Recycled prattle

Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and special envoy to the Middle East, speaks during a press conference, after meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, unseen, in Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, April 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Over the weekend, the Lebanese media was full of reports on the comings and goings of Russia’s special envoy to the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, leaving in their wake a sense of dizziness. As in, was Bogdanov’s trip about the future of the region, or was it more of a recycling of past hopes and dreams?

The Russian diplomat’s ability to meet with people from across the complicated Lebanese political spectrum struck some people as evidence of Moscow’s rising clout, but the same type of welcome might be received by any visiting United Nations official, anxious to hear out all sides while being unable to deliver much of substance.

Bogdanov’s whirlwind visit was largely about spreading a message of support for the regime in Damascus, rather than making a new friend in Lebanon. One might talk of the Russian aircraft that Lebanon is in the process of receiving, but if such a move is to have real significance, perhaps Bogdanov should be informed about Lebanon’s lack of an air defense system and other military infrastructure that would render the move meaningful.

As for Syria, the Russian deputy foreign minister reassured his interlocutors on the state of President Bashar Assad’s offensive against the “armed groups.” Lectures about the harm of foreign intervention in Syria from a leading foreign supporter of the regime’s bloody crackdown are no way to make new friends in Lebanon, but merely bolster the morale of old friends.

Instead of charting a meaningful course for the future, Bogdanov repeated the same old phrases about the need to adhere to the Geneva Declaration as a solution. Perhaps Bogdanov should be reminded that the Syrian regime approved this document because it was weakly worded and required nothing painful from a president who is widely blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians. Even the “daring” part of Bogdanov’s trip, meeting with a Syrian opposition figure, was with someone from the “loyalist” opposition.

The Russian visitor also reportedly touched on the importance of Russia’s oil and gas experience, as Lebanon takes the first steps toward exploiting its own maritime resources. One wonders how discussions of this sort proceed behind closed doors, beyond the platitudes; both countries have yet to free themselves from the grips of endemic corruption and a lack of transparency when it comes to such ventures.

If Bogdanov was instead hearkening back to the past, then the visit’s impact will remain purely personal. He was enthusiastic about seeing his acquaintances from the first years of Lebanon’s Civil War, and even more so about reconnecting with Eastern Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Lebanon, recalling Moscow’s much-earlier forays into the region as a protector of that community.

Ironically, Lebanon in the 21st century is struggling with the thorny question of how to move beyond sectarian politics, and the last thing Russia needs is to make people feel that Moscow is more concerned with Orthodox Lebanese than those from the 17 other sects.

In the end, Bogdanov left people dizzy by signaling several things: a long-standing Russian dream to enjoy some level of influence in the Mediterranean without offering much in return; a cautious, Arabic-speaking Foreign Ministry official from the days of Soviet Union-style rigid diplomacy; and the Russian enthusiasm for supporting dictators to the bitter end.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 30, 2013, on page 7.




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