Russian Officials Step Up Diplomacy in Lebanon

Article Summary
Russia is seeking to prevent Lebanon from deteriorating into violence, writes Nabeel Haytham.

US Ambassador to Lebanon Maura Connelly had barely finished reading her controversial statement about the necessity to hold elections based on the 1960 electoral law if consensus is not reached on a new one when Russian Ambassador Alexander Zasypkin rushed in to object.

Zasypkin, in a move not before seen in Russia’s dealings with Lebanon, said March 5 that elections must be held following internal agreements and not external dictates.

The most important aspect of Zasypkin’s statement was not his call for non-interference in internal Lebanese affairs, but the caveat that elections must serve to bolster stability. This, in turn, leads to the question: What drove the Russian ambassador to espouse such a position?

Despite Russia’s characterization of the situation in Lebanon as being “akin to a volcano that had previously erupted, and was being provoked to erupt once again by certain internal and external elements, through the use of political and sectarian rhetoric,” Russian diplomacy seemed keen to avoid taking any actions that would exacerbate tensions. It even expressed its willingness to play any role that might help relieve the pressure and prevent another eruption.

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An important milestone in Russia’s role in Lebanon occurred when, following the October 2012 assassination of Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, it called for an unprecedented meeting at the Presidential Palace in Baabda of ambassadors representing the permanent members of the UN Security Council. During that meeting it invited the ambassadors to safeguard Lebanon’s stability, and, most important, bolster international consensus for the survival of Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government.

According to knowledgeable diplomats, the Russians are reassured by the fact that the intense internal “cold war” being waged under many guises in Lebanon is not approaching a boiling point. The Americans and Iranians have been proving on a daily basis that they are keen on maintaining stability, a positive point in favor of Lebanon and its civil peace.

Russia’s reassurance also emanates from its conviction that “it was in no one’s interest right now to destabilize the country, and that none of the Lebanese factions have been capable of causing the situation to explode. The one faction capable of doing so, did not desire to do so, while the remaining factions were not prepared to shoulder the costs. Furthermore, it believes that there exists a tacit complicity among the Lebanese, for various and opposing considerations, to let the current phase pass while sustaining the least possible damage, while they wait for the Syrian situation to further develop.”

The Russians also like to remind Lebanese that “their country’s sectarian makeup historically condemned them to agree. For Lebanon was forged through compromises and no one faction has the ability to triumph over the others, no matter how powerful and influential it may become.”

The Russians also affirm that, in light of Lebanon’s political alliances, they were wagering on President Michael Suleiman, Prime Minister Mikati, Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, and MP Walid Jumblatt to try and find a compromise to issues under contention, foremost among them the electoral law. Russia also agrees with the ambassadors of other major nations that elections must be held on time, with a possible solution being the adoption of an electoral law based on “constructive uncertainty,” the results of which cannot be guaranteed in advance.

Despite foreign objections, the Russians constantly express their appreciation for the Lebanese government’s performance and consider the policy of “disengagement” vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis to be a safety for the country. They view Mikati as the perfect man for the job of getting through this phase. As a result, Russia continuously calls for the government to remain in place, and considers the cabinet and its head to be complementary, for “there can be no effective government without Mikati, and vice versa.”

The Russians reiterate their commitment to Lebanon’s stability because they view the country — as well as Syria — as an integral part of Russian national security. “We are aware that some international players are trying to take advantage of Russia’s stance regarding the Syrian crisis to incite against it in the region. These actors are also trying to play on sectarian sentiments within Russian society by making Muslim citizens of Russian republics believe that their government was turning a blind eye to what was occurring in Syria, or even worse, backing one side against the other.”

The most dangerous aspect, as far as the Russians are concerned, is that many of the leaders of extremist groups fighting in Syria (affiliated with al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra) are Chechens. As a result, the Russians have found themselves involved in a battle in Syria to defend Russia and its unity. Russian officials’ primary and most imminent concern remains that the Syrian crisis might spread to Russia’s Muslim republics.

One incident in particular reflects the feelings of Muslims in Russia. As the story goes, a short time ago Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Russia’s Grand Mufti Rawi Ainuddin, who pointed out that the number of Muslims was increasing in Russian republics to the point where their number in the Russian Federation would surpass that of non-Muslims by the year 2050.

According to the same account, and based on his aforementioned estimates, Ainuddin proposed that the Russian flag be amended to reflect the demographic and political changes being witnessed by the Muslim population.

It also is no secret to anyone that the Russians view Lebanon’s stability from an economic, and not only political or security, perspective. Moscow does not hide its desire to have Russian companies play a prominent role in exploiting the maritime oil triangle that lies between Lebanon, Cyprus and Israel.

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Found in: russian foreign policy, russian-syrian relations, russian, lebanese politics, lebanese electoral system
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