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Russian bear and the bee

October 04, 2012

ANYONE in Pakistan who missed seeing the famous Peter Sellers film — The Mouse that Roared — should have been forced to watch it the day the government ordered a national shutdown on Sept 21.

The film centred around a tiny European Duchy of Grand Fenwick that declares war on the United States, in the hope of being defeated so that it can be flooded with post-war aid. Its minuscule army crosses the Atlantic in a galleon and lands in New York to discover the whole city empty. An evacuation exercise had been ordered that day, and every New Yorker had gone underground.

The invaders stumble upon the US atomic arsenal and capture the dreaded world-destroying Q bomb. When the US government realises what has happened, it surrenders to the Grand Duchy and becomes its vassal state.

On Sept 21, in obedience to the government’s orders, the entire country shut down. All the streets in towns and cities from Khunjerab to Karachi emptied out. The nation was as vulnerable as the state of New York was in the film.

If there was anyone in Pakistan who questioned the sagacity of such a decision, his or her voice went unheard in the deafening silence. What one did see were civilian mercenaries pour through vacuous streets, tossing steel containers aside as if they were matchboxes, storm shops and offices, loot banks, and uproot ATM machines. The only PIN code they needed was violence.

It is a cruel truism that while other countries use any excuse to celebrate with festivals, parades, floats, or dancing in the streets, our displays of public unity are violent, daubed with blood and stained with tears.

Ironically, Pakistan is the only Grand Duchy in modern times that has nuclear capability. We are a nuclear power, but one that is all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Being a member of an exclusive if talkative club of nuclear powers, one would have imagined that Pakistan might have improved its relationships with fellow members. However, we have managed to run into arguments with all who matter. With the United States over Waziristan, with China over Gwadar, with India over almost everything, and now with Russia over President Putin’s abortive visit.

For the past 65 years, every Pakistani leader from Liaquat Ali Khan to Asif Zardari has learned that the Russians style of negotiations is to offer a velvet handshake in an iron glove. The first offer of a steel mill in the 1950s — spurned it is said by Liaquat Ali Khan on US instructions — created an atmosphere of suspicion and unmasked hostility that festered for decades, bursting open during the East Pakistan crisis in 1971.

Two years later, Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto laid the foundation stone of the present Pakistan Steel Mills (PASMIC). He knew more than anyone else that it was the price the USSR had exacted from Pakistan for the Simla Agreement.

The supply terms of PASMIC were as one-sided as the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. We selected a steel mill of Russia’s choice, we agreed to pay for it in instalments linked to the international price of gold, and we bound ourselves to using coal as its raw material, importing from countries as close as Australia. The USSR’s plan may have been to encourage exports of coal from India to Pakistan. India still relies on local coal for more than 50 per cent of its power generation. Economically, that would have made sense; politically, it was and remains a non-starter.

President Putin’s now cancelled visit to Pakistan on Oct 2 would have been the first by a Russian president since 1947. For it to have been included in his crowded calendar was a deliberate statement of intent by the Russian leadership that it seeks better relations with countries in its region. His offer of Russian support for PASMIC and strategic projects represented Russia’s keenness to permeate Pakistan’s economy, gradually sharing if not supplanting Chinese interests here.

His cancellation can only be interpreted as a rejection of Pakistan’s professed status as an ‘independent’ nuclear power. To the Russian bear, we are back to being a noisy, vexatious bee whose honey is not worth the effort.

Our response (or to be more accurate, the lack of a response) cannot augur well for Pak-Russian relations. The Russians endured the despotic czars; we pampered the benign Mughals. The Russians survived two world wars and a Cold War; we are still reeling from the effect of local conflicts. The Russians experimented with a communism that opposed and then imitated a crony-style capitalism; we have oscillated between a watery Islamic socialism and an anaemic free-market economy. The Russians drink vodka without soda; we drink soda without vodka.

Most importantly, the Russians have the vast undeveloped continent of Siberia, floating on an ocean of oil and gas; we have the recalcitrant province of Balochistan, spread over depleting gas fields and mineral reserves buried beyond the reach of politicians.

Because the Russians own or control most of the non-Arab hydrocarbon resources in this part of the world, common sense and self-interest would dictate that we take Russia more seriously than we do. The visit by army chief Gen Kayani will be treated by the Kremlin as a courtesy, not an act of contrition. Throughout the history of our relations, the Russians have given us cause to remember that to exclude them is to forfeit their confidence. To ignore them is to invite retribution. Not today, not tomorrow, but at a time and place of Russia’s choosing. The Russians have long arms and even longer memories.

The writer is an author.