Libya as Proxy

If the media in the G7 states bothered to report it, they mocked the two visits of the World Chess Federation president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to Tripoli. Was Qaddafi playing chess while his country burned? Ilyumzhinov is not a chess maestro. From 1993 to 2010, he was the president of Kalmykia, a small republic in the CIS. Ilyumzhinov became head of the Chess Federation in 1995, using that post to bring the championships to the capital of Kalmykia, Elista, several times, as well as once trying to hold it in Baghdad (1996) and once holding it in Tripoli (2004). His chess might not be at the standard of Viswanath Anand or Boris Gelfand, but he is as eccentric as some of the leading chess players (he believes that aliens gifted chess to our planet).

On June 12, Ilyumzhinov was in Tripoli playing Qaddafi. When it became clear that he would win, Ilyumzhinov declared the game a draw. After the trip, Russia’s Africa envoy, Mikhail Mergelov said that he spoke to Ilyumzhinov before his trip, “I advised him to play white and to give Qaddafi to understand that he was nearing an end game.”

Russia often sends mysterious couriers to carry its messages. Ilyumzhinov went to Baghdad shortly before the Gulf War re-opened in 2003, where he met Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. What message did he carry then, and what message will he carry now?

On July 3-4, the Russia-NATO Council met in Sochi, the Black Sea resort. The main item on the agenda was for NATO to smooth Russia’s ruffled feathers. The Council was created in 2002 to make sure that the increased tensions between the two did not detract from Russia’s support of the War on Terror. NATO’s gradual march eastward, attracting former Eastern bloc states into its agenda came just after NATO’s air war in Yugoslavia (1999) and its war in Afghanistan (2001 onward). All this looked to Moscow like encirclement. Bush’s insistence upon missile defense, and the U. S. push to bring NATO into its missile defense plans rattled Moscow. The war over South Ossetia in 2008 allowed Moscow to flex its muscles.

Over the past decade, Russia has moved closer to the new formation that comes out of the Non-Aligned Movement, the G-15 and the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) formation. China joined IBSA to block the new trade rules that would have gone through in Cancun (2003) and to formulate a common agenda at the Copenhagen (2009) meeting on climate. These discussions and the creation of a common platform produced the BRICS formation, which met earlier this year at Hainan, China. Russia, long adrift somewhere between its own Cold War past and Boris Yeltin’s subservience to the U. S., found a new diplomatic purchase with the locomotives of the Global South.

At Hainan, in April, the BRICS powers strongly criticized NATO’s war on Libya, and formulated the principles that would appear in the African Union High Level Ad Hoc Committee on Libya’s  June 15 statement to the UN. BRICS held out for a negotiated settlement. Ruhakana Rugunda, of Uganda, represented the AU at the UN meeting, where he pointedly noted, “It is unwise for certain players to be intoxicated with technological superiority and begin to think they alone can alter the course of human history towards freedom for the whole of mankind. Certainly, no constellation of states should think that they can recreate hegemony over Africa” (Rugunda was the Ugandan representative to the UN, and has now been moved to a domestic cabinet post). The AU told the UN that given its experience in Burundi, in particular, it would be able to handle the negotiation and the transition in Libya.

It was in this context that the Russians involved themselves in the Libyan stalemate, with some chess diplomacy at the same time as they tried to push back in the halls of NATO. At Sochi, Russian president Medvedev invited South African president Jacob Zuma, who has been at the head of the AU’s attempts in Libya, to join the deliberations. Zuma told the NATO chiefs that they had overstepped the UN Resolutions (1970 and 1973), and that the only way forward was negotiations. If the NATO chiefs could pressure the Benghazi Transitional Council to back down from its maximalist position (Qaddafi must go immediately), Zuma suggested, the way could open for peace talks. The NATO chiefs listened to Zuma tell them about the AU’s Framework Agreement on a Political Settlement, and watched Medvedev applaud the AU for its work and offer his support to the Framework and the AU’s Roadmap. Russia and the AU offered to lean on Qaddafi to abide by the terms of the Roadmap, and they wanted NATO to lean on the Transitional Council to do the same.

NATO left Sochi indifferent to Russian concerns over missile defense, with anodyne promises over progress at their next meeting in Chicago. On Libya, there was no progress. Libya is the first battleground of a new “cold war,” this one not between the U. S, and the Russia, but between the G7 (and its military arm, NATO) and the BRICS (who have not much of a military arm). The G7 commands the skies and, increasingly shakily,  the rhetoric of freedom, but it does not have a sustainable economic base and no sense of a political process that does not come with aerial bombardment.

The BRICS failed to gather around their candidate for the IMF post, and so far have failed to articulate an alternative to the deflationary strategies of the international financial organizations. On the politics of economics, in other words, BRICS have been less successful. On the question of international politics, they have been a bother to the G7. On Syria, the BRICS will not allow any strong UN resolution. The grounds are that NATO misused Resolution 1973 on Libya, and it would do the same in Syria (the G7’s case on Syria was made by the French representative to the UN G?rard Araud on June 13 in O Estado de Sao Paulo, to win over the Brazilians away from what the French see as South African obduracy). The BRICS tried to stop Resolution 1973 in the first instance, but Zuma, at that time, buckled after a personal phone call from Obama. His militancy now is perhaps compensation for South Africa ditching the BRICS bloc then.

Ilyumzhinov, now more openly Russia’s envoy to Libya, arrived in Tripoli over the weekend. He met with Qaddafi’s son Muhammed, who is actually a good chess player and heads the official chess federation. Ilyumzhinov was told that Qaddafi plans to die on Libyan soil, although a senior Russian official told Kommersant that Qaddafi has hinted that he would give up power “in exchange for security guarantees.” He won’t leave prior to negotiations, however, and the Benghazi leadership won’t talk unless he leaves: that is the main stalemate. Benghazi reflects NATO’s view. The BRICS are no longer invested in Qaddafi’s maintenance (you don’t hear “brother leader” in the AU meetings any longer). They simply want to find a rational way to end the conflict. The Libyan war is no longer about Libya alone, nor about the Arab Spring. It is a test case for the transition from the “American Century” to the era of the South’s locomotives. The U. S. and the G7 will not allow for a graceful transition. History will judge them poorly for their stubbornness.

Vijay will be speaking tonight in Boston on Arab Spring-Libyan Winter. Click here for details.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. CounterPunchers in the Boston area can hear Prashad live  here on July 7. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu






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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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