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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Dalai Lama & the Russian Card

May 30, 2010

Moscow As Mediator Between China And The Tibetan Spiritual Leader

28 May 2010, Special Article,  The Statesman

Claude Arpi

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

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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