2019: A testing year for Russian relations with the Islamic world
With the first quarter of 2019 nearing its end, worldwide geopolitical stability seems to be heating up, and heating up especially for Russia and its relations with the Islamic world. Unquestionably, the term Islamic world incorporates all the Muslim majority countries of the world but in terms of trade, commerce and geopolitical interests the year is a challenging one for Russia.
The Middle-East has become a much hot-blooded region following Donald Trump's official proclamation to side with Israel on the Golan Heights issue. The Syrian clash is far from being settled and the Idlib province there has reached near an exploding point. Home to thousands of al - Qaeda and Islamic State fighters the region is likely to decide the future of the Syrian conundrum. Even though President Assad has been reported to relocate combat units from southern Syria to the Idlib, but the region's imminent future is yet uncertain to a greater degree.
While it's clear that all parties to the Sochi deal would prefer Assad to re-establish control of Idlib through a negotiated settlement, this writer believes differently, I believe a negotiated settlement would unlikely seal a long term solution to strike a balance of power between the Assad regime and the ISIS extremists. Moreover, a major military conflict in Idlib could potentially force as many as another million more Syrians to seek refuge to its next door neighbour Turkey--which is already sheltering more than 3 million Syrians. After Syria the next in line is Iran, Mr. Trump has well assured to punish the Islamic republic by re-imposing sanctions. Iran may not continue to adopt a passive stance with its choked oil exports for the rest of the year.
Even though a number of Iran experts have opined that the country will attempt its best to avoid military conflicts with the US and its regional allies but economic and political pressure is mounting on the country's ruling regime. While Europe remains split over Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar's assault over Tripoli, most of the world powers are yet to confirm on which side to switch. In Africa Egypt is in a state of clean disarray. Bolstered by Mr. Trump's promise to support Mr. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's 'strongman rule' the country is yet to ensure to get back to democratic rule.
Now let's divert our attention to as far as south-east Asia and as far as Bangladesh is located. Yes, this writer is biased. The so-called international community minus Russia is still hesitating to take a stronger and a clearer stance on the Rohingya crisis issue. The influx of refugees entering Bangladesh is continuing and as a Bangladeshi journalist I am worried.
Much before the 120 days of 2019 comes to an end; this writer only expects persisting insecurities surrounding the Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East will go through further escalating moments while Sub-Saharan Africa keeps struggling with authoritarian regimes. And it's mainly about all these issues where Russia's relations with the Islamic World turn into a hot potato.
With several derailed radical Islamic ideological groups operating throughout the entire Middle Eastern region, Russia's role can be country specific , in terms of its economic - military - cultural interest , but this writer expects Russia to play a more ' politically constructive' role -- so to avoid the West's dubious role in dividing and weakening the unity of the region. Additionally, the time has come for Russia to go beyond merely as an observer state in the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) and get much actively involved at the micro level to wipe-out extremist outfits from the Middle East.
Giving a boost to trade is another crucial issue. As of June 2108, Russia's trade turnover with OIC countries stood at around $75 billion, with exports accounting for about $58 billion. Imports from OIC countries totalled about $17 billion. Turkey, Kazakhstan and Egypt were reported to be Russia's main trade partners among the Muslim countries. In terms of arms exports, Russia remains the world's second-largest arms exporter despite five years of declining sales abroad but the country is yet to become the top choice for many Muslim countries. Iran, Syria and Egypt have been some of the traditional clients. Moscow needs to break through the sales barriers of the oil rich gulf countries and Saudi Arabia.
Beyond the peripheries of trade, commerce, security and joint military exercises the time to divert Russian diplomacy's focus to humanitarian issues is more now than ever before.
The Rohingya crisis to have erupted in Myanmar, may apparently seem not to affect Russian economic , security and trade relations with most South Asian countries , but this is one key issue where humanitarian and ethical aspects of diplomacy supersedes all other geopolitical interests.
While much of the world has taken a tougher stance against Rohingya oppression in Myanmar, the international community is repeatedly failing to come up with a concrete solution to end the dilemma. Other than analysing challenges and threats, here is one unique opportunity for Russia to practice shrewd, calculative and also principled diplomacy while taking a leadership role for a greater cause in South East Asia.
In the end, what this writer pin-pointedly misses in 2019's Russian diplomacy is its country specific wider engagements beyond trade, cooperation and security issues. The threat of extreme religious and political ideologies can also be fought mutually on other grounds apart from just launching declared or covert military strikes. Bilateral ties can also be strengthened with exchange and experiment with ideas, knowledge transfer and roundabout joint initiatives. Having touched over the possibilities, Russian role as a major intermediary nation to address key problems in far away Muslim majority countries is clearly missing.
Last of all, traditional Islam is an integral part of the Russian cultural code and is a very important component of the multinational Russian people--the country must also build on by incorporating more Russian Muslims in building people-to-people contact with the Islamic world. Particularly the informal diplomatic channels could play a crucial role in building a religious camaraderie with active participation of Russian teachers, intellectuals, scholars and students.
Finally, it would be attention-grabbing to follow how Moscow will respond to all the critical issues prevailing in the Islamic world today. However, if Moscow decides to keep itself at bay by sitting on the fence by avoiding risks to engage with smaller and faraway Muslim countries it would only isolate itself. Remaining silent by refraining from taking specific sides is sometimes good for calculating losses and gains but beyond materialistic and geopolitical gains Russia must also prove its diplomacy to be a game changer for the Islamic world.
The writer is editor-in-charge, editorial section, The Daily Observer