Russia raises eyebrows over Tibet
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - Seen as a major policy shift, Russia said last week that it was ready to assist in dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to resolve the Tibet issue.
Moscow's gesture puzzled many, including Beijing and the Tibetan government in exile. Why did Russia - a strategic partner of China - suddenly become so eager to involve itself in the Tibet issue?
On May 13, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that Russia was ready to help settle the dispute between China and the Dalai Lama over Tibet. Beijing has firmly opposed foreign intervention on the issue, insisting it is an internal affair.
"We've been closely following developments in relations between the Chinese leadership and the Dalai Lama and we know that the Chinese leadership would like the Dalai Lama not to be associated with any political activities and to distance himself from separatist trends," Lavrov told the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, as reported by state-run news agency RIA Novosti.
"We are interested in normalization in relations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama ... If all the parties make attempts to separate purely pastoral contacts from political associations, this would be a solution to the problem. We are ready to assist in this," Lavrov said.
The comments from Moscow were sup rising as most countries have avoided the Tibet issue in recent months, likely in fear of upsetting China while its global economic and political clout are on the rise. Moscow is a key strategic partner of Beijing and recognizes Tibet as an integral part of China, and Lavrov added some remarks that likely made Beijing happy.
"Beijing has well-founded reasons for saying it will not have contact with the Dalai Lama as long as he makes provocative statements and engages in political activities ... The Dalai Lama has, perhaps unwillingly, become a symbol of Tibetan separatism for many foreign leaders," Lavrov said.
Beijing, apparently still weighing Lavrov's comments, appreciated his criticism of the Dalai Lama, but avoided comment on the offer to help solve the Tibet issue. At a regular press conference in Beijing on May 20, when asked to comment on Lavrov's remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu simply said that it was an important part of China-Russia strategic partnership to show firm support for each other's core interests. As China's strategic partner, Russia has always firmly supported China's positions on Tibet-related issues. China has highly praised Russia's position.
Chinese state media also reported on Lavrov's criticism of the Dalai Lama but was mute on Moscow's policy shift. "Russian Foreign Minister calls Dalai Lama symbol of Tibet independence" was the headline of an editorial in the state-run People's Daily Online. "The Dalai Lama has continued to use his religious functions to meet objectives that have nothing to do with religion or religious work, and such attempts have not achieved the desired results."
A ninth round of talks between Dalai Lama's envoys and Beijing resumed in January 2010, but they came to a standstill over the "Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People", a document submitted by Tibetan exiles which Beijing rejected. Chinese officials told the Dalai Lama's envoys that Beijing would not make any compromises on its sovereignty over the Himalayan region and that both sides' views remained "sharply divided".
Tibetan exiles are unsure of Russia's intentions. "If Russia is in a position to facilitate the dialogue on behalf of Buddhist followers in the Russian Federation or even on behalf of Beijing, then we welcome it. But if it is aimed at restricting the Dalai Lama's activities, then this is something we must carefully review from our own view point," Samphel Thupten, a spokesman for the Tibetan government in exile, told Asia Times Online.
The prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche, has said that compromise over the memorandum is not possible. "We have already made all necessary and possible concessions that we could make, and there is nothing left to concede any further." Rinpoche stressed that there would be no acceptance of the Beijing's demand that "all Tibetan people should be under one single administration within the framework of the People's Republic of China".
"It is quite difficult to understand Moscow's policy over the issue. It is either trying to re-initiate the dialogue process or strengthen its diplomatic ties with Beijing," said Phunstok, an exiled Tibetan.
The Dalai Lama, who currently is on a trip to the United States, has pressed China for more dialogue over his country's autonomy. "The Chinese leadership needs to acknowledge that there is a Tibetan issue and begin serious discussions," the Dalai Lama said last week in an exclusive interview with Duowei.com, a US-based Chinese-language online newspaper.
Before he began this month's trip to the US, the Dalai Lama said in an interview with the Associated Press that the Tibetan exile movement must press forward with its talks with the Chinese government, even though years of negotiations have resulted in almost no progress. The Dalai Lama cautioned that it could be decades before any benefits of such talks with China are obvious.
Some experts think say that the shift in Moscow's position was due to the Dalai Lama's efforts to preach non-violence and oppose calls for armed struggle against Beijing. "Lavrov's remarks show that Moscow thinks China takes too harsh a stand on the Dalai Lama and that Russia at the same time is trying to remain neutral in the dispute," said Professor Sergei Luzyanin with the Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
However, Russian authorities last month rejected a request for an entry visa for the Dalai Lama made by a Russian Buddhist association, the Kalmykia Buddhist Association. The Dalai Lama last visited Russia in 2004, after he was first denied a visa.
The Russia Federation is home to a large population of Buddhists, with around 700,000 living in eastern areas such as Buryatia on the border with Mongolia and south Russia's Republic of Kalmykia. In 2006, Kalmykia presented the Dalai Lama with the "White Lotus Order" - the republic's highest civilian award - in recognition of the Tibetan leader's "outstanding merits and considerable contribution for the prosperity and the revival of spirituality" in the region.
Moscow has taken seriously China's claims that the Dalai Lama is "wolf in monk's clothing" who is interested in separatism and not spirituality. "Beijing's position on the Dalai Lama's visit is very tough and clear, and it is obvious that Russia cannot help but take this into account," Interfax quoted Mikhail Kapura, who represents the Republic of Kalmykia in the Federation Council, as saying.
Millions of Russian Buddhists were looking forward to the Dalai Lama's visit and the Kremlin was under pressure to allow it. Buddhism is one of the officially recognized traditional religions of Russia along with Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. However, in the end it appears that Russia's international obligations were seen as more important.