliners to respond to America's hardline policies.

The Hamas case is similar, as both the United States and Europe pursued isolationist policies and even tried to pressure Palestinian voters by threatening to cut financial aid in case of a Hamas victory. Europe recently added fuel to the fire by refusing to assume any responsibility for global protests of Muslims over publication of offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. That the United States condemned their publication could not change its already-established image of an imperialist power seeking to offend Muslims. Actions, not words, shape perceptions, and it is perception that constitutes reality.

Implications of the "war of civilizations" for Russia's well-being are fundamental. For a country with 20 million to 25 million Muslims, an involvement in such a war would mean inviting fire to its own home. Russia's domestic intercultural ties are far from balanced. A growing influence of radical Islamist ideologies, rising immigration from Muslim ex-Soviet republics, and poorly conceived actions of some of Russia's local authorities in failing to build ties with Muslims create politically an explosive environment. Although the situation in Chechnya is much more stable today, Islamic radicals are succeeding in spreading violence and extremist ideology across the larger North Caucasus.

It is in this context that one should try to make sense of Russia's Eastern initiatives. They are not anti-Western and do not signal the Kremlin's return to the rhetoric of Eurasianist multipolarity and containment of the West. However, these initiatives do indicate appreciation that the "war of civilizations" between Western nations and Islam is intensifying, as well as understanding that Russia has no business participating in that war. Just as it was a tragic mistake to get involved in World War I in 1914, it would be a tragedy to have a fully hardened Western-Islamic front today and to see Russia joining it.

Russia's willingness to engage Iran and Hamas seeks to compensate for blunders of Western policies in the region, such as calls to boycott elections in Iran or clumsy attempts to pressure Palestinian voters, and to find a way out of a developing inter-civilizational confrontation. Implicitly, the new Kremlin initiatives also fully recognize that the threat of Islamic radicalism in Russia cannot be successfully confronted without reaching out to the Muslim world. Whether or not reports of Hamas' financial support for Chechen radicals are true, it is overdue for Russia to issue a clear statement that it has no plans to be a part of a new world war, but that it is willing to do everything in its power to negotiate the war's end.

Those losing sleep over Russia's new turn to the East should relax. Russia remains a European nation albeit with strong roots outside the West. This does not mean, however, that Samuel Huntington-inspired hopes of Russia joining the "civilized" West against the Eastern "barbarians" have any foundations to them (Huntington, a political scientist, wrote The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order). Russians are more likely to side with voices advocating a dialogue of civilizations.

Politicians such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Mohammed Khatami attempted to articulate humanistic and culturally pluralistic perspectives, but failed to muster support from the "only superpower". Today calls for an "inter-civilizational alliance" and "compromise" are heard again, as Russia, Turkey and Spain try to formulate an alternative to an inter-civilizational war. Until such calls are heard, strengthening a dialogue across cultures remains possible.

Andrei P Tsygankov teaches at San Francisco State University and is author of Russia's Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming) and Whose World Order? Russia's Perception of American Ideas after the Cold War (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), among others.

(Copyright 2006 Andrei P Tsygankov.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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