Russia’s surprising vote on the Western Sahara
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.