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Analysis & Opinion
01.02.11 Treading Egypt’s Shifting Sands
By Tom Balmforth

Russia is facing the quandary of backing either Egypt’s opposition rallies or supporting long-time partner President Hosni Mubarak. But Moscow’s discreet official reaction to unrest is also due to its lack of sway in the situation and its own disquiet about unrest at home, say analysts.

Russia has promoted itself as a major player in the Middle East, most recently with President Dmitry Medvedev’s tour of the region, which stopped in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Still, Russia has been conspicuously mute as turmoil has spread through the Middle East, starting in Tunisia and moving onto Lebanon, Egypt and Yemen. It was only on the sixth day of popular unrest against Egypt’s Soviet-educated dictator that the Russian Foreign Ministry finally released a statement, urging for “stability” in the “long-term interests of Egyptians and the Middle East region.”

“Russia does not have any special levers for influencing how the situation develops,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “For a long time Egypt’s main partner has definitely been the United States,” says Lukyanov, adding that Russia too has always had “good and fairly close relations” with the Arab nation of 81 million, which is often seen as one of the more moderate in the region.

“On the one hand, the United States wants democracy and on the other they’ve always had good relations with president Mubarak. For Russia this is also very important,” said Lukyanov.

As protestors on Tuesday gear up for a one million strong rally in Cairo and the army vows not to intervene by force, Murabak’s 30-year rule could be almost over, but the Kremlin is still soft-pedaling support for the protestors because of the mixed signals backing would send at home.

“Russia is concerned with the ‘demonstration effect’ that a popular revolution in one country can have on another,” says Alex Nice, a Russia analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, who pointed to the Color Revolutions which so unnerved Moscow in the mid-2000s.

Two hundred thousand Egyptian protestors have already amassed in Tahrir in central Cairo roaring for the resignation of Murabak, threatening to land the first political coup to an Egyptian ruler since the military overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.

Nice said that Russian policymakers would question the logic of backing Egyptian protestors because it would undermine the legitimacy of crackdowns on opposition protestors in Russia and could invite unwanted outside interference in its domestic affairs.

“A popular movement which claims its legitimacy from popular acclamation is a worry for Russia. The people on the streets of Egypt are showing that stability is not inherently a public good. Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev for a long time have claimed that it is,” said Nice.

Oppositionist Boris Nemtsov and rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva on Monday led opposition rallies in central Moscow, during which the former called on Russians to emulate protestors in Egypt and Tunisia. The rally continued largely peacefully, although a couple of dozen protestors from a more radical group were arrested outside the designated protest area. Activists, however, also claim that 11 members of the opposition were collared in a police raid over the weekend.

“Egypt appears to be in part a reaction to what has happened in Tunisia. I’m not saying this will have an immediate impact on the political situation in Russia, but they will be thinking about this,” says Nice.

Russian diplomats on Tuesday denied having responded to unrest evasively. “It is not true that we have not reacted. We have made a government statement as has our ambassador to Egypt Bogdanov,” Russian Vice-President of the Association of Diplomats Oleg Peresypkin told journalists on Tuesday.

Both Lukyanov and Nice said that reacting to the unrest sweeping the Middle East has been problematic for many countries’ foreign ministries. “How was Russia supposed to react?” asked Lukyanov.

“I wouldn’t say that the reaction of other states has been strikingly proactive. A lot of countries simply tried to hedge it,” says Nice. “Many countries have found themselves in a difficult position in that they have supported the current leadership in Egypt for quite a long time.”

Indeed Russia’s low-key response could even be well-received in Egypt and the region, especially after Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent Egyptian oppositionist, criticized United States policy on Egypt and called on Washington “to let go of a dictator.”

“Everyone is looking to how the United States is reacting. Russia I imagine will try and sit tight,” says Nice.
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