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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'New Era of Friendship' With Pakistan

APPresident Pervez Musharraf speaking at a news conference in Moscow on Thursday.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday wrapped up a three-day visit that was more symbolic than substantive, saying that Islamabad and Moscow had left behind the Cold War animosity that once separated them.

"We have ushered in a new era of friendship between Pakistan and Russia," Musharraf told reporters, speaking in crisp English on topics ranging from trade to al-Qaida. "We need to start with a clean slate in our bilateral relationship. We need to reinforce the good of the past and bury the bad."

Quite clearly, there will be plenty of bad to bury.

The mutual mistrust between the two nations goes back as far as the Soviet Union's 1979-89 war with Afghanistan, in which Islamabad supported the mujahedin fighting against Moscow.

Today, Russia is a major arms supplier and staunch supporter of Pakistan's nuclear rival India, and has made it clear that closer ties with Islamabad cannot come at the expense of Moscow's relations with New Delhi -- which accounts for more than $1 billion in trade turnover, as compared to a paltry $83 million in Russian-Pakistani trade.

General Musharraf, the first Pakistani leader to visit Russia in more than 30 years, praised President Vladimir Putin as "the best-placed person to play a role in improving relations between India and Pakistan," as he attempted to do last spring when the Southeast Asian neighbors were tottering on the brink of a third war over the disputed Kashmir region.

Diplomatic staff familiar with the presidents' meetings said the two leaders had hit it off.

Musharraf said he and Putin spent 5 1/2 hours together Wednesday, almost half of that time one-on-one. He added with a smile that they had spoken three languages: Russian, English and "body language."

In large part, rapprochement between the two nations has become possible in the changing world that has emerged since Sept. 11, 2001.

After the terror attacks against the United States, Pakistan surprised the international community by betraying its ethnic and historical ties to Afghanistan's fundamentalist Taliban and backing Washington's anti-terrorism coalition.

Speaking Thursday, Musharraf reiterated Islamabad's pledge to fight international terrorism -- a commitment Russia has questioned in the past.

Asked about the al-Qaida terrorist network and the whereabouts of the United States' No. 1 enemy, Osama bin Laden, Musharraf said that bin Laden, if alive, was definitely not in Pakistan and that al-Qaida had "ceased to exist as an organized body" capable of large-scale attacks.

"They are dispersed and they are on the run and they are hiding," Musharraf said. "The only thing they can do is to undertake minor actions anywhere around the world but no major operation capability can be attributed to them at the moment."

Musharraf downplayed U.S. allegations of ties between Iraq and al-Qaida, saying Pakistan did not have any evidence or intelligence supporting that claim and was opposed to military action against Baghdad.

Russia and Pakistan did not finalize any concrete deals to boost their meager trade figures, but outlined several areas of cooperation, Musharraf said.

One such field was metallurgy. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding giving Russian companies priority in a project to upgrade a major steelworks in Karachi built with Soviet assistance.

Another area was oil and gas development. Pakistan invited natural gas giant Gazprom to have first dibs in the privatization of Pakistan's oil and gas companies, Interfax reported.

Musharraf said bilateral cooperation would also include space technology, such as the launch of Pakistani communications satellites on Russian rockets.

He added that a joint intergovernmental commission would work out the "nitty-gritty" of further plans for cooperation.

While the meetings between the two presidents and other officials were marked by cordiality and good will, it is unlikely that Pakistan will become more than a blip on Russia's foreign policy radar anytime soon.

George Perkovich, a senior associate with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said Russian-Indian relations are so positive that, for now, Musharraf is probably just "putting in a bid not to be totally forgotten in the equation."

"Russia is so much closer to India than to Pakistan that the Pakistanis have to be realistic about that," he said.