Moscow is remaining conspicuously silent on the Egyptian crisis as the Kremlin worries about the possibility that the fall of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Cairo could create a ripple effect in the authoritarian-minded states of Russia’s near abroad, analysts say.
Anti-government protests in Egypt have already invigorated opposition activists in several members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan. “For Russia, it [the events in Cairo] is a kind of Color Revolution. That’s why they are very afraid of it,” said Alexei Malashenko, a political scientist at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Armenia's newly energized opposition coalition, the Armenian National Congress, has already declared its intention to hold a protest at Yerevan’s Freedom Square. Opposition leaders in Azerbaijan, meanwhile, are linking the recent arrest of a 20-year-old youth activist to government worries about an “Egypt Effect” hitting Baku. Malashenko also pointed to statements made by Kazakhstani opposition organizations about emulating the Egypt rallies. At the same time, he ruled out as “not possible” any “real” knock-on OFF unrest in Russia’s near abroad.
Russia did not officially react to events in Egypt until the sixth day of mass protests in Cairo. And when Russian officials finally spoke out, they were restrained in their comments. President Dmitry Medvedev, in a February 3 telephone conversation, urged a peaceful resolution to the crisis and thanked Mubarak for ensuring the safety of thousands of holidaying Russians, the Kremlin’s official website reported.
“Dmitry Medvedev expressed the desire and hope that the current complex moment in the life of friendly Egypt is overcome in the nearest future in a peaceful manner and within the legal framework for solving the current problems,” the Kremlin report said. Analysts in Moscow interpreted the reported phone conversation as a sign of Moscow’s tacit support for Egypt’s embattled ruler.
Since then, Russian diplomats have worked quietly to find ways to defuse tension. On February 8, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin called for the UN Security Council to send a mission to the Middle East to assess the turmoil in Egypt and revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, wire agencies reported. Mubarak on February 9 met Russia’s Middle East envoy Alexander Sultanov. No details of the discussion were immediately available, media outlets reported.
In the domestic arena, the Egypt crisis is resonating awkwardly for the Kremlin. “Moscow, and particularly [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin do not want any of this change. It reminds society of the possibility of revolution and riots. That’s why in principal they are against,” said Malashenko.
Alex Nice, a Russia analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, said that coming to the support of protestors in Egypt would contradict the logic of police crackdowns on the opposition activists in Russia. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov recently sought to compare Premier Putin to Mubarak during an opposition rally in Moscow on January 31. Dozens of more radical protestors were arrested in the vicinity of the gathering on Triumph Square.
Nice also said that the unrest in Egypt is unpalatable for the Russian authorities because it challenges one of the basic tenets of Russia’s current leadership - “stability is necessarily a public good.”
Egypt under the 30-year rule of Soviet-educated Mubarak has been a reliable partner for Moscow in the Middle East, even though Cairo has maintained closer ties with Washington. Moscow’s sway in the Middle East has ebbed considerably since the Soviet era. But of late the Kremlin has tried to raise its profile in the region, underscored by Medvedev’s January visit to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. “Russia is not preoccupied with Egypt itself, [it is] preoccupied with [its] own position,” said Malashenko.
Malashenko added that the Egypt precedent inevitably raises uncomfortable questions for Central Asia’s leaders, several of whom – like Mubarak - have been at the helm of predominantly Muslim countries for over two decades. Further, unlike the Color Revolutions, the Egypt unrest was not triggered by elections and thus poses a different kind of threat.
Russia’s concerns have helped prompt officials in Moscow to bolster security arrangements, said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “It is this kind of worry that was apparent in the raft of documents that were signed in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at the end of last year. They have created a concrete mechanism for deploying troops in countries who have signed this treaty,” said Mukhin.
The seven-member bloc met on December 10 and “approved a declaration on the CSTO peacekeeping force and a declaration of the CSTO member states, and also signed a package of joint documents ,” according to the Kremlin website.
On February 4, the eleventh day of Egypt mass protests, the general secretary of the Russia-led bloc said it would carry out drills for the peacekeeping force in 2011, “most probably” in Central Asia, according to the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
Tom Balmforth is a freelance journalist who writes about Russia and the Caucasus.