Russia, in swift about-face, recognizes Libyan rebels

The Kremlin opposed NATO's air war and called for negotiations between the rebels and Qaddafi. But its concern about keeping billion-dollar contracts with Libya seems to have caused the switch.

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during a meeting with leaders of the United Russia political party at the Bocharov Ruchei presidential residence in Sochi, Russia, Aug. 29.

Russia has been one of the loudest critics of NATO's air war against forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi over the past six months.

But on Thursday Moscow suddenly pushed the mute button on its criticism, joined a Paris conference of some 60 nations aimed at consolidating support for the victorious anti-Qaddafi insurgents, and surprised many by extending immediate official recognition to Libya's rebels as the country's only legitimate government.

"The Russian Federation recognizes the Transitional National Council of Libya as the ruling authority and notes the program of reforms announced by it, which envisions developing a new constitution, holding general elections and forming a government," the foreign ministry said in a terse statement posted on its website Thursday.

In recent weeks Moscow had urged the rebels to seek a negotiated settlement with Mr. Qaddafi, and President Dmitry Medvedev suggested earlier this week that Russia might withhold official recognition from the TNC until it demonstrated an ability to unite Libyans and control the country's whole territory.

But the foreign ministry statement offered a small, diplomatically-worded hint on the reasons for Russia's swift about-face: "We presume that the contracts previously concluded by the Russian Federation and Libya, and the other mutual obligations of the parties continue in effect in relations between the two states and will be carried out in good faith," it said.

In plain terms, Russia has economic interests to protect – $10 billion worth.

These include about $4 billion in arms contracts that were negotiated with Qaddafi, including a $1 billion deal to supply anti-missile systems that was shut down by sanctions when the war began. There is also a $3 billion contract for the state-owned Russian Railroads company to build a high speed rail link between the Libyan cities of Sirte and Benghazi, and another $3 billion or so in oil and gas related contracts signed by Qaddafi with Russian state companies such as Gazprom and Tatneft.

Experts say that by dumping Qaddafi, with whom Russia has long enjoyed good relations, Moscow is only acknowledging the inevitable. But as nations gather in Paris to consider Libya's way forward, the backroom scramble over economic contracts, past and future, is already underway.

"Yes, Russia's recognized the (rebel) government, what else could it do?" says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow.

"This drama is reaching the final curtain, and until today the Russian Foreign Ministry has been in a kind of paralysis. So, at last they understood that if they continue waiting, everyone will move on without Russia," Mr. Kagarlitsky says.

Some analysts suggest the imminent rebel victory in Libya may politically benefit Mr. Medvedev in his increasingly fierce but still undeclared competition with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the establishment nomination in Russian presidential elections, now barely six months off.

Medvedev has consistently been gentler than Mr. Putin in expressing Moscow's criticism of NATO for "going beyond" the UN Security Council's Libya resolution – which authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians – by using airpower to help the rebels overthrow Qaddafi. At one point Medvedev publicly chastised Putin for referring to the NATO action as a "crusade."

Analysts say that the Kremlin's fast footwork on Libya may cause momentary embarrassment, but no lasting pain in Moscow.

"Russia's relations with Qaddafi were never based on love, but were all about mutual pragmatic interest," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

Now, she says, there is a worry that the "Libyan provisional government may give economic preferences to Western companies, because it was the West that supported them directly. ..."

"But now's the right time to acknowledge the realities on the ground. We had pragmatic relations in the past, so there is reason to hope that they can be restored in future," she says.

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