Russia’s legislative branch in recent months has become more active in international issues and parliamentary diplomacy, especially in the Middle East. Although the parliament does not play a direct role in forming and implementing Russian foreign policy, which is the prerogative of the president and the Foreign Ministry, it can still assist in this sphere.
When Russia’s Foreign Ministry is hesitant to discuss sensitive issues with other countries, parliamentary diplomacy serves as a convenient intermediary. Parliamentary delegations convey certain positions, discuss offers and counterproposals, and in general are an effective communications tool between countries.
Lately, both chambers of the Russian parliament have become more persistent in such endeavors in the Middle East. This seems natural, as Russia is becoming increasingly involved in the region and there’s a growing understanding that it’s impossible to settle regional issues without Moscow’s involvement. Thus, in addition to its military presence in Syria and diplomatic efforts in the region, Moscow is now testing parliamentary diplomacy as an additional tool of effective communication with its Middle Eastern counterparts.
During the past six months, Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of parliament’s upper chamber, the Federation Council, visited three Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — and Iran. Her most recent visit to Saudi Arabia came after the April 4 chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, and the subsequent US airstrike April 7 on Syria’s Shayrat air base.
The speakers of both chambers of Russia’s parliament are permanent members of the Security Council, which places them very close to President Vladimir Putin and increases the status of their visits and negotiations. Matviyenko — a retired diplomat herself with postings in Malta (1991-1994) and Greece (1997-1998) — enjoys the personal trust of the Russian president, which enables her to be virtually “Putin’s messenger” on almost any foreign trip. Tours in the Middle East are no exception.
The diplomatic track spearheaded by Matviyenko is being equally adopted by the speaker of the lower chamber, Vyacheslav Volodin, who has been active on the international track since he took over the position in November 2016. Although Volodin lacks a diplomatic and foreign affairs background compared with Matviyenko, he is a hardworking, young “doer” and has experience as a public relations consultant for political campaigns, including Putin’s campaign. He has also been one of the chief architects of Putin’s domestic policies, which makes him — like Matviyenko — a messenger for the Russian president if not a confidant.
So far, Volodin’s visits and talks have mainly centered on the post-Soviet area, but he is bound to expand the geography of his visits. One reason Volodin’s presence raises the stature of parliamentary diplomacy is his appointment as head of the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s (CSTO) Parliamentary Assembly. CSTO, an intergovernmental military alliance of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, aims to create a comprehensive system of collective security among post-Soviet states. One of CSTO’s main priorities nowadays is anti-terrorist activity. Given that the Islamic State is increasing its presence in Afghanistan, threatening to ultimately infiltrate Central Asia, it creates quite a serious threat to CSTO member states’ security. With this in mind, CSTO monitors the security and stability of its members, including real and hypothetical threats coming from the Middle East. It’s highly likely that delegations will soon expand their visits there to build bridges for future cooperation, mainly in security.
As Iran and Pakistan are seeking CSTO observer status, Volodin’s mission is likely to include building close interparliamentary ties in Tehran and Islamabad. If the assembly is successful, it will signal to other Middle East states that they can take advantage of parliamentary communication channels with Russia.
In April, both Volodin and Matviyenko received an official invitation from their Syrian colleague Hadiya Abbas, the speaker of the People’s Council of Syria (Syria’s legislature) to visit Damascus. Volodin accepted the invitation and extended it to his counterparts in the US Congress and European parliaments.
“If any of them want to join the Russian delegation, we will consider this an additional opportunity to build relationships with other parliaments,” Volodin said. The rationale was to get European and US legislators to see the situation in Syria with their own eyes, rather than relying on anti-regime media reports. Getting such firsthand knowledge, even just in government-controlled areas, would definitely help Western lawmakers develop an alternative image of the situation on the ground.
Another vital element in this type of Russian diplomacy is the role of both Russian chambers’ International Affairs Committees (IAC). One of their main tasks — apart from the legislative support of Russia’s foreign policy — is to discuss and ratify international agreements, legalize the use of armed forces abroad and develop interparliamentary cooperation. This is why people with solid diplomatic or international experience usually head the committees. For instance, the current head of the upper house’s IAC, Konstantin Kosachev, is a seasoned career diplomat, having served three terms as chairman of the lower house’s IAC until 2012, when he was appointed head of the body known as Rossotrudnichestvo (Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation).
Conceived in many respects as a Russian analog of US Aid for International Development, Rossotrudnichestvo administers civilian foreign aid. Interestingly, Kosachev’s predecessor in the upper chamber’s IAC, Farit Mukhametshin, headed Rossotrudnichestvo before him and also was an experienced diplomat with ambassador postings in Uzbekistan and Moldova.
Russia has a solid foundation in interparliamentary diplomacy, which is a good prerequisite for increasing its role abroad. Therefore, an interparliamentary communication channel might become an additional tool of Russian diplomacy in the Mideast. This channel has served not only to convey certain messages and disseminate information in other states, but also to build trust. In this regard, it seems parliamentary diplomacy can only have a positive impact on Russia’s foreign policy dealings in the Middle East.