“Orthodox Revival” in Russia’s Lebanon Policy

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Moscow is in the process of developing a new policy in Lebanon with the aim of bolstering its presence. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Nasser Charara

Published Thursday, April 11, 2013

Al-Akhbar has learned that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov is set to arrive in Lebanon on April 26. According to Russian sources, Bogdanov will have a full agenda during his two-day visit, meeting with Lebanese politicians and senior officials.

The Russian sources also said that Moscow is in the process of developing a new policy in Lebanon with the aim of bolstering its presence. Several considerations have motivated the move, including the involvement of Russian firms in offshore gas exploration.

Three weeks ago, Russia’s Gazprom obtained a gas exploration concession in fields off the Palestinian coast, and is set to begin operations next June. In Lebanon, Gazprom is taking part in the pre-qualification round for gas licenses.

Moscow’s efforts to strategically position itself in the eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas sector aren’t only to enhance revenues. Instead, Russia is keen on defending its position as a natural gas leader worldwide, as well as a key supplier of gas to Western Europe. This requires Moscow to be prominently represented in any international scramble for resources.

Ahead of Bogdanov’s visit, Moscow issued a statement expressing support for the designation of MP Tammam Salam to head the next government. Russia’s foreign ministry has backed a figure with moderate views over the crisis in Syria for the premiership in Lebanon.

Moscow is averse to Saudi involvement in Lebanon, as well as Saudi attempts to use the country as a staging ground for the armed Syrian opposition. Furthermore, Moscow has qualms about Russian radical Islamic groups using Lebanon as a safe haven to plan acts that undermine Russian national security.

With Chechen Islamic movements fighting in Syria, particularly in the Homs countryside, Russia would like to see Lebanon monitoring these groups more strictly, especially as they have ties with Salafis in north Lebanon. Protecting Christians in the Levant is one of the key themes of Russia’s renewed engagement in Lebanon, especially in the wake of the conflict in Syria. In particular, an Orthodox Christian “dimension” has returned vigorously to Russian policy in the Middle East.

Moscow is keen to express this in a number of ways. For instance, the Russian embassy in Beirut was supposed to be relocated from Corniche al-Mazraa to elsewhere in the capital. However, the decision has since been cancelled. One explanation is that Russia wants to maintain the Orthodox symbolism of its embassy’s premises. The Russian embassy building dates back to the early 20th century, when it was acquired from Russian missionaries.

With the start of WWI, the educational mission was closed, as Russia and the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Beirut at the time, were on opposite sides of the conflict. Today, the Russians are proud of the origins of their diplomatic mission’s building.

The Russians also like to draw attention to the fact that the Russian missionaries, unlike their Western peers, did not seek to gain political influence in Lebanon, but only to contribute to education. For this reason, they say, they only taught in Arabic, rather than in their native Russian.

Naturally, the “Orthodox revival” seen in official Russian discourse on Lebanon has political undertones. Russia wants to emphasize a certain moral aspect in its stances in order to counter, among other things, allegations of opportunism in its attitudes in support of the Syrian regime.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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