What stopped Putin?
By Imtiaz Gul
Friday Times,October 05, 2012
What made Russian President Vladimir Putin postpone his much-anticipated maiden visit to Pakistan? Did India, as many right-wing hardliners would have us believe, play dirty in subverting what could have been a landmark event, or did the US establishment hawks - always acting out of geo-political considerations - pull the strings in Islamabad to cause the postponement? Or was it a combination of both the Indian attempts to deny Pakistan possible strategic advantage via Moscow and the US geo-politics? Or must we interpret the deferment as yet another setback, primarily resulting from Pakistan's own diplomatic inefficiency (being unprepared to receive Putin) as well as an absence of vision (for finding a balance between relations with the United States and an overdriving eagerness to open up to Russia via the Shanghai Cooperation Organization)?
The Foreign Office says new dates for the deferred Quadrilateral Summit involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan would be announced later and that "the Russian president has written a letter to President Asif Ali Zardari, expressing his desire to boost economic ties with Pakistan".
Critics insist that Americans and Indians had been unhappy from the day Putin announced his intended trip. The visit could have taken the ties between the two countries out of the shadows of the bitter cold war era and put them on a new politico-economic course in the context of Islamabad's turbulent relationship with Washington. These critics, also embedded in the security establishment, naively believe that India will always act to isolate Pakistan internationally. They point to the US-India synergy of thought on Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, which both continue to focus on as sources of violence in the region.
But in view of Pakistan's own internal dynamics - a litany of shortcomings on external and internal fronts - this theory hardly holds water. A few factors merit consideration.
Senior diplomatic officials insist that the Russians assigned no reason for the postponement of Putin's visit. Yet, they insist, anyone thinking that Putin postponed his visit under Indian or American pressure would be underestimating the strength of Russian diplomacy. Russians are not naive and would have taken into account all factors before agreeing to participate in the Quadrilateral Summit.
Secondly, officials argue, explosive security considerations, especially after the violent demonstrations in Pakistan on September 21, might have provided the pretext for Putin to defer his visit to Islamabad. "As Pakistanis, we may not be worried about the security situation, but Russians, or for that matter any other country, would rather err on the side of caution and would not take even minor risks," a senior official said privately.
Thirdly, although the initiator of the summit, Russia might be having second thoughts about the utility of the process, particularly when these countries are also members of the SCO. That is probably why President Putin wanted to send Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to represent him, but Pakistan preferred to postpone the summit rather than presiding over a lackluster affair.
Fourthly, Pakistan also had second thoughts on the summit following the shenanigans displayed by a hostile Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The meeting between Karzai and Zardari in New York was reportedly tense, prompting Pakistani diplomats to rethink the utility of the Quadrilateral Summit - the original excuse for Putin's visit.
Fifth, on the bilateral plane, relations between Pakistan and Russia are progressing with a pace commensurate with Islamabad's politico-economic weight. Also, the fact that Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani chose to press ahead with his long-awaited visit to Moscow flies in the face of the skeptical detractors. This underscores the desire - at least of both the establishments - to expand their dialogue. Moscow, it seems, is also cognizant - as much as Pentagon is - that the General Headquarters possibly remains central to any substantial and sustained engagement with Pakistan.
Lastly, regardless of the external factors that may have influenced the canceling of Putin's visit, Pakistan must first think strategically about where it belongs - the US-led West or the Moscow-Beijing-led SCO? Did the Ministry of Foreign Affairs really do enough work to convince Putin that he could visit Islamabad? Did Pakistan prepare some new Memoranda of Understanding for Putin to sign, or did its officials want to go through the exercise that Pakistan has gone through with China? Islamabad and Shanghai have thus far signed more than 200 MoUs since President Zardari took over, but one wonders how much of this paper work has materialized.
Islamabad will have to make sure its ties with Moscow do not remain hostage to how Washington, New Delhi or Kabul behave. Pakistan must build new ties with Russia and China on their own merit. That is the only way Pakistan can seize the moment and avail the opportunities that arise from the desire in Moscow to bury the hatchet and strengthen bilateral engagement.
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the forthcoming book Osama: Pakistan Before and After, Roli Books, India