Red Line: David Cameron comes to Russia, Turkey as a regional power and Mustafa Abdul Jalil

Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Source: Reuters / Vostock photos

Mustafa Abdul Jalil. Source: Reuters / Vostock photos

Each week, Voice of Russia hosts Red Line, a discussion about global events as seen from Moscow. In this edition:David Cameron comes to Russia, Turkey as a regional power and Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

Participants: Ekaterina Kudashkina, Sergei Strokan, Mira Salganik, Alexei Gromyko, Leonid Syukkiyainen. 


Ekaterina Kudashkina: This week we will start with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Russia, which we are going to discuss in our first section, Beyond the Headlines.


Sergei Strokan: The first visit of a British leader to Moscow after unprecedented five-year chill was widely anticipated here, despite the enormous outcry made in London over the issue of a reset in Russian-British relations.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Not surprisingly, Mr. Cameron’s summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev turned into a lively moment of world diplomacy, with both leaders indicating they have no intention of holding bilateral relations hostage to the remaining differences between the countries. Instead, the two leaders focused largely on some of the most burning problems in international relations, like the situation in the Middle East and Libya. In our second section Between the Lines, we are going to talk about Turkey’s role in the region and we will follow Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Arab spring tour with Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar, who has analyzed the issue for the Asia Times. Finally, in our final section, Face in the News, we will try to look into the face of the new Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the Chairman of the National Transitional Council.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: David Cameron’s visit to Russia – the first visit of a British leader after years of deep-seated mistrust illustrates the famous saying: “There is one step from love to hate.”

Sergei Strokan: What struck me most of all while I was watching David Cameron’s visit to Moscow was not the official statements; those were expected. What came as an unpleasant surprise was the dominant mood of a large section of the British elite, and all-powerful British media. I believe it is these people who create the atmosphere in Russian-British relations, not the leaders.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: It seems Mr. Cameron did not imagine an attack of such scale. Take the “letter of four,” for instance, published by the “Sunday Times” - a joint appeal to the prime minister by former foreign secretaries in which they urged him to be tough with Moscow.

Sergei Strokan: That appeal had never been seen in our relations before, and it was echoed by endless analysts and bloggers exercising in mockery over any attempt by the British leader “to show weakness with Russia.”

Ekaterina Kudashkina: But let us be frank. It is not only the British elite that is driven by that strange and persistent love-hate approach towards Russia. So do many influential and wealthy Russians.

Sergei Strokan: You mean [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky?


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Well, for one. Look, he is the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is one of the largest factions in the Russian parliament, and the deputy speaker of the Russian Duma, and he says Britain is Russia’s major adversary. He is linking all major disasters in 20th century Russian history to a British conspiracy.

Emotions are running high, but the Litvinenko case hasn’t stopped the Russian elite, on the other hand, from going to London and regarding it as something of a new Mecca. I believe that regardless of what Vladimir Zhirinovsky or other people are saying, the modern Russian rich are regarding Britain and London in some way like the Russian 19th century elite used to regard France and Paris.


Now we are joined by Alexei Gromyko, deputy director of the Institute of European Studies in Moscow. Mr. Gromyko, my basic question is: What do you consider the most important outcome of Mr. Cameron’s visit to Russia?

Alexey Gromyko: I think that the visit has demonstrated that the financial sector and trade still are the main issue for bilateral relations. For the past decade that has been the rule, and it is said to remain so in the near future. We have seen quite well for many years now that although paradoxically British-Russian interactions from year to year have followed divergent curves, economically we have been becoming closer, but politically we have been drifting apart. So the visit played a very major role in improving the interaction between Moscow and London in the political sphere.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Curiously enough, some experts described it as a reset in Russian-British relations. Do you agree with this assessment?

Alexey Gromyko: I think that there will be no reset buttons in British-Russian relations, as they tend to follow an evolutionary route. But we should acknowledge that the visit of the British prime minister is the logical result of the work carried out by diplomats and politicians in both countries over the past few months, and not only months, but in the past several years.


Sergei Strokan: What is clear to me is that Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning hasn’t fatally poisoned the relations between our countries. So, the step in the right direction has been taken, towards relations of a new type – pragmatic and polonium-free. 

