The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

18th May 1997



Moscow hits the panic button

by Mervyn de Silva

A word that the English- speaking Russian uses quite often, and with some gusto, is "realistic". Mr. Yevgeny Primakov, the Middle-east correspondent of the Pravda used it twice in a conversation over lunch here in Colombo when he "covered" the NAM summit chaired by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike.

I am quite certain that "realistic" would be the word he would pick to describe the historic agreement that Russia has signed on the hotly debated issue of NATO’s eastward expansion. This is the territory where the Soviet- dominated Warsaw Pact countries ("satellites" in Cold War patois) were confronted by the US-led NATO, the western democracies.

The World War II allies against Nazi Germany chose to draw the line in an ideologically divided Europe in what was to be introduced to the post-war discourse, and soon fierce propaganda, as the "Cold War" or " the East-West conflict". It was this global conflict which in turn produced the third force, the "non-aligned" or "Third World".

Although Tito’s Yugoslavia hosted the inaugural NAM summit, the idea was Jawaharlal Nehru’s. But socialist Yugoslavia located on the front-line of the "new" war was an ideal choice-- or so, Jawaharlal Nehru, the authentic founder of the NAM would have appreciated.

By the 1990’s the Soviet implosion raised the curtain on Russia, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia after Mikhail Gorbachev had presided over the liquidation of the Communist czarists’ empire.

But none of this means that a helpless Russia should watch silently as the US-led NATO incorporates ex- Communist, Warsaw Pact states.............. without a word of explanation or polite diplomatic consultation with Moscow. President Yeltsin’s initial ( instinctive?) reaction was to rush to China, Moscow’s ideological rival a few decades ago.

Recognising the real enemy, the US and NATO, China has mapped its strategy somewhat differently. Since it has a different sense of "Time" and its economy has been re-structured under Deng Xiao-ping, China has responded to the "New World Order" (Washington made) with far greater self-assurance.

Moscow has hit the panic button.

Yeltsin’s troubles

For President Boris Yeltsin the problem is by no means exclusively external. It is a serious domestic issue, which threatens his political survival, apart from his health, a problem that does raise many questions. President Yeltsin is confronted by some formidable opponents- from ultra-nationalists to Communists. The transition from a rigidly state- controlled economy to market economics has inevitably created serious problems. Russian soldiers in Siberia for instance must wait months for pay! And the army is of course the weapon of last resort.

"Russia’s difficult transition from its Soviet imperial past to something we hope will become a stable and democratic state is a major aim in the construction of a post-Cold War international order. This is a process that must take time, and it is necessary for both NATO members and candidate states to take Russian sensibilities into account. But it is clearly unreasonable to expect European security politics to remain on hold in the meantime", warns Olav Riste, director of research at Norway’s Institute of Defence Studies.

For all his sympathetic concern, Mr. Riste is in fact a member of that fast-growing club of short-sighted strategists who believe that a weakened, unsettled, conflict-torn Russia is the perfect guarantee for stability in eastern and central Europe.

If western policy-makers are prepared to take Mr. Primakov seriously then NATO must surely show much greater realism and understanding. How long can President Yeltsin function effectively? After Yeltsin who or what?

On one of the most sensitive issues, NATO could surely compromise? Russia has asked NATO not to station nuclear weapons in eastern Europe. And not to move "significant armed forces there permanently". Sometime ago, NATO did give a short, straightforward answer: No Plan, No Need, No Intention.

Recently the Moscow press has changed its tone, plainly a reaction to a rapidly changing political climate and public opinion trends. What is true of the Russian media is also true of the American. The NATO-Russia " Charter" signed on Wednesday was described as a "consolation prize" for Russia, in a Washington post editorial. " "The problem is whether the allies in their good faith not to put Russia at a further strategic or political disadvantage, are diluting the alliance with imprudent military pledges and affording Moscow a veto in the name of consultation".

Domestic politics

Since "the Russian veto" has an unpleasant history- the history most of all in the first post-war decades and the United Nations- Mr. Yeltsin’s opponents and critics will take comfort from the aggressive American "line’, and the hostile editorial opinion. The assumption here is that the 21st century will also be ‘an American century’, the United States as a sole superpower.

But the more likely distribution of power in the 21st century may not accommodate hegem-onistic ambitions - America No. I but no overlord. Japan, China, India and Russia, and a new, united Europe. As for Russia, it is domestic politics, shaped by economic conditions that will fashion foreign relations.

