Russia raises eyebrows over Tibet
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - Seen as a major policy shift, Russia said last week that it
was ready to assist in dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, the exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader, to resolve the Tibet issue.
Moscow's gesture puzzled many, including Beijing and the Tibetan government in
exile. Why did Russia - a strategic partner of China - suddenly become so eager
to involve itself in the Tibet issue?
On May 13, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that Russia
was ready to help settle the dispute between China and the Dalai Lama over
Tibet. Beijing has firmly opposed
foreign intervention on the issue, insisting it is an internal affair.
"We've been closely following developments in relations between the Chinese
leadership and the Dalai Lama and we know that the Chinese leadership would
like the Dalai Lama not to be associated with any political activities and to
distance himself from separatist trends," Lavrov told the Federation Council,
Russia's upper house of parliament, as reported by state-run news agency RIA
"We are interested in normalization in relations between Beijing and the Dalai
Lama ... If all the parties make attempts to separate purely pastoral contacts
from political associations, this would be a solution to the problem. We are
ready to assist in this," Lavrov said.
The comments from Moscow were sup rising as most countries have avoided the
Tibet issue in recent months, likely in fear of upsetting China while its
global economic and political clout are on the rise. Moscow is a key strategic
partner of Beijing and recognizes Tibet as an integral part of China, and
Lavrov added some remarks that likely made Beijing happy.
"Beijing has well-founded reasons for saying it will not have contact with the
Dalai Lama as long as he makes provocative statements and engages in political
activities ... The Dalai Lama has, perhaps unwillingly, become a symbol of
Tibetan separatism for many foreign leaders," Lavrov said.
Beijing, apparently still weighing Lavrov's comments, appreciated his criticism
of the Dalai Lama, but avoided comment on the offer to help solve the Tibet
issue. At a regular press conference in Beijing on May 20, when asked to
comment on Lavrov's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu
simply said that it was an important part of China-Russia strategic partnership
to show firm support for each other's core interests. As China's strategic
partner, Russia has always firmly supported China's positions on Tibet-related
issues. China has highly praised Russia's position.
Chinese state media also reported on Lavrov's criticism of the Dalai Lama but
was mute on Moscow's policy shift. "Russian Foreign Minister calls Dalai Lama
symbol of Tibet independence" was the headline of an editorial in the state-run
People's Daily Online. "The Dalai Lama has continued to use his religious
functions to meet objectives that have nothing to do with religion or religious
work, and such attempts have not achieved the desired results."
A ninth round of talks between Dalai Lama's envoys and Beijing resumed in
January 2010, but they came to a standstill over the "Memorandum on Genuine
Autonomy for the Tibetan People", a document submitted by Tibetan exiles which
Beijing rejected. Chinese officials told the Dalai Lama's envoys that Beijing
would not make any compromises on its sovereignty over the Himalayan region and
that both sides' views remained "sharply divided".
Tibetan exiles are unsure of Russia's intentions. "If Russia is in a position
to facilitate the dialogue on behalf of Buddhist followers in the Russian
Federation or even on behalf of Beijing, then we welcome it. But if it is aimed
at restricting the Dalai Lama's activities, then this is something we must
carefully review from our own view point," Samphel Thupten, a spokesman for the
Tibetan government in exile, told Asia Times Online.
The prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, has
said that compromise over the memorandum is not possible. "We have already made
all necessary and possible concessions that we could make, and there is nothing
left to concede any further." Rinpoche stressed that there would be no
acceptance of the Beijing's demand that "all Tibetan people should be under one
single administration within the framework of the People's Republic of China".
"It is quite difficult to understand Moscow's policy over the issue. It is
either trying to re-initiate the dialogue process or strengthen its diplomatic
ties with Beijing," said Phunstok, an exiled Tibetan.
The Dalai Lama, who currently is on a trip to the United States, has pressed
China for more dialogue over his country's autonomy. "The Chinese leadership
needs to acknowledge that there is a Tibetan issue and begin serious
discussions," the Dalai Lama said last week in an exclusive interview with
Duowei.com, a US-based Chinese-language online newspaper.
Before he began this month's trip to the US, the Dalai Lama said in an
interview with the Associated Press that the Tibetan exile movement must press
forward with its talks with the Chinese government, even though years of
negotiations have resulted in almost no progress. The Dalai Lama cautioned that
it could be decades before any benefits of such talks with China are obvious.
Some experts think say that the shift in Moscow's position was due to the Dalai
Lama's efforts to preach non-violence and oppose calls for armed struggle
against Beijing. "Lavrov's remarks show that Moscow thinks China takes too
harsh a stand on the Dalai Lama and that Russia at the same time is trying to
remain neutral in the dispute," said Professor Sergei Luzyanin with the
Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
However, Russian authorities last month rejected a request for an entry visa
for the Dalai Lama made by a Russian Buddhist association, the Kalmykia
Buddhist Association. The Dalai Lama last visited Russia in 2004, after he was
first denied a visa.
The Russia Federation is home to a large population of Buddhists, with around
700,000 living in eastern areas such as Buryatia on the border with Mongolia
and south Russia's Republic of Kalmykia. In 2006, Kalmykia presented the Dalai
Lama with the "White Lotus Order" - the republic's highest civilian award - in
recognition of the Tibetan leader's "outstanding merits and considerable
contribution for the prosperity and the revival of spirituality" in the region.
Moscow has taken seriously China's claims that the Dalai Lama is "wolf in
monk's clothing" who is interested in separatism and not spirituality.
"Beijing's position on the Dalai Lama's visit is very tough and clear, and it
is obvious that Russia cannot help but take this into account," Interfax quoted
Mikhail Kapura, who represents the Republic of Kalmykia in the Federation
Council, as saying.
Millions of Russian Buddhists were looking forward to the Dalai Lama's visit
and the Kremlin was under pressure to allow it. Buddhism is one of the
officially recognized traditional religions of Russia along with Orthodox
Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However, in the end it appears that Russia's
international obligations were seen as more important.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at [email protected]