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Egypt unrest has Russia worried

by Tom Balmforth, RussiaProfile.org at 03/02/2011 20:02

Russia faces 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 protests against Egypt’s Soviet-educated dictator that Russia’s Foreign Ministry finally released a statement, urging “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,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “For a long time Egypt’s main partner has definitely been the United States,” he said, adding that Russia too has always had “good and fairly close relations” with the Arab nation.


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


As protesters clashed with Mubarak supporters in Cairo, the president’s 30-year rule could be over, but the Kremlin is still soft-pedalling support because of the mixed signals backing for the protests 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 so-called colour revolutions which so unnerved Moscow in the mid-2000s.


Nice said that Russian policymakers would question the logic of backing Egyptian protestors because it would undermine the legitimacy of crackdowns on the opposition 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.


Liberal opposition leader 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 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,” Oleg Peresypkin, vice president of the Russian Diplomats’ Association, told journalists
on Tuesday.

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