How Russia and China See the Egyptian Revolution

In Moscow and Beijing, the powers that be are understandably unsettled by events in Cairo -- and Washington can't afford to ignore their reaction.


One of the principal bases of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama has been to create as constructive relations as possible with Russia, China, and other great powers. The administration had some degree of success in 2010: notably the Russia "reset" policy and managing inevitable trade and other tensions with rising China. But 2011 looks set to be more challenging as events continue to unfold in Egypt after the mass demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak and as the United States, Russia, and China all prepare for elections in 2012.

In moving forward on a strategy for Egypt, Washington will have to factor in how to deal with reactions and perceptions in Moscow and Beijing, and what implications the still evolving outcomes in Cairo will have for the complex algorithm of bilateral relations between the United States, Russia, and China. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square will have global ripple effects, and Washington must be very careful to avoid falling into the usual stovepipes in thinking through and crafting a comprehensive response. This is not simply an issue for the Arabists or Middle East hands in the administration.

Although China and Russia are clearly very different from Egypt, the implosion of Mubarak’s regime is a stark warning of the difficulties all authoritarian governments face in dealing with the modern world. Mubarak’s fate was shaped by a faltering economy, high unemployment, glaring income disparities, mounting popular frustration, and the unpredictable dynamics created by new forms of public and social media. Although China may be rising economically and politically, the one-party regime perceives serious challenges to its legitimacy, and crisis management is complicated by its collective leadership. Russia is particularly vulnerable given the tight correlation between its economic growth and global oil prices and the fact that, as in Egypt, one man — Vladimir Putin — dominates the political scene and his personal popularity underpins the government’s legitimacy. China and Russia will now be very cautious about opening their domestic political space for more popular participation in their respective leadership transition and presidential elections in 2012 in case this casts increased media spotlight on their shortcomings and brings opposition groups and their supporters onto the streets. They will also watch Washington’s policies in Egypt very closely for any hint that the United States will move to support their domestic opposition groups now that the political winds in Washington seem to have changed in favor of democracy promotion again. For Beijing and Moscow, internal stability will be even more the imperative.

China and Russia should also be concerned about where unrest might emerge next. Most of the focus in recent days has been on the Middle East, on the consequences for Israel and Iran, and on the potential contagion or inspiration for political change across the Arab world, given that the uprising in Egypt was preceded and spurred by the January overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. The list of Arab regimes next in line for a popular backlash variously includes Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, and also potentially the Palestinian Authority. But none of these states is of monumental strategic significance to Moscow or Beijing. However, there are states outside the Arab world and the Middle East where family dynasties or autocratic regimes have entrenched themselves, emasculated opposition parties and democratic institutions, and denied their populations any meaningful say in leadership succession. Many of these are in Russia and China’s neighborhood, including Azerbaijan; Belarus; the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; and North Korea. They all face the risk of their own Mubarak moment. And Russia, in particular, is right to be worried. A host of states on its periphery had their political convulsions in the so-called color revolutions of 2003 to 2005.

Succession maneuverings by the ruling elites are under way behind the scenes in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to decide who will eventually replace their aging presidents. Kazakhstan’s leadership has had the benefit of a growing economy and swelling state revenues to blunt the attraction of potential opposition parties and has been quick to close borders and batten down the hatches when its neighbors have convulsed. Uzbekistan’s president, Islam Karimov, embarked on a massive crackdown against political opposition after an insurgency and protests in the city of Andijan in May 2005 and continues to maintain an iron grip on domestic politics. In the past year, Tajikistan has been plagued by regional insurgencies and factionalism with the unraveling of the domestic peace accords that brought an end to its ruinous civil war in 1997. And Kyrgyzstan has already undergone two uprisings against unpopular presidents since 2005 and is now embarked on a shaky experiment in coalition government.

Meanwhile, to Russia’s south and west, Georgia and Ukraine had their Rose and Orange revolutions in November 2003 and November 2004, respectively. Georgian opposition groups calling for early elections clashed with police during protests in November 2007; and Ukraine’s politics have at times been brought to a complete standstill by fierce rivalries among the leaders of the Orange Revolution in the last six years. Mass protests also marked the transition from Heydar to Ilham Aliyev (father to son) in Azerbaijan in October 2003, and smaller protests have been a feature of subsequent elections. Moldova was racked by election-related protests in its so-called "Twitter Revolution" in April 2009; and President Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus recently cracked down hard on demonstrations after December 2010’s flawed presidential election. All the while, to the east in North Korea, Kim Jong Il is in the process of trying to saber-rattle his way through a handover of power to his son, Kim Jong Un. How the United States now reacts to and handles developments in Egypt will have ramifications for future developments in other states. It will also have an impact on how Russia and China expect the United States to react to future cases.

Russia and China have hardly been immune to revolutions and uprisings in their own long histories. The scenes in Tahrir Square have evoked memories of events leading to Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation and the December 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The two countries’ governments have had some recent scares with clashes on Moscow’s Manezh Square in December 2010, between Russian ultranationalist protesters and police, and massive ethnic skirmishes in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region in July 2009. Russian and Chinese leaders are well aware — and have frequent reminders — of the dangers of demonstrators taking to the streets and squares of major cities, and of the role new social media can play in helping even the smallest demonstration take an unpredictable turn and get out of hand. They pay close attention to opposition activities and protests, as well as to activity on the Internet. China banned web searches of "Egypt," and Russia’s state media has tended to play up the idea of U.S. and other outside orchestration of the events in Cairo.

