From big player to bit player in Libya

Some readers have complained that Russia Watch recently has been all about Libya, which has nothing to do with Russia.

They are right. Once a big player in Libya, Moscow will now be a bit player in Libya. In 1969, the Soviet Union took a quick shine to Moammar Gadhafi, extending diplomatic recognition only three days after his Sept. 1, coup. Fast forward to Sept. 1, 2011. That day, Russia extended diplomatic recognition to Libya’s National Transitional Council, becoming nation number 73 to do so.

In the intervening 42 years, Moscow and Moammar were often an item. Leonid Brezhnev accurately thought he could do business with the Colonel. In 1974, after the West hit Libya with an arms embargo, the Soviet saw their chance, jumping in to sell combat jets, tanks, frigates and anti aircraft systems. By 1980, Moscow had a 3,500 advisors in Libya, and Libya’s arms purchases accounted for 10 percent of Soviet hard currency earnings.

As files from Libya’s secret police now reveal, East Germany gave valuable assistance to Col. Gadhafi in setting up a ruthless domestic spying agency, one that long outlasted its East German mentor.

The transition from USSR to Russia was rocky. Moscow put all deals on a commercial basis, and demanded a settlement of Libya’s Soviet-era debt of nearly $5 billion. In 2008, the debt was waived in return for business contracts.

In Tripoli, I saw a sun-faded billboard touting one of the biggest – a $3 billion deal for Russian Railroads to build a high speed, double track rail line from Benghazi west to Sirte, Gadhafi’s home town. In other projects, Russia’s Tatneft has drilled wells in Gadames and it has licenses around Sirte. Gazpromneft was negotiating to take part in a large oil field, appropriately named Elephant.

But after the collapse of the Gadhafi government, Aram Shegunts, head of the Russian-Libyan Business Council, moped to Reuters: “We have lost Libya completely. Our companies won’t be given the green light to work there.”

In reality, the new government will probably honor existing contracts. The railroad will probably go ahead as it is part of a larger project to connect Cairo and Morocco by rail. China is building the rail portion west of Sirte, toward Tripoli.

But, there is no glory in being 73rd on the list of Libya’s favored nations. Libyans now associate Moscow with their Gadhafi past. It is unlikely the new government will do Russia any favors. To Russia’s benefit, the country is now largely off the radar screen in Tripoli.

The rare public dispute last March between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev over the U.N. resolution authorizing NATO to act here was big headlines in Moscow, but was largely ignored in Libya.

After 10 days in Libya, the only time Russia surfaced was when I slid into my airplane seat from Tunis to Moscow. Sitting next to me was a young Libyan man, a fourth year kursant, or cadet, at a Russian military school. He said he had been home for July and August. I asked him what he thought about the revolution.

“Gadhafi only lost because of the NATO bombing,” he said earnestly in Russian. On one level, he seemed to be practicing lines that would be a hit with his instructors in Moscow.

On another level, I realized he seemed kind of out of it. His priorities were the 40 apps on his i-Phone, buying a watch from the duty free commissary on the airplane, and getting back to Moscow nightclubs to check out the devochkas.

He said he would become an officer in the Libyan Army. I translated from French, a headline from a Tunisian newspaper, saying that Libya’s new leaders are planning to form a new national army. His confidence was undimmed.

By all accounts, defense spending in Libya will decline as the nation slows arms purchases, and reorients spending to health and education.

Unlike Mr. Gadhafi, the emerging leadership in Tripoli shows no signs of waging wars on its neighbors or picking fights with the Europe and the United States. For example, the $850 million contract the Gadhafi government signed earlier this year for Russian anti-ship missiles can be expected to sink below the waves.

As our Airbus droned east into Russian airspace, I wondered, silently, if a Libya rebel unit leader, after six months of fighting, would give up a plum officer’s commission to a young man who sat out the revolution ogling girls in Moscow nightclubs.

I had another hour to go in the confines of Seat 4B. I decided to keep those thoughts to myself.

Read other articles of the print issue “The Moscow News #69”

Leave a comment