Ekaterina Kudashkina: So on to our next heading, Between the Lines, in which we usually discuss something that we consider to be one of the most remarkable stories of the week. This time it’s an opinion piece by Brazilian journalist Pepe Escobar published in the Asia Times and entitled “Turkey takes over the Arab Spring.”


This week Turkish Prime Mininster Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been touring the region. He started the week in Egypt, where he arrived Monday. And then Friday he closed it in Libya.

Mira Salganik: As far as I remember, he was strongly opposed to the NATO operation in that country.


Sergei Strokan: That does not mean he would not support the National Transitional Council [NTC], all the more so that its current leader Mustafa Jalil has announced they would be looking at creating ‘a state of law’ based on the principles of Islamic law.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Now we are joined by one of the leading experts in Islamic legislation, Professor Leonid Syukkiyainen.


Dr. Syukkiyainen, as soon as people say Sharia law, the immediate association is something like stoning women. Is that a correct perception?

Leonid Syukkiyainen: Yes, it is, but it is not absolutely obligatory norms, so we have a lot of countries where even the criminal Islamic law doesn’t mean stoning or any other cruel punishments, criminal punishments. It depends on the situation. We have some countries such as, for example, Egypt or maybe Syria or maybe Morocco and even Tunisia where some Sharia norms were implemented but it didn’t hurt the European consciousness and the European legal culture.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: But Turkey’s experience, I mean the experience of a country that is currently headed by the leader of a moderate Islamist party, I sure, would be most welcome there.

Sergei Strokan: But what about the story?

Ekaterina Kudashkina: “Erdogan's tour is a realpolitik master class.” That is what Pepe Escobar is writing. He's positioning Turkey as the foremost supporter of the Palestinian cause. He's also positioning Turkey as the core of the Arab Spring—as a supporter and as an inspirational model, even though there have been no full-fledged revolutions so far. He's emphasizing solid Turkish-Arab unity, for instance planning a strategic cooperation council between Egypt and Turkey. Crucially, Erdogan told the Egyptian TV channel Dream, "Do not be wary of secularism. I hope there will be a secular state in Egypt." Erdogan was subtly referring to Turkey's secular constitution; and at the same time he was very careful to remind Egyptians that secularism is compatible with Islam.

Sergei Strokan: Mr. Erdogan, in a carefully worded statement said that he presumes that the new Egypt should adopt a new secular constitution, and he said that if you have a secular constitution it doesn’t mean that the role of the religion will be diminished, and that got an angry rebuke from the Muslim Brotherhood, who said that they are not in a position to accept that type of comments and that type of advice from Turkey, and they think that the Turkish model has a very remote relevance to what is going on in Egypt.


I see it as another proof of the rise of Islam in the region, and this time it is also about new Islamic governments being formed in these countries. Let’s pray they remain moderate.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Well, Escobar says the current Turkish model is enormously popular among the Egyptian street. I’d rather describe it as a pattern – a moderate Islamic party holding power, a secular constitution, a strong army under the government’s control and solid economic growth.

Sergei Strokan: Oh, the army – I’m not sure the issue of Turkish generals’ influence has been settled. I wouldn’t be so sure they would not try to regain the influence they had been enjoying for several decades.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: Remember Mr. Jalil, who is the Head of the National Transitional Council in Libya, announced that his plans and the plans of the National Transitional Council are to create a state of law in Libya, based on Sharia, and he also said that they are not going to invite any extremists to the government; they will try to make sure that there is no Islamic extremism in Libya. So it looks like the region is heading towards perhaps creating governments based on moderate Islam, like in Turkey.

Sergei Strokan: Erdogan has performed like a star in Cairo. Some have even compared him to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president of the 1950s. As they say nowadays, his pan-Arabism and defiance of foreign powers made him a hero.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: That reminds me of a recent article in “Time” magazine entitled “Why Turkey's Erdogan Is Greeted like a Rock Star in Egypt.” That article already describes him as a hero on the Arab street.

Sergei Strokan:Even President Obama didn’t get such a welcome in Cairo in June 2009.


Mira Salganik: Don’t you think that it is a bit easier to act like a pop star, to be the favorite of the Arab street than to achieve something politically? Erdogan has played this card beautifully.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: But if we talk about political achievements, isn’t the increase in influence a real political achievement?


