Imran Khan Wins Pakistan’s Election: Prospects for Moscow-Islamabad Relations
Given that it is the fifth most populous country in the world and the 33rd largest country geographically, Pakistan, which is also a nuclear power, is exceptionally important. With its two large seaports, Chabahar and Gwadar, and five rivers, the country is a gateway of trade for many nations, including China, which is pursuing its global One Belt One Road (OBOR) economic project. Pakistan is a pathway via which China is connected to the Persian Gulf and Middle East. It is also the largest democracy in the Muslim world.
On July 25, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or the Pakistani Movement for Justice Party, won the parliamentary election campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. Its leader, Imran Khan, a former cricket star, is expected to become the nation’s next prime minister, leading a coalition government amidst the internal political turmoil triggered in 2016 by the Panama Papers. The new leader has the reputation of being a politician who enjoys the support of the country’s military.
Imran Khan has strongly criticized the US war on terror, particularly the country’s use of drone strikes in Pakistan, which have killed civilians. He has also slammed Washington’s policy in Afghanistan, calling for a negotiated peace with the Taliban.
This critical attitude toward US foreign policy has not prevented Imran Khan from adopting a conciliatory tone during the run-up to the election, which is understandable in view of Pakistan’s dependence on the IMF, where the US wields great influence. His goal is to have a “balanced relationship” with Washington.
US President Trump pulls no punches, lambasting Pakistan and regretting the military aid his country has rendered to Islamabad. All US security-related assistance to Pakistan has been suspended since January, due to Washington’s doubts regarding its commitment to fighting terrorism. In late June, the Financial Action Task Force put Pakistan on its “gray” watch list for failing to clamp down on the financing of terrorist groups. The United States and Afghanistan have accused Pakistan of allowing Taliban fighters and the Haqqani network to operate out of southeastern Afghanistan.
The worsening relationship with Washington is prompting Pakistan to diversify its foreign-policy priorities. The PTI leader emphasized the need for a close relationship with China and better relations with Iran, while also being friendly to Saudi Arabia. Imran Khan is a proponent of an agreement with India on Kashmir. He believes Islamabad and Delhi should go back to square one in order to reboot their relationship.
On May 1, Moscow and Islamabad marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations. There have been ups and down, but today the countries enjoy an excellent level of bilateral cooperation.
Russia is involved in many economic projects there, such as the Karachi Steel Mill and Gudhu Power Plants. It is studying the prospects for investment in the oil industry, space technology, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The Intergovernmental Agreement on the construction of the “North – South” gas route was signed on October 16, 2015 in Islamabad. That 1,100-km pipeline with a capacity of up to 12.4 billion cubic meters will connect terminals in Karachi and Lahore. Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, is considering the possibility of supplying Pakistan with LNG. Pakistan is also interested in signing a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, and Technical Cooperation (IGC), which was established in 2000, supports continued collaboration in the fields of science, technology, education, trade, and the economy.
A year ago, Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and security cooperation in Central Asia and regular summits are part of that membership, allowing the leaders of Russia and Pakistan to meet on a regular basis.
The cooperation includes contacts between the two countries’ militaries. In late April, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, met Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s general staff, to discuss “regional security, stability, and bilateral security cooperation.” The event took place in the wake of a meeting between the Pakistani and Russian defense ministers at the 7th Moscow Conference on International Security in early April, during which Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu emphasized Moscow’s readiness to boost defense cooperation.
The parties are in talks over the delivery of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Last year, Russia began shipping Mi-35M combat/transport helicopters to Pakistan. The US decision to suspend military aid has prompted Pakistan to announce plans to begin purchasing more weapons from China, Russia, and other Eastern European countries.
The first annual joint exercise between the Russian military and Pakistani army was held under the name “Friendship 2016.” Russia has announced plans to host the Peace Mission 2018 military exercise, conducted under the auspices of the SCO in late August/early September. This training event will for the first time include both India and Pakistan. It’s symbolic that Russia is bringing together these two Asian rivals who have been so long divided by their many differences.
There is huge, untapped potential for bilateral cooperation in all areas between Moscow and Islamabad. Hopefully the PTI’s victory will provide a new impetus to further the development of mutually beneficial ties between the two nations.