Turning Relations Over | Ayesha Siddiqa

There is something fundamental that seems to have changed in terms ofPakistan-Russia bilateral relations. Both states have re-evaluated the historic but hostile paradigm that shaped bilateral relations. Now there is a willingness to engage with each other more. But both sides, certainly Pakistan, ought to adopt a more proactive and vibrant approach to re-negotiating relations rather than the dull, traditional method of seeing everything from the lens of military security. This is not to say that bilateral relations are established for altruistic reasons, but that focusing only on government-to-government engagement makes for a very limited framework.

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Modern-day Russia is both old and new. It is old in terms of its culture, history and socio-political traditions, but new from the perspective of its political economy and lifestyle. The fact that the Russian-manufactured Lada cars are now replaced, especially in large urban centres, with German, British, French and Japanese cars speaks volumes about lifestyle and people’s expectations. Politically, this means that Russia will have to play carefully and gracefully — balancing between restoring its position as a formidable power and maintaining links that are beneficial financially or for other reasons. The old and the new will have to be carried together.

So, a Moscow that wants to regain political influence in Eurasia and the world at large finds it feasible to make new friends and open up to countries that in the days of the Soviet Union were seen as hostile. The Russian historians and political scientists that I met during my recent visit talked about the willingness to engage Islamabad in a conversation. Ranging from gaining stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia to expanding links in South Asia, there are important reasons for this willingness to converse. Given that the US is gently exiting the part of South Asia it was aggressively engaged with for the past three decades, provides opportunity for Moscow to establish ties with Pakistan. This is a new dimension because it is not an ‘either Pakistan or India’ kind of an option. There is a willingness to have links with both states for different reasons. The LNG pipeline deal or selling a few military helicopters are expressions of the new policy.

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This does not mean that the Indian arms market is not important for Moscow. Even today, around 70 per cent of India’s major weapon systems are of Russian origin. While this may continue for a while, there is a clear sign that India is trying to diversify and procure Western equipment that is considered qualitatively superior. The latest arms procurement data shows that India is increasingly acquiring defence technology from the US and Israel.

However, weapons procurement is just a footnote. In today’s world, conventional weapon transfers no longer signify watertight ideological compartmentalisation of the bi-polar Cold War days. From Pakistan’s perspective, this means that Islamabad ought to invest in building ties with Moscow in non-traditional ways, certainly expanding beyond state level engagement. But even at the state level, an effort, as serious as we saw in the case of the US, has to be made. For instance, some in Islamabad were of the opinion that replacing Pakistan’s current ambassador, who was known for his proficiency in Russian, with a more experienced gentleman, signifies greater seriousness on our part. But having spent longer years in the Foreign Office is no criterion for such an assignment. Perhaps, making a meaningful political appointment, as was done several times in the case of ambassadorial postings in Washington, would make greater sense.

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With Russia, Pakistan needs to be more imaginative. We can’t be complacent as we are in China’s case, where there is a historic linkage on which we are dependent and believe that the Chinese are strategically dependent on us too, so little is done in expanding the linkage vertically and horizontally. Nor can we indulge in un-smart thinking, imagining perhaps that Moscow needs our orders desperately to keep its weapons manufacturing factories running.

We will have to introduce ourselves to Russian society for which there is sufficient room. Talking to ordinary Russians, it was pleasant to see that the mention of Pakistan did not automatically result in tense expressions. The younger generation perhaps, is not so tied to the memory of the Afghan war of the 1980s, which some in Pakistan often proudly claim we had a hand in that led to the defeat and dismantling of a superpower.

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There is some historical basis for building ties. Once upon a time, even before the 1980s, certain parts of Pakistan’s civil society had links with Moscow. These were political, ideological links that manifested themselves in numerous ways. You will still find a generation of people in Pakistan who were literally educated on the rich Russian literature made available in Pakistan through the People’s Publishing House. Conversations on culture and literature must start. Similarly, one wonders if the government can invest resources in establishing a cultural centre in Moscow or find means to introduce ordinary Russians to various colours and images of Pakistan. This can be done through bringing their scholars and artists to Pakistan and taking ours to Russia. There is a need to think in terms of re-programming ourselves to cater to a world beyond the Middle East and/or ourselves.

We have always imagined relations in terms of defence or any state’s potential to invest in Pakistan or set up a financial supply line. Theoretical literature defines such states as rent-seeking. Since we hate to be considered as rentiers, Islamabad must expand its vision when it comes to bilateral and multilateral ties. There is also a greater probability of fostering relations at various levels, from cultural, social and political to military. Wider interaction with society tends to generate lobbies that make states ponder over their conduct vis-a-vis the other. What goes without saying is that let’s, for once, not think of establishing ties in the context of India. As mentioned earlier, New Delhi’s reduced dependency on Russian military technology shouldn’t be viewed in black and white. Moscow and New Delhi’s ties are old and will continue. Pakistan needs to think about setting up relations that have a wider horizon and that can be sustained irrespective of the colour and tenor of Russia’s links with New Delhi, Washington or anyone else.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2015.

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