Talk of a political settlement to the Syrian crisis and the tragic crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the two most important events of the week for Russian foreign policy experts.
At Moscow Vnukovo Airport's, an Emergency Ministry's Ilyshin Il-76 waits for a technical team to unload the baggage of Russian vacationers who are transported back from Egypt for safety concerns. Photo: RIA
The past week in Russian foreign policy was marked by a search for ways to resolve the Syrian crisis. Complicating matters, of course, was the tragic crash of the Russian passenger jet in Egypt.
Whether there is any connection between these two events is still uncertain. World leaders have been cautious when it comes to talking about the possibility of this being a terrorist attack and apparently are ready to cooperate with the Russian side in finding out the answer.
In addition, Russian foreign policy was looked at through the lens of another important event this past week – the World Congress of Russian Compatriots, which took place in Moscow on Nov. 5 and 6.
Two lists required for a Syrian cease-fire
Gradually, political dialogue is starting to take shape in Syria. Realizing Russia’s readiness to continue its fight against extremism, in the name of finding a political solution to the crisis, a number of opposition leaders have declared their readiness to sit down with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the negotiating table.
According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to start a political dialogue, all parties first need to agree upon two lists – the “list of terrorist organizations that a cease-fire would not apply to, a cease-fire that we are all hoping to declare at some point” and the “list of opposition delegations, which would negotiate with the government.” Theoretically, both these lists should have been prepared within a two-week period (before the next meeting in Vienna), but the parties could not meet this deadline.
It appears that there should be no problems when it comes to creating the first list. Moscow has repeatedly made it clear that it was inviting all “sensible” forces inside Syria to the negations. For example, the Kremlin has already prepared a list of 38 opposition leaders, who could be brought into the negotiating process.
As for the second list, getting it approved by all parties seems a daunting task, since this requires reaching a consensus among several hundred of the provisionally called moderate opposition groups. All these groups have different goals, and different sponsors, but nevertheless, equally big ambitions.
Given the fact that Saudi Arabia desires to block the Vienna process, Riyadh may put pressure on the group under its control, in order to slow down the approval procedure of the list of representatives. Moscow may counter the actions of Riyadh only through its continued bombing campaign, hoping that among the Saudi clients in the Syrian opposition, the question of physical survival will soon become more important than the question of receiving continued Saudi funding.
Political implications of the Russian plane crash
The final report of the investigation committee working on the Russian passenger plane disaster in the Sinai is still very far away, even though some countries have openly started announcing their own versions of what caused this catastrophe. Given the lack of information and evidence, all these competing versions can be viewed as simply being politically motivated.
For example, in Egypt they are claiming that this was not a terrorist attack, and the reason for the crash was a technical problem with the aircraft. This confidence being expressed in Cairo is based on the fact that if this really were a terrorist attack, or even rumors about such an attack spread before the results of the investigation are announced, it would lead to serious damages for Egypt.
These damages would be to the country’s image (because, regardless of the type of terrorist attack – the use of a bomb or the shooting down of the aircraft from the ground – this would be blamed on the failure of Egyptian secret services in doing their work), as well as to its economy. The Egyptian tourism industry is only beginning to recover from the devastating effects of the Tahrir events, and if it becomes clear that Egyptian resorts are not safe, this sector will once again plunge into a crisis, losing a great deal of money should New Year’s vacations be cancelled.
In the UK and the U.S., they have pronounced different versions – here they are talking about a high probability of this being a terrorist attack. However, their claims can be explained not only by the desire to show the Russians the price of Moscow’s intervention in Syrian affairs and to gauge the changes in attitudes in Russian society towards the war in Syria, but also by a desire to prevent such acts of terror being perpetrated against their own citizens. Thus, Washington has issued an advisory to American airline companies to “avoid flying over the Sinai at low altitudes,” and London has decided to start a general evacuation of all its citizens from Egyptian resorts.
For now, Moscow has preferred to remain silent, while waiting for the results of the official investigation. And if it turns out that there was actually a bomb planted on board the airplane, then Russia’s tourism agencies would have no choice but to reconsider sending Russians on vacation trips to Egypt. For now, although such was not announced officially, security measures at Russian airports and cities have been strengthened.
The future of the Russian diaspora
On Nov. 5-6, Moscow hosted the Fifth World Congress of Russian Compatriots. The Russian diaspora is one of the four largest in the world, numbering about 30 million people, of different nationalities and faiths. The delegations to the forum were composed of representatives from 97 countries.
Vladimir Putin spoke at this Congress, identifying the direction of further efforts to support Russian compatriots and Russian culture abroad – the principal objectives being the protection of compatriots from discrimination, and ensuring their legitimate rights. Of serious concern is the situation in some countries where, for political reasons, deliberately being destroyed are systems providing education in Russian, and the operations of Russian cultural centers, theaters, and libraries are being impeded.
At last year’s forum, there was much talk about the need to develop an “Education in the Russian Language Abroad” program, and the concept for a “Russian School Abroad” has already been prepared. Plans call for the expansion of the network of Russian cultural and scientific centers, and of actively involving Russian entrepreneurs operating businesses abroad. An important role in supporting national identity is to be played by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Already doing serious work in this sphere is the Fund to Support Compatriots Living Abroad. Since 2012, this fund has implemented about 300 projects in 42 countries. About 40,000 people, being outside of Russia during crisis situations, have already received assistance (in Libya, Syria and Yemen).
In addition to supporting compatriots abroad, plans call for developing a program to assist their voluntary resettlement in Russia, as well as relevant regional programs, which already operate in 59 Russian regions. Already, within the framework of this program, more than 367,000 people have moved to Russia. Of these, almost 130,000 came from Ukraine. This process should in fact be promoted through assisting young compatriots in obtaining a Russian education. In 2015, Russian universities have increased their admission quotas for such students to a total of 15,000. Plans call for promoting and developing branches of Russian universities, particularly in the CIS countries.
At the same time, Russia itself relies on the support of the Russian diaspora, which not only is the vehicle of Russian culture, but also is able to present a clear political position. The Russian president noted that, “We felt your solidarity with us during the reunification of Crimea and Sevastopol with Russia. This was a historic event. And of course, the strong support of our compatriots, who had firmly expressed their will to be together with Russia, to support Russia, helped unite all Russian society and, of course, was an important factor in the consolidation of the Russians living abroad, and the entire Russian World.”