The content and the outcome of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s “emergency” visit to Moscow last Friday and Saturday remain clouded by diplomatic smoke and mirrors. That overnight stay had certainly not been planned. After visiting three Central Asian states (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) and Afghanistan, Rice made a stop in Paris but then, instead of proceeding to London and across the Atlantic, she opted to make a long detour to Moscow. Most Russian media presented that decision as her own initiative, only the quick-moving Kommersant (October 15) suggested that the invitation had actually come from Moscow. The meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday morning, October 15, lasted for an hour-and-a-half and at the brief press conference no one gave even a hint of a possible breakthrough or at least rapprochement (Ekho Moskvy, October 15).
The statements indicated that the main topic of discussion was Iran, with Rice insisting that the United States saw no need for Iran to develop a civilian nuclear program, and Lavrov reminding her that the country had an undeniable right to have it (RosBusinessConsulting, October 15). He also confirmed that Russia found no reason whatsoever to address this problem in the UN Security Council, which was a soft diplomatic reminder about a major “friendly gesture”: Russia abstained during the crucial vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 24 on the watered-down resolution that mentioned the possibility of transferring the issue to UN authority (Vremya novostei, September 26). The IAEA, encouraged by the Nobel Peace prize, will return to the Iranian problem in November and before that the EU troika (France, Germany, and the UK) will make another attempt to hammer a compromise, while Moscow plans to dispatch to Tehran Igor Ivanov, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council, with a proposal to build, in addition to the Bushehr nuclear power plant, a jointly-owned uranium enrichment facility on the Russian territory (Lenta.ru, October 15). There is clearly a need to coordinate all these efforts – but there is hardly any urgency that would explain the change in the schedule of the Secretary of State’s long tour.
Up to the very last moment on Saturday it was unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would also meet with her; it would have been quite odd if he did not: President Jacques Chirac had greeted her in Paris; Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, as well as all other Central Asian leaders, had held long discussions; and Prime Minister Tony Blair was waiting in London. Putin did not want to appear rude, so Rice was rushed to the Novo-Ogarevo presidential residence where both sides emphasized how happy they were that the Russia-U.S. dialogue was continuing without interruptions (Newsru.com, October 15). In the era of non-stop, top-level political networking, that pronouncement is hardly an achievement itself; it is also possible to assume that Iran has not been occupying much of Putin’s attention recently and that the constitutional referendum in Iraq was of only marginal interest to him.
In fact, for most of Friday and all of Saturday morning Putin met with the heads of various law-enforcement agencies, special services, and the Defense Minister assessing the crisis in Kabardino-Balkaria. The capital of this small North Caucasian republic, Nalchik, on Thursday morning came under attack by dozens of armed rebels who briefly captured, set on fire, or blocked many official buildings (Kommersant, October 14; see EDM, October 14). Several thousand law-enforcement troops normally stationed in the city managed to repel most attacks and then, with the arrival of heavier reinforcements, isolated remaining armed groups, so that order was restored by mid-day Friday. Reporting to the president, the siloviki (literally, “power guys”) played down the fact that they were taken entirely by surprise but emphasized the success of their forces in destroying the enemy (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 15). There were few reasons to expect that Rice would join this self-congratulatory chorus, so the issue was not taken up at all with her.
What Putin really wanted to discuss was establishing new rules of cooperation and competition between Russia and the United States in Central Asia, so that Moscow would not press for the withdrawal of the U.S. airbase at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and Washington would refrain from supporting “revolutionary forces” across the region. Rice’s Central Asian tour had been watched in Moscow with much concern, and the urgent invitation to meet Putin came when it had become clear that her main message was about strong U.S. support to democratic processes in all concerned countries, whether rich in hydrocarbons or not (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 14). Thomas Graham, special assistant to President George W. Bush, clarified on Friday that this support was not equal to sponsoring revolutions, so the perceptions about U.S. involvement in staging “color” revolutions were a “big misunderstanding” (Newsru.com, October 14). Moscow, however, is not convinced and prefers to engage in “fair bargaining,” for instance about Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov is upset with Western ostracism after the May massacre in Andijan – but Putin did not forget to give him a friendly call on Friday (RIA-Novosti, October 14).
Accepting that post-Soviet revolutions are not organized from outside but driven by public anger against corrupt authoritarian regimes is all but impossible for Putin and his courtiers. It would inevitably lead to the conclusion that the street battles in Nalchik were not a terrorist attack but an outburst of accumulated rage caused by police brutality and officially sanctioned persecution of Muslims (Vremya novostei, October 14). Putin’s envoy Dmitry Kozak has warned him repeatedly that the North Caucasus is sinking into violent destabilization and the local revolutions are colored green because it is Islamic networks that channel the frustration of the first post-Soviet generation (Polit.ru, October 14). Secretary Rice is quite aware of that, and President Putin probably knows that she knows, which makes for a rich context of the meeting, even if the words exchanged were not that meaningful.