An angry Russia, minus its empire (the republics from Ukraine to Uzbekistan) and swept by economic chaos could be an aggressive Russia. The neighbours will feel the heat.

Sir Leon Brittan, a European Commissioner, has recognised the threat, and identified the lurking dangers. "Volatility in the Russian federation, the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, the Middle-east peace process, the development of a mature dialogue with our Asian partners, the incorporation of new issues, in the international trade agenda and the preparations for a possible new round of trade negotiations will all require a confident European response in 1977 and beyond".

The reader will note that the future of the Russian federation, and Hong Kong could determine the new Europe’s fortunes.

Islam has no place in Indonesian elections

JAKARTA, Tuesday - Indonesia is home to the largest number of Moslems in the world but that doesn’t help its only Moslem-oriented political party much.

Though some 85 percent of Indonesia’s 200 million people are Moslems, the country’s electoral system is almost completely devoid of Islamic trappings. The use of religion to attract votes is illegal and so are displays of religious symbols.

Religious leaders and analysts say the country’s political system has been carefully engineered to keep it distant from religion and any ideology which has the potential to become divisive.

The country’s three permitted political parties - the ruling Golkar, the Christian-Nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party and the Moslem-oriented United Development Party (PPP) - have all sworn to abide by the state Pancasila ideology, which recognises the five main religions.

"The electoral system is not based on ideology. All the participants have Pancasila as their ideology," says Abdurrahman Wahid, the country’s most prominent Moslem leader.

He heads the non-political Nahadlatul Ulama (NU), a Moslem organisation which claims about 30 million members.

"Islam should be a way of life for its members and its teachings should be implemented voluntarily without any need for legislation from the state," he said.

As the race for the May 29 general elections enters its last week (campaigning ends on May 23), the PPP is hopeful of a strong showing - but for reasons which have nothing to do with Islam.

Rather, a rupture in the other minority party, the PDI, is helping the PPP as supporters of ousted PDI chief Megawati Sukarnoputri have begun to show up at the Moslem-based party’s rallies.

PPP chief Ismail Hasan Metareum has said support from Megawati loyalists could swell his party’s strength in parliament to about 100 seats from the 62 it had at the last polls in 1992. A total of 425 seats in the 500-member parliament are at stake in the elections, with military appointees filling the rest.

Nevertheless, the PPP does use subtle appeals to Islam.

Its party colour is green, all its meetings begin with recitations from the Koran and a popular slogan during its campaign has been: "Islam Yes, Pancasila Yes, PPP Oke".

Speakers at rallies talk of the need to support Moslem priests and other issues which are targeted at the Moslem community.


Motivated by a fear of radical Islam, the architects of President Suharto’s 30-year rule formed the PPP by fusing a number of Moslem parties together in 1973, with the NU forming the biggest component.

"The fusion was designed to castrate the NU," a foreign analyst of Indonesian Islamic affairs said recently.

The rural-based and moderate NU with its network of Islamic boarding schools throughout populous Java did the best of the non-governmental parties in the July 1971 election, the first after Suharto took power, with 18.7 of the overall vote.

In that year, Golkar won with 62.8 percent of the vote.

After the forced fusion, the government banned the party from using its symbol of the Holy Shrine at Mecca as well as barring the use of the words Islam or Moslem in its name. It forced the party to accept non-Moslems, although few, if any, joined.

In the early 1980s, the government required all organisations to adopt the state ideology Pancasila.

The analyst said the government, which closely supervises all political activity, has continuosly intervened to force the removal of fiery Islamic preachers or outspoken critics from the PPP. One case, they say, was outspoken PPP legislator Sri Bintang Pamungkas, who was sacked with Suharto’s permission in 1995.

"There is a constant pruning of anyone who gets out of line," the analyst said.

Wahid withdrew the NU from the PPP when he took control of the Moslem organisation in the early 1980s.

NU members still form the bulk of the PPP but they cannot hold office in both groups simultaneously.

"You cannot maintain a high standard of morality in the organisation if it still continues to play politics and because of that we pulled out. We wished that Islam not be manipulated for the purpose of strengthening political institutions," Wahid said.

Return to the News/Comment contents page

Go to the News/Comment Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED Plus Sports

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to