Even among the ever-stiffening competition for the world’s most eccentric despot, Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi of Libya still contends for the crown, with his flamboyant sultan-esque wardrobe, his scintillating all-female bodyguard troops, and boasting at least four different ways to spell his name in English. Also, as proved by his recent trek through Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, he continues to be one of the world’s most unpredictable leaders – it seems as though not even friends, family, or business partners ever seem to know what he might do next. On the one hand, the Libyan leader’s Moscow homecoming was like a déjà vu of the Cold War days, when the Soviet Union welcomed him during a 1985 visit to strengthen the robust arms trade between the two countries. The 2008 visit has been no exception, and the Kremlin has certainly rolled out the red carpet for the former pariah, allowing him to put up a Bedouin-style tent in the Kremlin courtyard, and providing him with a private concert by the French singer Mireille Mathieu (yes, that photo was taken in Moscow, not Tripoli). Gaddafi seemed enormously pleased with Vladimir Putin’s flattery, who remarked to him that “‘the fact that you have pitched your tent within the Kremlin walls shows that we are now much closer together.” But there are other indications that the déjà vu of the Russian-Libyan alliance is just another mirage.
As anyone could have guessed, the main topic of discussion between Putin and Gaddafi was energy cooperation – namely, Russia would like to sign on Libya to become part of its natural gas cartel along with Qatar and Iran. It makes some sense that Moscow should appeal to Libya for this effort: shortly following the revolution that bought him to power in 1969, Gaddafi carried out a nationalization of oil and gas companies and practically invented the concept of oil embargoes, which today appears practically inspirational to the Kremlin’s tactics in Europe and Central Asia.Although energy relations have been growing closer between the two countries for some time now, Russia’s pursuit of a strong relationship with Libya is sucking up some resources. When Putin made a visit to Libya last April, he granted a very generous debt forgiveness deal, yet the concessions that Russia was eventually able to retain continue to appear very stingy (small access stakes and harsh contract conditions for the development of new fields).During Gaddafi’s visit to Moscow, some of the tentative deals struck may have sounded scary to Washington (no doubt by design), but still lack significant substance. Mostly it was just talk, as Libya said it was interested in deepening energy ties. Gaddafi said “We consider oil and gas cooperation especially important now. (…) We have common approaches to gas and oil policies.” On paper, the Russians came away with a civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement, which is by no means clear what it involves.Unnamed Russian military sources have also leaked a story to the press that Gaddafi has agreed to host a strategic naval base for the Russians on the Mediterranean Sea, but the fact that this announcement is hitting the media in this fashion makes one suspect that it is another attempt at premature contractualization.But if Gaddafi’s trip to Moscow seem at all hesitant or unspecifically enigmatic, his trip to Minsk, Belarus was practically an outright satire. Meeting with another one of the world’s true pariahs, who only recently has dug himself out of a hole to have his travel visa to Europe reinstated, Gaddafi and Alexander Lukashenko made some amusing declarations about their commitment to rule of law and their shared vision of an emerging “multipolar” world.Seriously, the two probably spent more time talking about the most efficient way to rehabilitate one’s reputation with the West … which is not necessarily a bad thing.Case in point, it is hard to take the Libyan flirtation with Russia as something deeply serious or threatening when Tripoli chose the very same day as the meeting with Putin to make their final payment of $1.5 billion into a terrorism victim’s fund, clearing the way for full normalization of ties between the United States and Libya. Not last week, not next week, but exactly during the trip to Moscow.There are some who think Libya’s flirtation with Russia was just one more way of reminding the West that their continued good behavior will carry a high price: “They want to say, ‘Look, we have options,'” says Alex Turkeltaub of Frontier Strategy Group to the New York Times. “This is a shot across the bow to the new administration in Washington.“My view is that Libya is playing the same game as Azerbaijan and many other swing states who can float in between Russian and American alliances – they are becoming very adept at playing each power off each other while extracting the maximum concessions. It’s the smart move for them to make, but there’s always the possibility that Russia could become unsatisfied with the diplomatic return on investment they are getting in these foreign policy adventures.