THE Putin project to restore Russia to great power status advanced on March 5 when Vladimir Putin won 64 per cent of the vote to win the presidential election for a third term.
The margin of victory frustrated a lingering hope of his opponents and of some western circles that Putin would be forced into a run-off election that would diminish his moral authority and substantiate the thesis that he had won a Pyrrhic victory and would not be able to rule effectively.
Putin has dominated the corridors of power for 12 years. He became prime minister in August 1999 under president Yeltsin and, upon Yeltsin’s sudden resignation on Dec 31, 1999, his successor.
Faced with a constitutional bar to a consecutive third term in 2008, Putin shifted back to the office of prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev. As expected, he is now returning to the Kremlin as elected president. An attempt to trigger off mass protests by questioning the legitimacy of the decisive vote for him has fizzled out.
From a Pakistani viewpoint, Putin’s triumph ensures continuity of the process by which Islamabad and Moscow are overcoming decades of distrust. It is a work in progress that would greatly benefit from Moscow’s quick acceptance of a prompt Pakistani invitation to Putin to visit Islamabad in September. Musharraf went to Moscow in February 2003 and President Zardari was there in May 2011. These visits from Pakistan have distinguished precedents but Putin would make history when he comes to Islamabad.
The Russian election and the forward movement in Pakistan-Russia relations take me back to the autumn of 1996 when, in Moscow, I observed the political and economic decline of Russia. Unlike Putin in 2012, Yeltsin got elected president in August that year only in the run-off; the first round gave Yeltsin 35 per cent of the vote with 32 per cent going to the communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who had campaigned in the name of the lost glory of the Soviet Union.
As Pakistan’s ambassador, I also had to contend with the darkening shadow on bilateral relations of the Taliban’s capture of Jalalabad and Kabul and, much worse, their northward push.
Yeltsin had gained in stature during the crisis that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union but had faltered in steering the democratisation of the state and the liberalisation of the economy. In his camp, battles of turf raged continuously; privatisation was a struggle between those who wanted a much larger middle class to rise from it and the emerging oligarchs pursuing extreme concentration of new wealth. William Safire wrote in New York Times that lights were going out all over Russia.
In the midst of increasing chaos, our despatches foreshadowed economic disarray though hardly anyone visualised the staggering scale of the financial crisis that overwhelmed Russia on Aug 17, 1998, warranting massive devaluation of the rouble. Bailout packages from the West were suspect in the public eye because of Nato’s eastward march despite sanctimonious treaties with Moscow and the reckless greed of western firms invading the Russian economy.
Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism may be rooted in his long association with the KGB but it gets easily validated by the need for stabilising the ship of the state. The latest onslaught of the western media does not cut deep because in the 12 years of Putin’s ascendancy, per capita income rose from a little over $6,000 to well over $19,000; the ‘oligarchs’ were contained and a large middle class emerged for the first time in Russian history.
This self-conscious class, predictably, demands greater participation in governance and the rule of law, human rights and individual freedoms. As the main architect of this basic restructuring of Russian society, Vladimir Putin should be ready to engage constructively with its legitimate expectations in his third, and possibly fourth term, as president.
The effort to transform Pakistan-Russian relations is marked by two important features: one, there is, at long last, a consensus in Pakistan to establish meaningful cooperation with Moscow; two, Moscow is outgrowing the assumption that Pakistan was, deep down, an implacable ideological foe.
Pakistan tried to dispel this entrenched perception in 1996 as well but the initiative failed to gather critical mass as the much-needed visit of prime minister Benazir Bhutto to Moscow kept getting delayed. The military ambitions of the Taliban were the principal hurdle; the presumed Pakistani assistance to the Chechen insurgents added fuel to the fire.
When I met the affable commander of the Russian Border Forces Gen Nikolaev in August 1996, he and, more particularly, his associate Col Gen Koveshnikov additionally alleged that the Islamist insurgents destabilising Tajikistan were trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A self-proclaimed bulwark against the rising tide of Islamic jihadist forces, Yeltsin’s Russia viewed Pakistan as a threat to Russian interests in what we call a ‘common region’ today even though Russia had retreated from Afghanistan. Bhutto’s visit tentatively slated for December 1996 was aborted by her dismissal; I was precipitately recalled from Moscow and Pakistan’s embassy there remained, rather disdainfully, without an ambassador for six months.
Pakistan’s relations with the Soviet Union took a nosedive after Nikolay Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev took adversarial positions on Pakistan’s issues with Kabul and New Delhi during their visits to these two capitals in 1955. Relations deteriorated even more sharply during the Bangladesh crisis and the decade in which Afghan leftists seized power and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prevent the collapse of the Marxist regime.
History cannot be erased but the momentum of bilateral contacts between Islamabad and Moscow since 2003, of which president-elect Putin’s visit would be the high water mark, will enable the two capitals to put it in the perspective of a receding past and initiate a new phase of cooperation. Future prospects would obviously need to be assessed in a separate article. Suffice it to say that the wind is fair and that it is possible to sail forth towards new horizons.
The writer is a former foreign secretary who was ambassador to Russia from 1994 to 1997.