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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Warming to Russia

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Until 1990, Pakistan had a particularly close relationship with the United States. But starting in the 1990s, it has been faced with a peculiar foreign relations situation. The visible tilt of the United States toward India, with an eye on India's huge market, accentuated Pakistan's growing dilemma. It was in this context that policymakers in Pakistan started to look at different foreign policy options. What was unthinkable a few years ago -- extending the hand of friendship to Russia -- suddenly seemed a viable option.

In 2003, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf took the plunge. He visited Moscow, thus ending a 33-year diplomatic estrangement that existed between his country and Russia. During this visit, Musharraf and President Vladimir Putin signed diplomatic and cultural accords during a two-hour discussion. The discussions centered on economic issues and concluded with a severe indictment of the new international icon that has provoked a whole string of anti-terror treaties across the globe: the suicide bomber.

Though the get-together was conducted in a spirit of bonhomie, with both leaders nursing certain grievances against the behavior of established allies, it was nevertheless tempered somewhat by a previous Kremlin announcement: Putin had earlier informed the prime minister of India that his meeting with India's archrival would not affect the cordial relations Russia enjoyed with India.

Russian-Indian bonds notwithstanding, Pakistan had indicated on more than one occasion that it would like to forget the past and increase active trade with Russia. And Musharraf had certainly done his homework before he stepped onto the plane for that historic meeting with Putin. Russia may no longer be a military giant, but it is still an industrial colossus with an economy that, for all its clumsiness, still produces highly sophisticated weapons and twice as much oil, steel, cement, aluminum and rubber as the United States.

Putin's response to Musharraf's overtures has been positive. Russia welcomed the inclusion of Pakistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer. Many in Islamabad perceive this as a positive step that will further strengthen relations between the two countries.

Yet, what caused this sudden about-face in relations between the two countries after decades of alliances with each other's rivals? The old alignments, though they have been given a bit of a squeeze, are nonetheless in place. Pakistan is still very close to China, and U.S. President George W. Bush periodically praises Pakistan's efforts in the war against terrorism. Despite the occasional snubs and rebukes, no Pakistani government has ever been willing to cut the umbilical cord with the United States.

The official position in Islamabad in 2003, therefore, was that Musharraf and Putin were merely exploring new diplomatic channels so that they could widen trade. The perception in Pakistan, however, was that Putin possibly saw Musharraf's visit in terms of a Kremlin bid to enhance Russia's role in South Asia at a time when other strategic partnerships were shifting.

Those who read between the lines pointed out that there had been increasing signs of tension in Islamabad's relations with Washington after the United States and India signed a defense pact that charted a course for defense cooperation between the two countries for the next 10 years. Relations were also strained after religious parties in Pakistan, took over the government of the Northwest Frontier Province that shares a border with Afghanistan.

A few years ago, it was still widely believed that it would take some time to overcome memories of a bitter past, when Pakistan was a staging area for U.S.-backed mujahedeen fighters who took on the invading Soviets in Afghanistan. Yet even at the height of the campaign in Pakistan against the Soviet Union, progressive writers castigated the Taliban. They pointed out that the mujahedeen, who were retrogressive in outlook and who had the support of the Pakistani army intelligence network, were trying to overturn a system that had built roads, hospitals, community centers and schools, and provided education to Afghan girls.

Attitudes toward Russia have changed quite dramatically over the last two years. After repeated strikes by U.S. warplanes on selected Taliban targets in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, most anti-Russian feeling has faded in the Northwest Frontier Province, which today is the epicenter of intense anti-American sentiment. Attitudes are also rapidly changing among the youth and among members of the business community who see new possibilities for trade.

But 44 years of Western propaganda against the Soviet Union have taken their toll, and there are still plenty of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives in Pakistan who haven't altered their perception of Russia. This core group of conservatives harbors strong views on Russian nationalism, which it sees as a malevolent force that has persisted from the days of the tsar to the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Conservatives are wary of Russia's history of communism, exaggerated claims of uniqueness and apocalyptic sense of national mission.

At the same time, part of the intelligentsia in Pakistan still feels that the destruction of the Soviet Union 14 years ago was one of the greatest tragedies to befall developing nations. Many intellectuals believe that the Soviet ollapse not only robbed ordinary people in Soviet republics of the simple securities and certainties of life, but it also denied nations in Asia, Africa and South America the opportunity to play one superpower off the other.

Many Pakistanis now believe that though Russia has become a panoply of newfound wealth jostling with ingrained poverty, Russians are still better educated and more cultured than most people in the world.

This view is shared by many in the Pakistani elite, such as the former commander in chief of Pakistan's navy, Admiral Fashid Bokhari, and the former head of the country's state television network, Aslam Azhar. After all, they chose to send their sons to study at Moscow State University, rather than at an institution in the United States or Britain.

Perhaps they knew something that the majority of parents rushing blindly to the West don't: Russia may just be the country of the future.

Anwer Mooraj is journalist based in Pakistan. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.