Moscow is showing renewed interest in Libya, perhaps piqued by the question of whether the country could end up with another Gadhafi in charge.
On Dec. 4, Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, received in Moscow a Libyan delegation representing Seif al-Islam Gadhafi. The delegation was headed by Mohammed al-Ghoddi, a former minister of infrastructure under dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Seif al-Islam was the late Gadhafi’s favorite son and heir apparent before his father was toppled in the summer of 2011 and killed Oct. 20 of that year.
Asked by Al-Monitor if Moscow promised any particular support for the son, Ghoddi said, “The Russians stand at the same distance from all [Libyan factions] and have received many delegations from Libya.” He was referring to Moscow welcoming on Nov. 7 Gen. Khalifa Hifter — commander of the so-called Libyan National Army, who represents the government in Tobruk — and the March 2, 2017, visit of the prime minister of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj.
The Dec. 4 visit was the first time since the end of the first Libyan civil war (February to October 2011, also known as the Libyan Revolution) that Russian officials have publicly met with representatives of Gadhafi. In the current civil war, rival groups have been fighting since 2014 to control the country.
But Moscow always maintained a back channel with Gadhafi supporters. Ali Bujazia, former information minister during the Moammar Gadhafi era, told Al-Monitor, “The Russians are interested in the Libyan dossier and always wanted someone from the Gadhafi family to visit Moscow.”
Bujazia, who spoke by phone from Germany where he lives in exile, said, “Russians sometimes appear inactive in contacting former regime supporters because of the divisions among the latter.”
Explaining the purpose of the visit, delegation member Mohamed Gilushie told Al-Monitor, “We went to deliver a message from Seif al-Islam to President [Vladimir] Putin and also to thank him for welcoming us to discuss the Libyan situation.”
Gilushie confirmed in an email message to Al-Monitor that in his message to Putin, Gadhafi “presented his vision of solving the Libyan crisis according to the United Nations’ plan without any foreign interference.” Without disclosing details of Gadhafi's vision, Gilushie said it is “similar to an idea put forward by the late leader.”
In May 2011, a conference of tribes adopted an idea proposed then by the elder Gadhafi calling for an inter-Libyan conference to end the war and form a transitional government of technocrats until general elections were held, but the idea was rejected by Western-backed rebels who were demanding that Gadhafi leave power without any negotiations.
UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame is now floating a similar idea as part of his plan to end the protracted conflict that has been ravaging the North African country for the last seven years. Salame’s plan calls for an inter-Libyan conference as soon as mid-January 2019 in Libya, but no specific date has been set.
The proposed meeting, which has been dubbed the National Libyan Conference Process, is supposed to work as a safety net for elections that are planned for sometime in the spring. Salame hopes the conference participants would serve as guarantors of election results, making sure the results are accepted by all parties to form a united and stable government in the divided country.
Officials from the UN mission in Libya have scouted possible locations for the conference, including Bani Walid southwest of Tripoli. The selected city has to meet certain criteria including security and accessibility to every participant despite tribal divisions. No decision has been made yet.
It took Russia quite a while to revive its presence regarding the Libyan crisis, and it did so in incremental steps — peaking with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s participation in a conference on Libya that convened Nov. 2 in the Italian city of Palermo.
During the months approaching the Palermo conference, Russia maintained regular contacts with different Libyan parties, including Gadhafi. Lev Dengov, head of Russia’s Contact Group on Libya, told Russia’s Sputnik news agency Nov. 14, “Seif al-Islam Gadhafi today contacts us regularly as a participant in the Libyan settlement process.” The ambitious Gadhafi seems to be seeking a role in the reconciliation process among Libyans, which Russia reportedly has said he will have.
Another source within the Russian Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Russia thinks Gadhafi is very positive and commands large support in Libya. It is therefore imperative to talk to him and include him in any settlement in Libya.”
Bogdanov — who is also Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East and Africa — notes the hurdles Gadhafi, 46, would still have to deal with before he could run for office in the next elections. He is still wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which accused him of committing crimes against humanity in suppressing the revolt against his father. The ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in June 2011. He only received his freedom in June 2017 after being held prisoner by a militia for six years.
Gilushie dismissed the ICC’s arrest warrant, saying, “Everybody knows that the warrant was politically motivated and Seif al-Islam played no military role [in the 2011 war], so how could he commit crimes against humanity?”
Just last month, the ICC denied Gadhafi's request to have his arrest warrant dropped.
When Al-Monitor asked Gilushie if Gadhafi plans to participate in the next Libyan elections — whenever they take place — he said, “That is up to him to decide.”
Over the past few years, Russia has been busy with the Syrian crisis both politically and militarily — but is not giving up on Libya. It's true Moscow didn't use its veto power to protect Libya when the council in March 2011 authorized the use of force against the regime. The NATO military intervention that followed prolonged the fighting and destroyed the Gadhafi regime.
Drumming up international support for the late dictator's son is an ongoing process, according to Ghoddi. While Gadhafi enjoys solid support inside Libya, international acceptance of him is equally important; Moscow is vital in this.
But, Ghoddi added, “We [the political team supporting Gadhafi] have visited other countries and will visit more.” He didn't mention which countries but confirmed they are in Europe.
So it remains unclear if Gadhafi will run for election or if his supporters might contest legislative elections in the spring. "It's too early to say since the election law has yet to be passed” by the Libyan parliament, Ghoddi said.
Whatever happens, direct public contact between key countries like Russia and former regime supporters is critical for any political settlement in Libya. Supporters of the former regime, no matter how divided they are, are still a sizable force inside Libya, and they have to be taken into consideration by international powers interested in stabilizing Libya seven years after the country was destabilized and became dominated by militias and chaos.
It's also unclear whether Gadhafi can play a role in a new Libya. Specific numbers are unavailable, but there are many indications that he enjoys strong support among Libyans as a moderate voice potentially able to reconcile the country's differences.