Mira Salganik: So far it is just an emotion. But look, the people in Arab Spring countries, though they vary from one to another, they still remember the protest movements, expectations, etc, and here comes someone who supports them. It might be purely emotional.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Yes, of course, but as we know, emotions matter in big politics.


Mira Salganik: They do, but what really matters in the long run is the result.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Look, in Tunisia, which was his next stop, Mr. Erdogan was greeted like a regional hero – with some 4,000 greeting him in the airport, and there again he was meeting   Rached Ghannouchi, who is the leader of  a  moderate Islamist party, which is expected to win Tunisia's first post-revolution elections on Oct. 23. Gannouchi, too, is said to claim inspiration from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.

Sergei Strokan: Not only that, but Turkey was one of the first countries to support the popular uprising in Tunisia.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Let me quote another paragraph from the Escobar story. “Now imagine the House of Saud lavishly funding a double guerrilla war all across the Pentagon's "arc of instability" - Sunnis against Shi'ites in Iraq plus the already turbocharged Taliban in Afghanistan - while lobbying for an Islamist government in both Egypt and Turkey; and this while Egypt and Turkey for their part fully collide with an isolated and angry Israel. Now that's what the "birth pangs of the new Middle East" are all about. And let me add – of the new Greater Middle East, since in that case the mayhem is very much likely to take in Libya, where, like we already said, there is no guarantee that the National Transitional Council would really be capable of warding off radical Islamists.  But that takes us to the final section of our program – The Face in the News.

This week the man we talk about is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of Libya’s new transitional government who this week visited Tripoli for the first time since rebel forces seized the capital last month, making ex-Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi and his sons flee the city for an unidentified location. In Tripoli, Mustafa Abdul Jalil was greeted by crowds celebrating the birth of the new Libya with fireworks, three-colored freedom flags, chanting of revolutionary slogans and pledges to root out the heritage of the overthrown dictator. Meantime, Mustafa Abdul Jalil made his first keynote address at Tripoli's newly named Martyrs' Square with thousands turning out to listen to his speech. Symbolically, this was the same square Muammar Gaddafi used during his 42-year rule for the display of what was supposed to be the manifestation of ever-lasting peoples’ love.

Sergei Strokan: It is not only the place of address, that matters, although the place is very important, but also what Mustafa Abdul Jalil said. The media highlighted his words about “establishing a state of law, a state of welfare.” The other intriguing point is that according to Mr. Abdul Jalil, the model of new Libya should be “a state where Islamic Sharia law is the main source of legislation."

Mira Salganik: Yes, I have also notice how this part of Mr. Jalil’s speech was highlighted by the Western media. On the one hand, now that Gaddafi’s regime crumbled, the world community is understandably interested in Libya’s new agenda. On the other hand, what is wrong with a Muslim state planning to base its legislation on Sharia? In fact, Mr. Jalil spoke of “state of law” that is to replace Gaddafi’s despotic rule.

Sergei Strokan:I have my doubts that Libya will become an orthodox Islamic state. I think the West will hardly allow this scenario because they have already invested a lot into this new Libya, and as I see they don’t want any Sharia law there, because they speak about a secure democratic state.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: What bothers me is that before we talk about creating a state of law in Libya we need to reconcile the country, which is distinctly broken into three different parts, and there is still a huge and very influential tribe that is supportive of Gaddafi.

Mira Salganik: I fully agree that the most important task is reconciliation, so right now the exaggerated reaction of the western media is understandable, but it is making the task more difficult.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Do you think that there is also a risk of new Islamic teachers coming to Libya from outside, from Saudi Arabia for instance, bringing in the type of Islam that is not natural for that country, the way we see it now in the Caucasus?

Mira Salganik: Thanks to the Soviet power, the religiosity of both the Caucasus and Central Russia has been greatly undermined, so preachers are welcomed there, not so in Libya, not so in the Arab spring countries. Probably the most difficult part of the reconciliation program would be to reconcile or to integrate Gaddafi loyalists into the new system.

