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Dalai Lama and the Russian Card

by Claude Arpi, The Statesman, May 29, 2010

Moscow As Mediator Between China And The Tibetan Spiritual Leader

Moscow, Russia -- Startling news often goes unnoticed amidst the daily diet of glamorous cricket. As happened on 13 May when Novosti, the Russian state-owned news agency, quoted the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov: “Russia is ready to help settle the conflict between China and the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama”.

During a speech in the Federation Council, Russia’s Upper House of Parliament, Lavrov said that Moscow supports the development of inter-religious and inter-confessional ties, though it is “against aspects of religion that have been distorted into politics”. And then, the news: “We are following carefully what is happening between the leadership of China and the Dalai Lama and we know that the Chinese leadership is deeply committed to the Dalai Lama dissociating himself from any kind of political activity and separatist tendencies in regard to one or another territory in China.”

Lavrov explained that the occasional attempts to politicise the Dalai Lama’s role as a spiritual leader have not yielded any results, not even in the context of his relations with Buddhists in Russia. “If all the parties make attempts to separate clearly pastoral contacts from political associations, this would be a solution to the problem. We are ready to assist in this.”

Visa refused

This statement was rather unexpected; first, because Moscow does not interfere in ‘Beijing’s internal affairs’; further, a few days earlier when the Buddhists in Kalmykia asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to issue an entry visa to the Dalai Lama, it was apparently refused, though Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the Republic of Kalmykia affirmed that Elista, the capital of Kalmykia was expecting the Dalai Lama to consecrate a temple.

During a news conference, Ilyumzhinov clarified his personal position: “The Church is separated from the State in our country, but as a person professing Buddhism, I wait for the Dalai Lama’s visit.”

The three Russian Republics of Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva have a predominantly Buddhist population. These small, but strategically located, republics have nearly 1 million Buddhists representing about 0.5 per cent of the total population of the Russian Federation.

The Tibetan leader has visited the Buddhist republics several times in the past, but since 2007 the Dalai Lama has been denied entry to Russia. His last visit was in 2004, when he paid a religious visit to Kalmykia to consecrate the land for a Buddhist temple.

Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the Kalmyk Head Lama, recently confirmed that the Russian authorities have declined the request of the Kalmykia Buddhist Association for a visa to the Dalai Lama. He said a letter from the Russian government stated: “The Dalai Lama’s visit to Russia would be taken by Beijing especially sensitively in the current year marking a jubilee of China’s and our common victory in WWII.”

In these circumstances, the declaration of Lavrov is rather surprising. It is true that in recent years academic interest has increased considerably in the Buddhist republics.

Dr Garri Irina from the Institute for Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Ulan-Ude (Buryata) wrote: “Tibet and Buryatia are countries very closely related to each other. First of all, both regions share a common historical destiny of Tibet-Mongolian civilization which is rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and submission to the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama . … Both regions passed through a similar history of persecution of religion and its subsequent revival . … There are more than 200 Buddhist communities in Russia now.”

A revival of Buddhism (the Tibetan Mahayana tradition) is visible in these republics located north of Outer Mongolia (Tuva and Buryata) and on the Caspian Sea (Kalmykia).

Recently, historians have discovered several documents showing the close connection between the rulers of Tibet and the Russian Empire. For example, 25 secret letters from Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama to his representative in Russia, a Buryat monk called Agvan Dorzhiev have come to light. The letters, dating between 1910 and 1925, demonstrate that the Dalai Lama was interested in getting political support from Russia, mainly to balance the British influence in Tibet and keep the Chinese nationalists at bay. The Lhasa government maintained strict confidentiality in its communications with St Petersburg and till recently, it was not known.

This is not enough to explain the sudden offer from Moscow to ‘assist’ Beijing and Dharamsala to find a common ground. However, it is true that Moscow has always kept an eye on what was happening in the hill station of Himachal. In 1973, a declassified cable from the US Ambassador, Patrick Moynihan, to the State Department in Washington quotes Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother: “Thondup also mentioned that the Soviets had been in touch with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and in India. They had explored the possibility of refugee cooperation in intelligency [sic] operation and in other activities in Tibet. Thondup said he had discouraged Tibetans from cooperating with the Soviets, but some Tibetans were quite interested in this. He indicated that these contacts had started three or four years ago with then Foreign Minister [Secretary] TN Kaul’s encouragement, they were more active two years ago than they were now.”

More importantly, President Hu Jintao visited Moscow on May 8 and 9, hardly a week before Lavrov’s declaration. The occasion was the 65th anniversary of Russia’s Great Patriotic War and the victory over the Nazis. During his stay, Hu lauded the sacrifices made by the Russian people during the fight against ‘fascism’.

Hu’s participation was interpreted “as a signal of Hu’s determination to forge a close strategic alliance,” says Russel Hsiao in the China Brief of the Jamestown Foundation.

Hu called upon Russia and China to consolidate their strategic partnership, and promote ‘multipolarity’ in the international system as well as ‘democratization of international relations’.

Extensive interests

President Hu met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (they had already met on 15 April during the BRIC conference). Hu affirmed that “Beijing and Moscow share extensive interests on many major issues.”

Moreover, Hu spoke of China’s ‘new security concept’. For Beijing, this means “to rise above one-sided security and seek common security through mutually beneficial cooperation … and refrain from interfering in other countries’ internal affairs and promote the democratization of the international relations”.

This last concept points to the ‘unilateral’ role played by the US on the world stage today as well as the greater importance Beijing wants international ‘democratic’ institutions, such as the UN, to have in the future.

This does not elucidate why the Russian Foreign Minister offered to mediate between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, except, of course, if Beijing was in the know and the announcement was made in consultation with Beijing. Recently, Ma Zhaoxu, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, urged the United States to stop ‘supporting anti-Chinese separatist forces’. Beijing is unhappy about the constant reprimand coming from the US about human rights and Tibet. To ask Moscow to be the intermediary is a way to pull the carpet from under Washington’s feet and show the world that the Americans are not the only ones who care for Tibet. It is consistent with Beijing’s policy: in July 1981 CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang told Gyalo Thondup that the Dalai Lama could return to China, but he would have to stay in mainland China and not get involved in any political activities.

The Dalai Lama’s answer was that his only interest was the fate of six million Tibetans, not his personal welfare.

Dharamsala has not reacted so far, but it is worth watching the situation unfold.

The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of the Fate of Tibet.

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