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How Russia sees protests in Lebanon, Iraq

Russian officials have adopted a wait and see approach to the ongoing protests in Lebanon and Iraq, but the stance has some principles Moscow follows.
Students carry Lebanese flags during ongoing anti-government protests near the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Beirut, Lebanon November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RC2D6D999YE7

The protests in Lebanon have grabbed the attention of Russian officials and social media users. In many ways, both groups have projected the developments in the Middle East onto Russia’s own domestic realities.

Perhaps this was the reason it took Moscow a while to voice an opinion on the dynamic developments in Lebanon. On Nov. 5, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is also the Kremlin’s special envoy for the Middle East and Africa, met with Amal Abou Zeid, an adviser to Lebanon's President Michel Aoun. Following the encounter, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it regards any external attempts to interfere in the Lebanese affairs as inadmissible.

“[Russia] stressed its support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, unity and stability, and reaffirmed its strict and consistent position that all the topical issues on the national agenda must be addressed by the Lebanese people within the legal framework, via an inclusive dialogue in the interest of civil peace and accord,” the statement read.

It continued, “Russia considers unacceptable any external attempts to interfere in the Lebanese affairs or to play out geopolitical scenarios using and artificially escalating the existing difficulties faced by the friendly Lebanon.”

Abou Zeid’s visit to Russia inadvertently took place against the backdrop of public protests in Lebanon. In Moscow, the Russian state award — the Order of Friendship — was bestowed on the adviser along with 15 other foreign nationals. The ceremony was timed to coincide with National Unity Day in Russia, a public holiday celebrated on Nov. 4.

Speaking at the ceremony, Abou Zeid turned the spotlight on the situation in his country.

“We see you as a defender and savior from the short-sighted policies of Western states that seek to eradicate the diverse and multiethnic community of the region by sponsoring radicals, supporting terrorist groups as well as discouraging Russian efforts to return Syrian refugees home,” Abou Zeid said, addressing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We highly appreciate your work and are sure that it will bring peace and stability,” he concluded.

Beyond the Foreign Ministry’s statement, Russia's official reaction to the protests in Lebanon was quite laconic. Commenting on the resignation of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reiterated Russia’s key messages on the need “to overcome this crisis … on the basis of an inclusive dialogue” and called on “external forces” to unequivocally “respect the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon.”

The most extended reaction came from Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs. In his Facebook post, the senator argued that Hariri’s resignation “could constitute a step toward a peaceful settlement of the situation.” Kosachev admitted that “demonstrators’ demands are sociopolitical in essence and revolve around a set of issues, which is not unusual in the region.”

“As they say, anger has welled up and spilled over to trigger wildcat walkouts,” the politician said.

At the same time, Kosachev wondered what happens if “the peaceful protests degenerate into something of a larger scale.” Citing the statement by the US State Department, which, according to Kosachev, supports Lebanese protesters’ demands, he warned that there are “those who seek to reshuffle the Lebanese deck of cards.”

Remarkably, Kosachev quoted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in saying that “there are some people among activists in the protest movement associated with foreign embassies and intelligence services.”

“If anything, I am convinced that all the healthy forces of Lebanon, its neighbors and Russia, which is traditionally friendly toward Beirut, seek a peaceful settlement for the crisis. And Saad Hariri's resignation may be a step in that direction. Let us wait and see the response of demonstrators. … Everybody knows how the alternative — that is, violent — scenario has unfolded in the neighboring countries. So far, nobody has benefited from it except perhaps some external players,” Kosachev concluded.

All of the reactions coming from Russian officials have one thing in common: In the solution to the crisis, Moscow deems the principle of noninterference into Lebanese domestic affairs as key. Fearful of unrest at home, the Russian establishment projects any protest activity abroad onto itself.

With the Kremlin evidently alarmed at the prospect of color revolutions, liberal circles in Moscow could not be more jealous of the Lebanese. Specifically, Russian social media users excitedly talked about the Lebanese government’s concessions to the demonstrators, particularly reducing current ministers’ and parliamentarians’ salaries by 50%.

Facebook and humor websites even shared a joke about two Russian friends reflecting on the situation in Lebanon: “Two million Lebanese have taken to the streets in anti-corruption protests. Do you think the same is possible in Russia?” one Russian asks the other. "Come on, where does Russia get 2 million Lebanese?” the other responds, laughing.

It is noteworthy that it is only the demonstrations in Hong Kong and Lebanon that, among numerous protests gripping the world, have grabbed Russians’ attention in recent months. Even Iraq, which has been roiled by the violent upheaval over a far longer period, has been analyzed mainly by academic circles. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the protests in Lebanon and Hong Kong appear more to have a carnivalesque character and is not as violent as those in Iraq in which some 250 people have been killed.

As for the Kremlin, it could not be bothered to comment on the Iraqi situation either. Even during his visit to Baghdad amid the first wave of protests, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov steered clear of the issue. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued its only response on the Iraqi street demonstrations on Nov. 1, a month after the protests swept the country. As a follow-up to the Moscow meeting between Bogdanov and Iraqi Ambassador to Russia Haidar Mansour Hadi, the statement said, “The Russian side urges Iraq’s internal political players to exercise restraint against the backdrop of mass demonstrations. We expressed unfailing support for the calls for restraint and efforts made by the Iraqi leadership to resolve the country's socioeconomic problems as soon as possible.” Such reticence is linked to the same old desire to follow the principle of noninterference and refrain from any comments that may be interpreted by Iraqi officials as such actions.

As far as Lebanon is concerned, it is worth noting that Russia’s statements came only after Hariri’s resignation, when the Lebanese government decided what to do on its own. Before this, Russia had just warned its citizens who had chosen to travel to Beirut to take necessary precautions during their stay in the country. Anyway, the Russian airline still offers two flights a week to Beirut. Moreover, thousands of Russians married to Lebanese citizens reside in the country, Russian companies continue to operate on the ground, and hundreds of students continue to pursue their internships and language courses. As for the scope of Russian-Iraqi cooperation, it is far more limited — and those who work there have already become accustomed to all of the dangers.

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