The NEO last commented on the situation in Pakistan in connection with a large-scale terrorist attack on the (apparently) heavily guarded grounds of a Shia mosque on January 30 in Peshawar, capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Once again, the author has to state with regret that terrorist acts and simple guerrilla warfare in “problematic” regions are almost a mundane background to the political life of this country. A month later, two prominent functionaries of one of the Islamist groups were killed in Rawalpindi and Karachi, who, in particular, are considered to be involved in the famous terrorist act in Mumbai, India in November 2008. Another week later, not far from the capital of the “Balochistan” province, Quetta, another suicide bomber blew himself up next to (again) a truck carrying police officers. Nine people were killed and 13 injured.
It should also be recalled that Pakistan is a de facto nuclear power and it is largely for this reason that acts of political turbulence of various natures on its territory are monitored so closely, almost continuously, from abroad. An important foreign policy component of almost all terrorist attacks is also that they serve as a pretext for directly or indirectly blaming these on neighboring India.
In the coming months, however, the main source of domestic political turmoil in Pakistan may be the electoral process, which this year will have two components. First, on April 30, there will be early elections to local parliaments in the provinces of Punjab (where about half of the country’s population is concentrated) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Second, regular general elections to the national parliament should be held before the end of this year, because the (“calendar”) powers of the current parliament will expire in August this year.
As for the first component, its emergence is due to a sharp deterioration in the internal political situation in the country after the removal from power last spring of the government of Imran Khan, which represented a coalition led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. They were replaced by a faction led by the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party and the Shehbaz Sharif government.
But it was not so much the legality as the questionable “political correctness” of the procedure for changing the country’s leadership that led to protests from the PTI and the former prime minister himself. They immediately demanded an extraordinary general election so that the people could have the final say on the political crisis.
Since then, the elections have been at the center of the struggle between the current ruling PML-N and the PTI, which has gone into opposition. Since the latter had a majority in the two provincial parliaments mentioned above, this resource was used in this struggle. The PTI MPs left the parliaments of both provinces, and the central government had no choice but to agree to early elections at least in those provinces. The levers of government in these provinces had temporarily passed into the hands of representatives of the central government.
For Imran Khan himself, the situation was complicated by the fact that several criminal cases were initiated against him. The most serious of these (with the prospect of blocking his ability to engage in political activity and hold public office) is the accusation of trading gifts from foreign colleagues during his tenure as prime minister. Under various pretexts, Khan has so far ignored repeatedly scheduled court hearings, and therefore there are even attempts to arrest him. The last such action, held on March 14 near Imran Khan’s residence in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, led to several hours of clashes between the police squad that arrived and an even larger crowd of supporters of the former prime minister.
A day earlier he had had to cancel a planned rally of his supporters because the interim administration had imposed content restrictions on the intended speeches in accordance with the legal provisions of the state of emergency. Unfortunate words spoken by any of the participants of the (failed) rally could have aggravated the situation between Imran Khan and the judiciary.
Among the various topics of bickering (with the use of labels, as they say, on the edge of foul play) between representatives of Pakistan’s opposing political factions, the issue of guilt for the very real prospect of the country’s sovereign default is particularly acute. Which already brings to mind analogies with what happened a year earlier in Sri Lanka. There is reason to say that under the current government, Pakistan’s foreign debt has more than doubled in less than a year. However, the amount already accumulated a year ago by the previous government also looked serious enough to at least start the work on postponing such a prospect.
But today, again, all that matters is its threatening reality. Which is exacerbated by the persistent effects of the catastrophic flooding that occurred in late summer last year due to monsoon rains of unprecedented intensity. It is the combination of these and other domestic problems that essentially defines the positioning of the current Pakistani government in the international arena. And not some “inherently pro-American-Western” attitude of the Sharif government that came to power a year ago.
Like its predecessor, it is, above all, pro-Pakistani and is guided by its own understanding of what is good and what is bad for the country it leads. Both in general and in details. “In general,” at the official level, the “ironclad” nature of relations with China and the willingness to continue the key bilateral project to form a “China-Pakistan economic corridor” are confirmed.
Also noteworthy is the very fact of readiness to buy Russian oil (given the special importance of this issue for the US) despite the disagreement over its possible price. Which, however, can be explained by the above-mentioned situation in the sphere of financial (in)solvency of the current Pakistan.
The fact of the latter’s contribution to the moneybox of arms supplies to Ukraine should be considered unimportant for the Russian-Pakistani relations.
The present government of Pakistan, not without reason, connects the question “to be or not to be” (not so much for itself but for its country) with the prospect of getting some much needed amount from international financial structures, which are under the de facto control of Washington. Islamabad has to take into account the specific interests of the United States in the Ukrainian conflict. That is how one should assess reports about alleged deliveries of “Soviet caliber” artillery shells from Pakistan’s arsenals to Ukraine.
The visit of the head of the Pakistani Foreign Ministry to Lithuania at the end of February should be treated in a similar way. On the surface it is an extremely strange event, because, as they say: what does one have to do with the other? But lo and behold, the government of Pakistan did not spare the money for the visit of its minister to one of the most hardened anti-Russian actors in the “post-Soviet space.” Which never misses a chance to yell at not only Russia but also China, again Pakistan’s key ally. For which Lithuania gets a bone from the table of its master.
However, according to the above-mentioned considerations, this fact too in no way indicates the “pro-Americanism” of the government of Sharif.
And, in general, Russia has no need to give preference to any of the political groups in Pakistan, which are now in a state of extremely fierce struggle. It should be stressed again, for purely domestic political reasons.
Just as Russia should treat with equal goodwill all countries that are part of the increasingly important region of Central and South Asia. A region that has no less potential for mutually beneficial cooperation involving the world’s leading players than other regions of today’s world.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.”