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17.07.2017 13:28 News >> Opınıon - Why Russia Won't Support Post-Daesh Mideast Democracy

Opınıon - Why Russia Won't Support Post-Daesh Mideast Democracy

The end of the Islamic State (Daesh) may have begun in 2017. Mosul was heroically liberated by the Iraqi army recently and the capture of Raqqa in Syria looks imminent. The fear of Daesh has dominated the region for the last three years, and now that we are witnessing the beginning of its demise, deliberations as to what the post-Daesh Middle East is going to look like are gaining momentum. Unsurprisingly, Russia is not a stranger to these discussions and is looking to play a role in shaping the future of the region, where it continues to contest the influence of the United States.

The fact that Bashar al-Assad remains in power despite calls for him to step down, voiced by most world powers concerned, defines the contours of the debate about the future of authoritarian leaders in the Middle East.

- Moscow's position still unclear

The region has historically been a testing ground for the longevity of various regimes and still today hosts the whole spectrum of them: from Western-type democracies to monarchies and clear tyrannies. While it is no secret that the U.S. and its European partners have traditionally advocated democratic values in the Middle East at least in words, Moscow's position on the issue is something of a mystery at the moment.

Russian officials insist that it is up to the Syrian people to decide through a presidential election who will lead the nation into the post-war period, thereby explicitly saying that Syria has a democratic future. Yet Moscow's continuing support for Assad is the reason why observers have a hard time believing that Russia will earnestly support a democratic transition in Syria. This opinion may not be far-fetched given the country's own history and experience with the Arab Spring protests.

- Russia's interest in Arab Spring

It was not until uprisings erupted in the Middle East that Russia started paying more attention to how easily social unrest was spreading across the region. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Arab Spring became a surprise that everyone had anticipated but just did not know when it would occur. Russia's reaction to the Arab Spring was inconsistent at best: In some cases the Kremlin would simply express concern over protests turning violent, in other cases it would issue harsh statements condemning revolt. Libya and Syria are the two notable examples of that.

- Color revolutions warning to Russia

Having witnessed similar movements much closer to the Russian border in the early 2000s, Russian policymakers were all too familiar with a wave of revolts in the Middle East. Political coups in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, which installed regimes with strong anti-Russia sentiments, convinced Vladimir Putin that Western governments were behind them and that they were envisioning the same scenario for Moscow. The Arab Spring therefore became a reminder that perceived Color Revolutions were a foreign policy tool actively used by Russia's opponents.

NATO's military campaign in Libya demonstrated the evolution of what Russia saw as regime change operations. What was previously the job of internal opposition forces supported by Russia's opponents was now done directly by the West, and what's more, it was done with the approval of the United Nations. The Libya campaign left the Kremlin feeling tricked since it chose not to veto the UN Security Council resolution approving the operation. Just like the Color Revolutions in the post-Soviet Union regions, Arab Spring protests came under the label of democracy and were strongly supported by the West. This perceived linkage between the democratic values promoted by the West and the Arab Spring inevitably caused an outcry in Moscow.

- Kremlin wary of Western democracy

As a result of these processes, the Kremlin sees the Western iteration of democracy as a concept alien to the region that has been imposed by the West, a concept that brings instability and sows unrest.

On the other hand, Russia shares a long history with authoritarian Arab leaders who proved their ability to maintain stability for longer than any regional democratic regime could sustain. It is true that these authoritarian, first Soviet, and then Russian, proxies in the Middle East were highly militarized and their longevity depended to a large extent on Moscow's financial and military backing, but nonetheless they were able to survive, sometimes against all odds. Libya and Syria are cases in point, which is why Moscow was visibly unnerved when its longtime partners fell prey to the Arab Spring.

- Assad's survival sends out wrong signals

To a certain degree the Kremlin projects on the Middle East its own experience of surviving in a rapidly changing world. The Russia that Vladimir Putin took over in the early 2000s was very different from the one he is leading these days. An immense consolidation of power in the hands of the president as well as the securitization of the political agenda, happening over the last seventeen years that he has been in power, guide Putin on how he perceives the regimes in the Middle East. The fact that Assad has remained in power throughout the bloody Syrian conflict, not least due to Russian aid, may firm up the idea that authoritarianism in the Middle East guarantees stability and puts a cap on "toxic" democratic values imposed by the West.

Vladimir Putin's beliefs in authoritarian stability in the region may have found an unlikely supporter in Donald Trump, who is already notorious for dropping the Obama-era agenda for the democratization of the Middle East. This will be good news for many countries in the region that previously had to appear like proponents of civil society engagement and liberalization just to have the U.S. by their side.

- 'Managed democracy'

The Syrian conflict may mark the beginning of an era of authoritarian stability or what Russians commonly call 'managed democracy' in the Middle East. It may be a much-needed period of calm in the short term that would allow free democratic institutions to emerge but it also bears great risks for the region. As is demonstrated by the example of many regimes, including those of Syria, Libya and arguably Russia itself, authoritarian regimes end up in continued states of defense. In seeking stability and self-perpetuation, they find threats where there are none. These regimes, more often than not, are centered on a single personality, which renders them unsustainable.

The jury is still out as to whether the post-Daesh Middle East will manage to embark on a democratic path. But if there is anything that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump could agree on these days, it is the conviction that the region may be better off returning to the era of authoritarianism.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency. -

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