The domestic concerns may be somewhat greater for Russia than China. Mubarak’s ouster underscores the dangers associated with a highly personalized political system. While China still has the Communist Party, Russia only has Vladimir Putin (even if he is currently part of a tandem with Dmitry Medvedev). Putin has yet to give his unqualified endorsement of a second term for Medvedev in the presidential election cycle that has already begun this year — leading to speculation that Putin might return to the presidency in 2012. If he does, he could theoretically remain for two consecutive six-year terms until 2024, when he will be 72 — still 10 years younger than Mubarak was when he was summarily dumped. This would put Putin at the helm of Russia, one way or another, for almost a quarter-century.

The Russian regime’s legitimacy is derived in large part from Putin’s personal popularity and from the past decade of unprecedented economic gains. Putin is given considerable popular credit for having restored the country’s domestic order, economic prosperity, and international standing while he was president, and most recently for having guided the country through the worst of the global economic crisis with a substantial and effective package of bailouts and stimulus measures as prime minister. Although there is currently no serious organized political opposition to Putin and the regime inside Russia, there are many public signs of popular and also elite impatience for more fundamental change in the economy and the workings of government, most notably among the younger generation. Russian society is evolving faster than the political system. The Internet and popular social networking sites, including Russia’s own versions, have taken off over the last several years. They are increasingly being used to organize grassroots responses to events, including during last year’s debilitating peat-bog fires when a series of activist websites mobilized volunteers to fight fires and assist residents of devastated villages after local and central authorities failed to respond. As president, Medvedev has made efforts to address this change with a range of initiatives from maintaining his own Twitter account to a high-profile modernization campaign — but not with much success. The Russian government has been greatly alarmed by the continued brain drain of some of its best and brightest to Europe — most notably last year’s two Nobel Prize-winning physicists — and polling indicating that around 70 percent of respondents, especially young professionals, would live abroad if given the opportunity

The events in Egypt over the last several weeks have shown that no serious organized political opposition is actually necessary to get people out onto the streets if they are angry enough. This was also, in fact, the pattern in Ukraine and Georgia, where demonstrations took the opposition parties somewhat by surprise — and especially in Kyrgyzstan, where the opposition was dragged along by events and is still playing catch-up.

For Russia, the world price of oil is the single-most important factor for the future of its economy. In the short term, the price of oil dictates overall growth rates. If the current upward trend in oil prices holds, the Russian economy ought to be able to continue growing at about 4 percent annually. If prices are flat, then growth of 1 to 2 percent a year will be more likely. But even in the most optimistic case, the Russian economy will grow at a considerably slower pace than in the previous decade, when it grew on average around 7 percent a year. Over time, such sluggish growth may not suffice to meet expectations of the Russian population, and it certainly will not be enough to deal with some of the Russian economy’s more serious and deep-seated problems — inadequate and deteriorating infrastructure, outmoded physical capital, and Russia’s demographic and health crisis. The Russian government has sought to gloss over these inadequacies with some popular showcase bids, including securing the 2014 Winter Olympics for Putin’s favorite vacation spot of Sochi and the 2018 soccer World Cup, but a poorly performing economy and high unemployment after 2012 would eventually undermine the popular base of support for Putin (if he is still in place).

Internationally, the most sensitive issue in the wake of Egypt for both Russia and China is North Korea, which both states border. While Russia may not play any determining role in North Korean politics, it has long had aspirations for creating a free economic zone in the Tumen River border region to stimulate the ailing economy of the Russian Far East. It wants a friendly divided or unified set of Koreas on its doorstep. Russia is set to host the 2012 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok, not far from the North Korean border, where it hopes to emphasize its own status as an Asian-Pacific power and bask in the reflected dynamism of the region. Moscow’s nightmare scenario would be one where it stands haplessly by as China and the United States either sort out or fight over which gets to pick up all the pieces from a North Korean succession-related implosion.

Apart from their concerns about the domestic implications of Egyptian developments or contagion, Russia and China have their own sets of interests and relations in the Middle East to consider. Mubarak’s personal relations with Russia, for example, extend back into the Soviet past to the early 1960s when he received fighter-pilot training at Soviet bases and studied at Moscow’s Frunze Military Academy. The regime Mubarak created in Egypt after 1981 had many similarities with Central Asian and other post-Soviet states, where real political power is highly concentrated, a small number of people at the top make all key decisions outside the formal political institutions of the state, there is heavy reliance on the security services and a bloated government bureaucracy for support, and stability at all costs is the watchword of the regime.

Chinese and Russian leaders and elites vastly inflate the U.S. capacity to shape events, even under the best of circumstances. Based on past precedent, including Chinese perceptions about U.S. support for those who sought to overthrow the regime during the Tiananmen protests and firmly held Russian convictions that the United States orchestrated the color revolutions, Beijing and Moscow will tend to see active U.S. efforts to manipulate future outcomes in Egypt. Some of this is certainly tied to George W. Bush’s administration, whose intentions to promote democratization internationally aroused Russian and Chinese suspicions. Russia and China saw Bush’s "Freedom Agenda" as nothing more than a cynical tool to spread and exert U.S. influence. In this case, though, it is clear that the United States is also playing catch-up with events in Egypt. No matter how the situation in Egypt evolves, it will effect Chinese and Russian perceptions of the United States as an interlocutor and partner on issues unrelated to Egypt and the Middle East.

Before Mubarak’s ouster, Russia, China, and the United States shared the same preference for a soft transition rather than an abrupt regime change in Egypt. The course of events will now likely force the United States to push for the rapid installation of a transitional government that is as representative of as many of the newly emerging political forces as possible. Russia and China are more likely to want to keep the transitional government as the new government — a new face for the old regime — for as long as possible. Although it will not be easy, it is now in the U.S. interest to talk to Beijing and Moscow on an ongoing basis to elicit their thinking and, perhaps most importantly, to defuse their concerns and anxieties. The constructive rather than obstructive involvement of China and Russia in the process ahead in Egypt should be a goal of U.S. policy moving forward.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola