Ultimate success for the ‘Turkish model’ is good for Russia as well
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
In the middle term, there will be a new wave of change in the Middle East, says Vitaly Naumkin (R). DAILY NEWS photos, Emrah GÜREL
Russia will benefit in the event that the much-discussed “Turkish model” becomes a template for the Islamist movements that appear set to gain power as a result of the Arab Spring, according to a Russian specialist on the Middle East.
Turkey is the big winner of the Arab Spring, Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies, told the Hürriyet Daily News this week.
Despite Turkey’s increased role, Naumkin said it was inevitable that radical Islamists would come to power in certain countries.
Q: Why is Russia resisting the imposition of sanctions against Syria?
A: Its main fear is that there could be a civil war. We don’t support the view that Bashar al-Assad should go. He is supported by 40 percent of the population. It is not true that it is a sectarian regime. There are Alawites who are the bulk of the regime. If there is a clash between loyalists [and rebels], there will be a civil war and Syria will be devastated.
Our president has sent messages to al-Assad demanding an end of the violence and a start of reforms. He was warned that Russia’s support is not unconditional. But Russia believes that there is still some room for compromise. He has to be given some time.
But he has not been giving signs that he will listen to calls for reform.
He was very slow in responding to these [calls], but I don’t think he has lost his legitimacy. The tough position of the West on Syria is caused by the hostility to Iran because Syria is regarded as a close ally of Iran, which is not true. Syria is a state with its own national interests – it is not a puppet of Iran. We have a good relationship with Iran and we are considering the continuation of our cooperation in the field of nuclear energy.
Q: If Syria is not a sectarian regime, what makes you think there will be a civil war when al-Assad goes?
A: Unfortunately, the Syrian population is fragmented. The ruling group consists of mainly Alawites, but it is supported by Christians and even by Sunnis. Thirty or 40 percent support the Baath party; they are not all Alawites. Alawites are no more than 15 percent of the population. It is a one-party regime that should be reformed. But there should not be not civil war between those who are for al-Assad and the Baath and those who are against them.
If there is a civil war between the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] in Syria and the Baathists who are secular nationalist, it will be devastating.
Q: Do you share the fear that regimes in the region could be replaced by radical Islamists?
A: It is inevitable in some countries. In several countries, including among Islamist movements in Egypt and in Syria or Yemen, it will lead to very important change in the social lives in these countries. They are accustomed to some liberties, some freedom for women that is not shared by radical fractions. The Taliban type of life can be supported by some factions.
Some are saying Islamist movements have changed, becoming less radical.
But there are still radical fractions within the MB and there are Salafis outside the MB who are very powerful. We have experienced that in Russia in the Caucasus. We have our own Salafis. These guys sometimes come back to Russia to launch terrorist attacks in Russia.
This is why some are saying Russia is against change in the region since it could have an effect on its Muslim communities.
Some people within the official establishment may think this way. But I think differently. I think we are interested in change in the Middle East. My reading of the Russian position is not like that. Russia supported revolution in Tunisia and Egypt pretty quickly.
We are communicating with opposition groups in Syria. They have been invited to Moscow several times. We are trying to convince all sides in Syria to [engage in] dialogue. But we don’t want another Libya experience.
Q: So the Libya experience is not a success in your eyes?
A: There are a lot of other brutal regimes outside Syria. As we can see, the new leaders of Libya imposed some restrictions on women already. Probably women would be the first victims of changes based on ‘the values of democracy and freedom!’ We are not supporting all kinds of dictatorships, but we are supporting stability.
Q: But isn’t this support coming at the expense of people’s demand for freedom? Should we just stand by and watch a leader kill his people?
A: No, we should not watch. We should increase pressure, but we should not intervene, especially given the fact that there are a lot of other cases. There are double standards.
We have the same rebellion in Afghanistan. What is the difference? In Libya people revolted against the rulers. In Afghanistan Taliban revolted against the [Hamid] Karzai regime. Why in one case is there NATO support while in another it does not offer support, for instance, to the Taliban, which is expressing the views of a considerable part of the Afghan population? [Yemeni President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is also killing people.
Q: How do you see Turkey’s role?
A: We see a growing role for Turkey regionally and globally. We believe Turkey is the main winner after the Arab spring because its role became very important given the weakening of Western influence, the weakening of Egypt and the weakening of the Gulf states.
Turkey is a stable state with great economic success and political stability; it’s not free of problems, like any state in the world, but it’s still a secular democracy and, at the same time, a model of moderate Islam. Our view is that if this [Turkish] model is followed by Islamist movements that come to power, it will be good for Russia; it will be good for the Muslims in our country. Given the good economic and political relations between our two countries, Russia is satisfied with the growing role of Turkey. But it does not mean we agree on everything.
But when Turkey talked about secularism, the MB did not like it.
The MB is fragmented among conflicting groups with different views. There is a generational gap between young and old leaders, a gap between conservatives and modernists and a gap between moderates and radicals.
It is very difficult to say who is going to take the upper hand.
Q: What is your projection for the region?
A: Almost everywhere, old regimes will be replaced by Islamist groups with a different mixture of anti-Western and anti-modernist values and some moderate, modernized values. The Middle East has been stable with old regimes and it can be stable with the Islamist regimes, but in the short run. In the middle term, there will be a new wave of change. Some of these parties lack a real program for reform. I doubt their ability to build real democracy and meet the expectations of the masses. So in the middle term we are approaching a turbulent period.
Bleak future for Afghans
The change in the balance of power is in favor of Turkey and somewhat in favor of Iran, said Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian specialist on the Middle East.
“Iranians have some anxiety about the situation in Syria. But in general they feel comfortable, because they are needed everywhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their internal situation is calm; there is no mass movement in Iran against the rulers. Despite sanctions, Iranians are feeling fine,” he said.
After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the country will witness a very dramatic escalation of violence and internal conflict, according to Naumkin.
“There is a possibility of failure for this [U.S./NATO] operation. We are not interested in this failure; we are thankful to Americans since they have protected us from terrorists on our southern borders. But they could not [provide] internal stability in the country,” he said.
Who is Professor Vitaly Naumkin?
An internationally renowned scholar on the Arab and Muslim worlds from ancient to modern times, Professor Vitaly Naumkin has been the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences since 2009.
He is also a member of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s advisory council, a member of the Russian Security Council’s experts council, as well as the chairman of the Russian Justice Ministry’s advisory board for studying religious materials.
Born in 1945, he received training in Cairo and completed his doctoral studies in the subjects of Arab and Islamic history. Naumkin has lectured at many universities in the United States, Europe, the Arab world and Asia.
He is also an editorial board member of several international journals.
His major awards include the Order of Friendship from the Republic of Tajikistan and the Order of Honor from the Council of Muftis of Russia for his cooperation with Islamic institutions in Russia.