Russia’s surprising vote on the Western Sahara

Sunday 08/05/2016
Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar speaks during a press conference on the situation in Western Sahara, last March, in the capital Rabat.

Casablanca - Russia’s abstention in a UN Security Council vote over the Western Sahara surprised ana­lysts in Morocco who had expected more support after Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s recent trip to Moscow.

Moscow had committed itself in a joint statement following the king’s visit to embracing “the cur­rent negotiation parameters on the Sahara issue”, a reference to Mo­rocco’s proposed autonomy plan, Moroccan think-tank the Amadeus Institute said on its website.

The institute is close to the royal palace. It is headed by Ibrahim Fas­si Fihri, a son of Taieb Fassi Fihri, the king’s top diplomatic adviser.

The Security Council on April 28th called for the urgent return of the peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara to full operation. Rabat expelled most of the civilian staff of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in protest of a perceived slight by UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon.

The vote on the resolution was 10-2 with three abstentions, re­flecting a sharp division on the council between veto-wielding France, a strong ally of Morocco; countries supporting a referendum on Western Sahara with independ­ence as an option; and those, such as the United States, seeking to de­fuse tensions and restore the mis­sion.

Venezuela and Uruguay voted against the resolution while Rus­sia, New Zealand and Angola ab­stained.

Those voting against or abstain­ing were displeased the resolution was not stronger and failed to con­demn Morocco’s action, which Ban and others warned could become a precedent for UN peacekeeping missions if it were not reversed.

Morocco annexed Western Saha­ra, a former Spanish colony, in 1975 and fought a local independence movement, the Polisario Front. The United Nations brokered a ceasefire in 1991 and established MINURSO to monitor it and pre­pare a referendum on the terri­tory’s future.

Morocco considers the mineral-rich region its “southern provinc­es” and has proposed wide-rang­ing autonomy but the Polisario Front insists on self-determination through a referendum for the local population — as called for in UN resolutions, all of which were reaf­firmed in the Security Council ac­tion of April 28th.

Morocco expelled more than 70 UN civilian staff members carry­ing out political activities, demin­ing operations and other duties in March after Ban used the word “oc­cupation” in talking about Western Sahara following a visit to a camp for refugees from the region who have been in Algeria for more than 40 years.

Analysts said they were sur­prised Russia abstained a month after the Moroccan king met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to build a “strategic rela­tionship” between the two coun­tries.

The Amadeus Institute said Mo­rocco should not have taken Mos­cow’s vote for granted.

“The Russian stance was surpris­ing to me,” said Abdelkrim Bena­tiq, of the Paris-based Centre of Diplomatic and Strategic Studies.

Russia called for the involve­ment of the African Union (AU) in the diplomatic process. “We all know the AU is a door that is used by Algeria, South Africa and the Polisario Front. It is difficult for us to see the AU as a player in Mo­rocco’s territorial integrity,” said Benatiq.

“There are many readings to Russia’s abstention: Is the Rus­sian position the result of a passing phase or is it going to take new di­mensions?” he asked, adding that Morocco should wait and see.

Benatiq said Morocco is facing Algeria, a strong rival with “un­believable means” that has been posturing with the North African kingdom on the world stage.

“We are in front of a machine (Al­geria) that is using all its financial means to put pressure on Morocco in the international scene. We are at a diplomatic war,” he said.

The US-drafted resolution ex­pressed regret at MINURSO’s ina­bility to fully carry out its mandate following Morocco’s expulsions. The language was slightly stronger than an initial draft, which only ex­pressed concern.

The resolution asks the secre­tary-general to report within 90 days on whether the mission’s operations have been restored “to full functionality” and, if not, “to consider how best to facilitate achievement of this goal”.

Algeria is a traditional ally of Rus­sia in North Africa. It buys most of its weapons from Russia. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and key members of his cabinet visited Moscow two days before the Security Council vote on West­ern Sahara.