Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was certainly in his element at the UN General Assembly last week, packing a full schedule of meetings and delivering a hard-hitting speech. Admittedly, he had little to say about the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, the deepening gap between rich and poor nations, or about the uphill struggle against the AIDS pandemic. His unwavering focus was on the war against terrorism, where he was not so much recruiting new allies as seeking to establish that Russia, as a “frontline” state deserves more sympathy for its suffering and more support in its struggle than it actually receives because of the “double standards” adopted by Western governments and media (GazetaRu, September 24). Lavrov may be one of the few elite professionals in President Vladimir Putin’s government, but his skill cannot eliminate or even hide the inconsistencies and logical contradictions in Moscow’s anti-terrorist discourse.
Accepting war as a fact of political life after years of denial, President Putin is inevitably falling into many of the same traps that President George W. Bush discovered after his declaration of the same war. If terrorism is just an instrument (as Putin established in his first post-Beslan statement), then who is the enemy? Lavrov does not feel obliged to repeat Putin’s hints about “those who want to tear from us a juicy piece of pie” and others who help these pie-lovers because they want to remove the threat represented by Russia as “one of the world’s major nuclear powers.” The anti-Western smack of these hints is unmistakable, as is the anti-Islamic context of the accusations against sponsors of terrorism, based on the eagerly spinned rumors about ten “Arabs” being among the terrorists killed in Beslan.
At the same time, the whole Russian political establishment has apparently forgotten the word “Chechnya” and insists vehemently that every attempt to establish a connection between terrorism and the deadlocked brutal war in that not-to-be-named place is nothing but “provocation” (Novaya gazeta, September 16). That leaves Lavrov with empty statements about “our whole civilization” that should stand united against terrorism and without any clue about how this war against a handful of “barbarians” could possibly be won.
He stands on a much firmer ground with the politically correct proposal to make the United Nations into the main coordinating body for this war (NewsRu, September 24). That is consistent with Russia’s appeal to the Security Council at the start of the Beslan drama, but ignores the fact that the duly obtained resolution had no impact on the outcome. Lavrov is too much of a diplomat to bring up Washington’s old promise to reduce the UN into “irrelevance,” but he would not miss the chance to exploit the current Iraq-driven need in the UN for advancing Russia’s claim on a leading counter-terrorist role. More ammunition has been found in the initiative for expanding the Security Council proposed by Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan. Moscow has entered into well-calculated bargaining with each of the four, granting firm support only to Germany so far, but insisting on unambiguous solidarity with its stance on terrorism (VIP-LentaRu, September 24; StranaRu, September 23).
Lavrov also had to shoulder the ungrateful task of explaining how Putin’s sustained efforts to concentrate maximum power in his own hands are necessary for combating terrorism. His presentation at the U.S. Foreign Policy Association was perhaps not entirely convincing (LentaRu, September 23), but the meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell helped to clear “misunderstandings” that had manifested themselves in President Bush’s statement about Russia’s retreat from the path to democracy (Kommersant, September 24). Lavrov could hardly claim much credit for this softening of U.S. criticism; the growth of Russia’s energy clout is a more likely explanation. Putin also finds it increasingly possible to drop the mask of an “enlightened” modernizer and behave like an oil sheikh, as when presenting his new course to the international press agencies last week (Kommersant, September 25).
Reporting back in Moscow on his achievements, Lavrov could take particular pride in the demand to deny suspected terrorists and their accomplices the right to political asylum, which found unexpected support from the United Kingdom (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 24). But it is exactly this initiative that shows the fundamental divergence between Russian and Western counter-terrorist courses, since Moscow wants the Chechen activists Ilyas Akhmadov and Akhmed Zavgaev, but Washington and London have shown no inclination to extradite the pair. Whatever tactical successes Lavrov may have scored, Russia’s strategic retreat from democratic reforms and openness into autocratic self-isolation continues. Chechnya is certainly not the root cause of this trend but merely a catalyst, so that every new tragic attack in this war prompts Putin to expand his “power vertical” further, beyond the boundaries of common sense. In the international arena, Russia’s war against terrorism becomes merely a means to justify this retreat, so each diplomatic success signifies a step backward rather than forward.