Rethinking Pakistan’s Relations with Russia

By Aftab Hussain
The Kazan Herald
16 July 2012

Foreign policy is intended to maintain a state’s relations with the outside world. The foreign policy of Pakistan has gone through many transitions and has been heavily affected by developments around the globe. The post-partition period, then the Cold War period, and then the post-9/11 period, are three eras in which there was a visible shift in Pakistan’s foreign relations. Major powers exploited the geo-strategic location of the state, and Pakistan got involved in proxy war. Time and time again, Pakistan has became the victim of great powers politics.

Russia is an influential and important actor on the international political stage. This multi-ethnic and multi-religious state has seen so many miserable events, two World Wars, and many conflicts, but through it all Moscow stood strong. Russia dominated half of the globe during the Cold War period and still, even after its disintegration, continues to manifest great influence in its region. The fall of the USSR was the greatest tragedy that Russia ever experienced, but it rehabilitated quicker then the world expected.

Vladimir Putin’s role in this process cannot be overemphasized. His policies not only reestablished the shaky economy of the Federation, but also boosted national morale, which was in decline following the disintegration of USSR.

The history of relations between Pakistan and Russia is not so glaring, per say. The Soviet invitation to the Prime Minster of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan was the best opportunity to establish good mutual relations, but this never happened. Pakistani Prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did try to mend Pakistan-Soviet Union relations, but things couldn’t move forward. Meanwhile, India realized the power of the USSR, and later on, of the Russian Federation, seizing the opportunity to beat Pakistan in establishing friendly ties with Moscow. India benefited a lot from this decision. On the other hand, Pakistan – despite its geographically closer position to Russia than India – was not in a position to benefit from a strong relationship, largely because of its pro-US foreign policy.

Misperception about the socialist system and the USSR played a major role in creating distance between Islamabad and Moscow. Both states acted hostilely to each other. It was believed by some that Pakistan played a hand in the fall of Soviet Union. Even so, it is obvious that the implosion of USSR was an economical, political, and social disintegration, not a military defeat, as some might claim.

Presently, it is believed that Pakistan and Russia have non-hostile relations, but these relations can hardly be characterized as friendly. Pakistan has friendly relations with China, and relations with Russia are improving. Recent developments show that the relationship between the two countries is moving in a positive direction.

Russia and Pakistan are eager now more than ever, to enhance cooperation and upgrade their relations from good to friendly. Both countries have much to gain from such cooperation. The growing economy of Russia can provide a good market for trade and investment for Pakistani businessmen. Russia’s GDP is more than $1.45 trillion and is heavily dependent on other countries for grains, sugar, semi-finished metal products, chemicals, and consumer goods. Pakistan can profitably export to this growing Russian market. Russia’s observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and its relations with other Islamic states suggest that Moscow has adopted a soft policy towards the Muslim world. Pakistan can help Russia seek a membership seat in the OIC, while Moscow can lobby for Pakistan’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Some of the important areas in which Pakistan needs Russian cooperation include energy, education, agriculture, oil and gas, minerals, aerospace, and defense. Energy-hungry, Pakistan is facing an acute power shortage problem. Russians have vast experience in the field of nuclear energy and have also extended their help in financing the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project. Russia has also offered its assistance for new energy projects to overcome Pakistan’s power shortage problem. Both countries can cooperate in the field of education, including students exchange programs, which is one of the best media for people-to-people contact. A better understanding of the people of the two countries is necessary for long term, sustainable relations.

Pakistan has several reserves of natural resources, but due to lack of expertise and financing, most of the resources remain untapped. With the help of Russian experts, Pakistan can tap the resources and utilize them for national development.

President Putin’s announced visit is a good omen for Pakistan-Russia relations. Over the past few years the leadership of the two countries seems to have understood the importance of each other and is now working on building a mutually-beneficial relationship. Given the on-going global power shift, it is necessary for both countries to come closer and work together. It is necessary, not only for the betterment of the people of the two countries, but also for the stability and prosperity of the region as a whole. However, Pakistan’s rapprochement with Russia should not come at the cost of its relations with the US: it should be seen as seeking other opportunities, not as replacing existing partners. The US is still very important and relevant in the foreign policy of Pakistan. Even so, it is important to have a flexible policy, with room for the changing international environment.

The author is a researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.

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