Mixing up camels and bears

Arab Mass Protest Including Protesters Atop TankAs the world scrambles to keep up with the rapidly developing protests and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, politicians and business analysts in Russia have rushed to a plethora of comparative conclusions.

The country's liberal opposition was first to jump on the bandwagon, trying to link their own protests against the Kremlin to those of pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Meanwhile, in recent days President Dmitry Medvedev and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have also weighed in.

The liberal opposition claims that the government is on the verge of a Mubarak-style collapse, pointing to the sudden upsurge of protests in Egypt after decades of authoritarian rule. Russian discontent could bubble up just as quickly, they argue.

Medvedev has argued two things: Middle Eastern conditions do not apply in Russia, and that unspecified extremists are trying to make a similar revolt work here.

Gorbachev, for his part, has warned that "the probability of the Egyptian scenario will grow" in Russia, adding for good measure: "But here it could end far worse."

In other words, Gorbachev, who himself was unable to stop a whole series of popular revolts during the dying years of the Soviet Union, knows a revolution when he sees one.

Or as one follower tells Brian in Monty Python's "Life of Brian", when he protests he is not the Messiah. "I say you are Lord, and I should know. I've followed a few."

While there is something to be said for each of these statements, there is a missing component too.

While many Russian political commentators have made much of the Arab revolts' links to Muslim fundamentalists, and made comparisons with the North Caucasus jihadists, the two phenomena are in many ways quite different.

The uprisings across North Africa in recent weeks have all been largely secular, democratic and popular. Meanwhile, the North Caucasus militants are a small undemocratic minority, fighting for an extreme, medieval-type of society. Whatever else we think of the comparative conflicts, we should not confuse the North Caucasus with North Africa.


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