Sergei Strokan: I recently came across an interesting comment by Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at City University London. In a recent interview, she suggested that there are some signals that Libya’s National Transitional Council is pursuing its own independent policies. Here is what she said: ”I am not so sure that the new Libyan government will be pro-West.” According to her, “there are some signals so far” that Mustafa Abdul Jalil government is “very firmly nationalist.”


First: Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s government’s attitude to the question of extradition. They made themselves clear they are not going to extradite any Libyan, including Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and is wanted by the Americans. The second point is new government’s stance on the elections. They say: “yes, it will be nice to have UN help preparing for election, but we do not want any international observers.”

Mira Salganik: Well, as you know it has been reported that apprehensions of Western interference in domestic affairs of post-Gaddafi Libya are widespread. Still, I wonder what they are going to do, if one day Gaddafi is captured.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Getting back to his Tripoli speech, Mustafa Abdul Jalil praised the NATO alliance, saying that air strikes turned the tide of the battle.


Sergei Strokan:To praise NATO as a liberator is a bit strange if you want to adopt a nationalist agenda, isn’t it?

Mira Salganik:This is what I am saying. This is rather a signal being sent to the West while addressing the people that have suffered enormous hardships and loss of life, the national leader has to speak of nationalism, right? So it was a balancing act again, a necessary one. Libya will have to find an optimal balance to survive.

Sergei Strokan:But for me he still largely remains an enigma. Just imagine – there was a dictator, a father of the nation, a god, and now there is no more god, and there is a vacuum that someone has to fill. And this someone is Mustafa Abdul Jalil.  Will he be able to handle the task?

Ekaterina Kudashkina: This is the key point. He will have to adopt and implement a  national reconciliation program, to integrate former loyalists into the new mainstream, into new political process. Should he fail – there will be another Iraq.

Sergei Strokan:I think, he can be a sort of a consensus figure, who will help former antagonists to forge a new alliance, regardless of how difficult it is after six months of de-facto civil war.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: I don’t think he can be a successful consensus figure. He was one of Gaddafi’s closest allies. He was with Gaddafi until this February. Now he looks set to lead post-Gaddafi Libya. There has already been a strong statement made by several military commanders who reacted to the general invitation to unite under the supervision, or under the leadership of Mr. Jalil. They refused that on the mere ground that he used to be one of Gaddafi’s closest allies. And to me this is a signal, a very bad signal for Mr. Jalil. He wouldn’t be able to carry out the reconciliation.

Mira Salganik:We all have been watching the events in Libya rather closely, there were no protestors or rebels army, each city, almost every village fought for itself, they got their own commanders, their own victims, their own heroes, and to organize all those people into a comprehensive whole, is really an uphill task.

Ekaterina Kudashkina: Do you remember the report by the Amnesty International, which said that the Gaddafi government is responsible for crimes against humanity?The crimes-against-humanity record of the Gaddafi government started long before the Arab Spring happened. Now can you imagine that the minister of justice is not responsible for those crimes? I can’t. This is my point. What is known about him? It was reported that he had had differences with Mr. Gaddafi right before the civil war. It was reported that he had been sent by the former government in Tripoli to the eastern city of Benghazi in February to deal with the beginnings of the uprising. And when government forces tried to crush the unarmed protests with iron fist he resigned as a minister. And defected.


Sergei Strokan:I think it was an act of personal courage for him, as by that time it looked as if the opposition has slim if not zero chances to win. I remember, no one here believed Gaddafi can be toppled easily. But as it turned out Mustafa Abdul Jalil was not backing the wrong horse.


Ekaterina Kudashkina: The Jalil-led NTC wants to form a new interim government by the end of September, and hold elections for a 200-strong national congress within eight months. The congress will then draft a constitution, paving the way for multi-party polls. It doesn’t look realistic to me.

Mira Salganik: But the power structures within Libya remain fractured, creating new potential for more and more conflicts. So, the NTC will have to secure some kind of cooperation of these groups to achieve its goals unless they are ready to allow Libya to disintegrate.

Sergei Strokan: And there is another factor that might spark regional rivalries and tribal standoffs. When Libya's oil economy recovers and billions of dollars in revenue start to flow, it should be very difficult for a democratic government to control it. So, it will be an uphill battle for Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

Mira Salganik:But an authoritarian leader will not allow any scrabble for oil money, he knows where it should go.

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