Russia and China risk ending up on the wrong side of history

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Russia and China are widely perceived as the rising powers in the Middle East as a result of America’s flip-flops in Syria and President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. This perception also reflects an acknowledgement of Russian and Chinese support for regimes irrespective of how non-performing and/or repressive they may be. But they could both ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history in an era of global breakdown of popular confidence in political systems and incumbent leadership and increasingly determined and resourceful protests.

Russia has sought to capitalize around the world, particularly Africa, on its newfound credibility in the Middle East as it attempts to project itself as a world power on par with the US and China.

African leaders gathered in late October at the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the first-ever Russian African summit, chaired by Vladimir Putin. China has hosted similar regional summits.

Putin has proven adept at playing a weak hand. For now, Russia—alongside China, which has the financial and trading muscle Moscow lacks—are basking in their glory.

But Moscow and Beijing could find themselves in tricky situations as protests across the globe from Latin America to Hong Kong threaten to put them on the wrong side of history.

Iran, Russia’s partner in supporting Syrian president Bashar Assad and a strategic node in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is itself struggling to come to grips with growing protests.

Protesters in Iraq have denounced Iranian influence in the country while Iran’s Lebanese Shiite ally, Hezbollah, is part of the elite that protesters hold responsible for their country’s economic malaise.

Russia and China are well aware of the risk—not only because of the resilience of protest in Hong Kong, but also because of past popular revolts in the former Soviet republics that constitute Russia’s soft underbelly. Some of those republics border on the strategically important but troubled Chinese northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Recent protests in Kazakhstan were as much about domestic governance issues as they were about Chinese influence in the country and the crackdown on Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.

Central Asia, moreover, could be a black swan for Beijing. It is, together with Southeast Asian nations Laos and Cambodia, home to the countries most indebted to China.

A recent study by scholars at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, the University of Munich, and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy concluded that about half of Chinese overseas lending remains unrecorded, leaving Central Asian and other nations with no precise oversight of their debt.

“These hidden overseas debts pose serious challenges for country risk analysis and bond pricing,” the study warned.

The risk of ending up on the wrong side of history looms even larger with Russia seeing prevention and/or countering of popular revolt as one of its goals in attempting to stabilize the Middle East, a region wracked by conflict and war.

Russia, as part of its stabilization effort in the wake of its intervention in Syria, has proposed replacing the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security arrangement.

“Russia is seeking stability which includes preventing color revolutions,” said Maxim Grigoryev, director of the Moscow-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy, using the term employed to describe popular revolts in countries that once were part of the Soviet Union.

Echoing Kremlin policy, Grigoryev said Syria was “a model of stabilizing a regime and countering terrorism.”

Russian military intervention in Syria has helped President Assad gain the upper hand in a more than eight-year-long brutal war in which the Syrian government has been accused of committing crimes against humanity.

Russia has denied allegations that its air force has repeatedly targeted hospitals and other civil institutions.

Russia’s definition of stability, with Syria as its model, is unlikely to go down well with youth-driven protests that have already affected 12 of the Arab League’s 22 members.

In some of the most dramatic incidents, this year’s popular revolts forced the leaders of Algeria, Sudan, and Lebanon to resign. Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is next in line.

Latin America and Africa—like the Middle East and Central Asia, home to often poorly governed, resource-rich countries with youthful populations—are in many ways not that different.

Some Latin American leaders, including Argentine FM Jorge Faurie and Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, have denounced what they see as interference in protests in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Haiti by two Russia- and China-backed countries, Venezuela and Cuba.

Ecuador’s interior minister, María Paula Romo, said last month that authorities had arrested 17 people at an airport,  “most of them Venezuelans …carrying information about the protests.”

Policy analysts Moisés Naím and Brian Winter argue that irrespective of whether Venezuela and Cuba have sought to exploit continental discontent, “Latin America was already primed to combust.”

Naim and Winter attribute popular anger to disappointing economic growth, stagnating wages, rising costs of living, mounting inequality, and corruption on the back of a commodity boom that significantly raised expectations.

Russian and Chinese support for embattled regimes at the risk of alienating protesters, who have proven in Chile, Iraq, and Hong Kong (among other countries) undeterred by repressive efforts to squash their protests, will have paid off if it helps engineer the kind of stability Grigoryev is advocating.

Russian and Chinese leaders may be banking on a development akin to what Moses and Winter describe as the emergence of repressive Latin American regimes in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of leaders’ failure to tackle slowing economic growth. The failure fueled a decline of faith in democracy and the rise of populists.

“The same gears may churn toward mayhem and division, sown from within Latin American countries and without. Venezuela and Cuba may not be the main reason for the current protests. But if the region continues down its current path, it will be vulnerable to the next conspiracy, whether from Havana, Caracas, or somewhere else,” Moses and Winter warn.

Events elsewhere in the world may well unfold differently, but Russia and China could ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of history in an era of global breakdown of popular confidence in political systems and incumbent leadership and increasingly uncompromising, determined, and resourceful protests.

Said Timothy Kaldas, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, commenting on the protests in the Middle East: “This isn’t a revolution against a prime minister or a president. It’s an uprising demanding the departure of the entire ruling class,” the very people Russia and China would like to see remain in place.

Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.

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