ISLAMABAD — Making his first trip to Russia, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrived in Moscow this month hoping to break new ground. Russia and Pakistan were at odds for years, but over the past decade Pakistan has developed an interest in reaching out to the wider world, irrespective of ideological differences. Nonetheless, Musharraf will have to overcome considerable obstacles before he can forge substantial new ties with Moscow.
During the Cold War, Pakistan chose to seek U.S. sponsorship, while arch-enemy India established close ties with the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union presented Pakistan with an opportunity to establish better relations with Moscow. While Pakistan has drawn closer to the United States since 9/11, it has yet to do so with Moscow. Not only have the two countries remained politically apart, but their economic ties, now worth $100 million a year in trade, have expanded little.
In the past, Moscow was annoyed with Islamabad over its support of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which overthrew the government installed by the Kremlin and later gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. Now Russian leaders are concerned with Islamabad’s close links to Islamic militant groups as well as its apparent lackluster commitment to vital political and economic reforms.
Pakistani officials, however, were eager to note that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to Musharraf to visit Moscow presents Russia with an opportunity to encourage the start of new negotiations between India and Pakistan that could eventually lead to detente on the South Asian subcontinent.
The road to such an outcome must traverse unpredictable terrain. Just last year, India and Pakistan mobilized large numbers of troops in an intense military standoff. But if Musharraf’s visit ends up marking the beginning of a new phase in Pakistani-Russian ties, opportunities could arise in three areas.
First, Pakistan remains a focal point of global security concerns over Islamic terrorism. For years, successive Pakistani governments have turned a blind eye to the activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups, allowing them to expand both their numbers and activities. Russia has joined the international community in urging Musharraf to clamp down harder on such groups.
In response, many Pakistani analysts propose that Islamabad fight militancy on two fronts: waging a conventional war against terror from the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of the Middle East, and establishing new economic opportunities for disgruntled, impoverished young men who are easily driven into the hands of Islamic militants. While Russia is not as significant an economic player as the U.S., it could help Pakistan’s ailing industries modernize and improve their efficiency, ultimately boosting employment.
Second, Pakistan has considerable economic interests in energy supplies piped from Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. In recent years, analysts have followed trends in Indo-Pakistani relations, with an interest not only in peace itself but in the possibility of building a gas pipeline that runs from Central Asia to India via Pakistan.
Pakistani officials hope that the lure of Russian involvement in the construction of such a pipeline will induce Moscow to use its influence on Delhi to facilitate the start of an Indo-Pakistani peace process.
Finally, Pakistan’s interest in forming new regional security ties in Central Asia and Afghanistan must be based on closer ties with Russia. Gone are the days when the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan placed Moscow in direct opposition to Islamabad. Pakistan’s leaders now are convinced that their country will benefit if it becomes a player in a new security setup.
Russia, a key power in the region, must hold a position of significant influence in any future arrangement. And before Pakistan can reap the benefits of a new relationship with Moscow, it must implement a number of internal reforms.
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