Logic of samovar diplomacy

Drawing by Niyaz Karim


As the old Russian saying goes, you don’t take a samovar to Tula – just as you don’t take coals to Newcastle. These simple truths also work for geopolitics.


It would be untrue if we said Russian diplomats have stopped taking their “samovars” on diplomatic trips. And yet it is precisely this approach that helps them emerge unscathed in difficult situations, or even elicit a warm welcome, especially in the Islamic world.


Almost one month ago, on March 21, I accompanied Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, on his trip to post-revolutionary Egypt. Our first visit was to the Arab League headquarters at the corner of Tahrir Square – a name now known all over the world.


The barricades were removed two days before, but the city was still far from quiet. I got out of the car some 20 yards away from the Arab League building and just five yards away from a crowd of people shouting something in Arabic. European-looking reporters immediately attracted the demonstrators’ attention. “Beat them!” shouted one, and the crowd moved towards us. Luckily, one of the protestors asked in English: “Where are you from?” When we said that we were Russians, the crowd stopped. “We won’t touch Russians,” one of the demonstrators explained to me. “We thought you were French or English, we’d kick their a*** for Libya.”


As it turned out, the crowd was angered by the international coalition’s bombing of Colonel Gaddafi’s positions the day before, and the air resounded to chants of “Shame on Sarkozy” and “No bombing sovereign states.”


Five minutes later, I saw the crowd throwing eggs at the motorcade of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leaving the Arab League headquarters. But this same crowd stepped aside to let through Sergei Lavrov’s limousine with the Russian flag.


One can elaborate endlessly on why Muslims treat Russians differently to, say, the French, British or Americans. To cite just one example, let us consider the attitude of the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators towards Hamas. In late January 2006, this radical movement, which many in the West still see as terrorist, won elections and received a parliamentary majority in the Palestinian autonomy. While international observers failed to find any significant voting irregularities, neither the United States nor the European Union recognised Hamas’ victory, refusing to negotiate with the representatives of this movement.


On the contrary, Russia chose to respect the will of the Palestinian people. “As for Hamas, we maintain ties with this movement now that a significant part of Palestinians voted for it in the election recognised by all as free and democratic,” Mr Lavrov stressed. “To solve the economic problems of Gaza, we have to co-operate with Hamas on a daily basis. This is a complicated process, but there will be no results if we do nothing.”


The West used to criticise Russia for supporting “terrorists” when it received Hamas leaders in Moscow, but it emerged last year that European diplomats also made direct contacts with Hamas. Apparently, they realised that any progress in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is unthinkable if we ignore the opinion of the majority of Gaza’s people. In other words, Moscow was right to urge its European colleagues to take a more differentiated approach.


In Egypt, meanwhile, Mr Lavrov stressed: “Russia has no right to quarrel with the Islamic world, let alone to be dragged into such quarrels. I am sure that the choice of Russia and other leading nations, including such geopolitically important countries as China and India, in favour of unifying policy shall be the main factor, and a guarantee that the world will not be split between civilisations,” he said.


What is happening today is that the West is losing its monopoly on globalisation. As the foreign minister said, it is perhaps for this reason that some people are tempted to interpret the current events as a threat to the West and  its values and lifestyle. However, he added, “When such conclusions produce attempts to split the world between the so-called civilised humankind and the rest, this is fraught with the risk of global catastrophe.”


On the return flight from Cairo to Moscow, I asked a top-ranking official from Mr Lavrov’s team whether we might have done better to support the international coalition in meting out the toughest possible response to Gaddafi? If only to improve our relations with the West.


“Are you proposing to send Russian planes to bomb an Arab League country?” he replied. “We once made that mistake in Afghanistan, and we all know what happened. We won’t do that again.”


Sometimes it takes simple geopolitical logic, like the samovar, to boil things down to their essence.  


Vladislav Vorobyov is foreign policy observer at Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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