Until 1990, Pakistan had a particularly close relationship with the United States. However, in the 1990s, the country was faced with a peculiar foreign relations situation. The visible tilt of the United States toward Pakistan’s eastern neighbour, with an eye on India’s huge market, accentuated Pakistan’s growing dilemma. There had been increasing signs of tension in Islamabad’s relations with Washington after the US and India signed a defence pact that charted a course for defence cooperation between the two countries for the next 10 years. Relations were also strained after religious parties in Pakistan took over the government of the then North-West Frontier Province that shares a border with Afghanistan. It was in this context that policymakers started to look at different foreign policy options. And, so, what was unthinkable a few years ago — extending a hand of friendship to Russia — suddenly seemed a viable option.
In 2003, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf visited Moscow and ended a 33-year diplomatic estrangement that existed between his country and Russia. During this visit, Musharraf and President Vladimir Putin signed diplomatic and cultural accords. The discussions centred on economic issues and concluded with a severe indictment of the new international icon that had provoked a whole string of anti-terror treaties across the globe: The suicide bomber.
The get-together was conducted in a spirit of bonhomie, with both leaders nursing certain grievances against the behaviour of established allies. It was, nevertheless, tempered somewhat by a previous Kremlin announcement that pointed out that Putin had earlier informed the prime minister of India that his meeting with India’s arch-rival would not affect the cordial relations Russia enjoyed with it. Russian-Indian bonds notwithstanding, Pakistan had indicated, on more than one occasion, that it would like to forget the past and increase active trade with Russia.
Yet, what caused this sudden about-face in relations between the two countries after decades of alliances with each other’s rivals? The old alignments, though they have been given a bit of a squeeze, are nonetheless in place. Pakistan is still very close to China and former US president George Bush periodically praised Pakistan’s efforts in the war against terrorism. Despite the occasional snubs and rebukes and flagrant violations of sovereignty, no Pakistani government has ever been willing to cut the umbilical cord with the US. There is far too much at stake. The official position in Islamabad in 2003, therefore, was that Musharraf and Putin were merely exploring new diplomatic channels so that they could widen trade. The unofficial view in Pakistan, however, was that Putin possibly saw Musharraf’s visit in terms of a Kremlin bid to enhance Russia’s role in South Asia, at a time when other strategic partnerships were shifting.
After the recent stand-off between Pakistan and the US over the Osama bin Laden episode, is it any wonder that policymakers may once again start thinking about making overtures to the Kremlin?
How different things would have been if the former Soviet Union, that socialist monolith which stretched across 11 time zones, had still been intact at the time of the Musharraf visit, and had not disbanded with 15 former Soviet republics spinning off on independent trajectories. A few years ago, it was still widely believed that it would take some time to overcome memories of a bitter past, when Pakistan was a staging area for US-backed mujahideen fighters who took on the invading Soviets in Afghanistan.
Attitudes toward Russia in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the epicentre of intense anti-American sentiment, have changed quite dramatically over the past few years, especially after the US drone attacks in North Waziristan. But 44 years of western propaganda against the former Soviet Union have taken their toll, and there are still plenty of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives in Pakistan who haven’t altered their perception of Russia and are suspicious of the giant. This core group still harbours strong views on Russian nationalism, which it sees as a malevolent force that has persisted from the days of the tsar to the Soviet and post-Soviet periods and which sees communism as just one face of Eternal Russia, with its exaggerated claims of uniqueness and apocalyptic sense of national mission. But no matter what the British and the French and the Germans might say, it is still the country of the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2011.
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