The late Tunisian President, Habib Bourguiba, was cautious in his relations with Russia, as his main reliance, after independence, was to depend on Europe and America strategically without provoking the Soviet Union or engaging the country in a military alliance that will only result in peril. Even when Bourguiba decided to freeze the Communist Party in Tunisia in the early 1960s, he made sure this did not affect the stability in Tunisia, as he preferred what he considered an internal affair to having "normalised" ties with the socialist camp.
The ideological polarisation has disappeared today, but the atmosphere of the Cold War has started to return after the unilateral pole, led by the US, started to fail. In this context, Tunisia is concerned with three major matters that may have direct consequences on its foreign policy.
The first matter is the endemic economic and political crisis in Western Europe, especially in France, which was considered a main ally of Tunisia. The French economy is ill and it will not be able to regain its health quickly. In addition to this, the French political level is very exhausted and weak after the decline of the socialists, the fragmentation of the right and centre wing, and as Marine Le Pen is leading the opinion polls. If she wins, her position will be extreme against Ennahda and the Tunisian immigrants.
The second issue is regarding Washington's policy during the term of US President Donald Trump. It is true that so far, there are no strong indicators of a significant shift in the White House's policy regarding Tunisia, but with the new president, anything is possible.
As for the third issue, it concerns Libya, as one can see the growing role of Russia in Tunisia's neighbouring country, and which has a great impact on it economically and in terms of security. America's concern with the Libyan issue, which still constitutes an explosive issue that can erupt at any time, has declined. Even the Europeans have clearly contradicting calculations and their ability to resolve the issue is limited.
Given this, a number of Libyan and Arab parties have begun welcoming a Russian role that "may be effective". This is welcomed by Moscow and it invests in the opportunity to enhance its influence and positions inside this large tempting oil country.
Hence, Tunisia finds itself needing to develop its relations with Russia and it realises what it had missed out in the past. However, it must not hasten its steps or miscalculate.
After the revolution, the Tunisians have slowly felt their way through things, as there have been several meetings between their officials and their Russian counterparts, the most recent of which was between the Tunisian Foreign Minister Khamis Alaghinawa and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov during the Fourth Arab-Russian Forum in Abu Dhabi.
During this meeting, both sides confirmed the special level of friendship and partnership reached. They also agreed to increase visits and preparation for what they described as "the upcoming mutual benefits that would enhance the opportunities for partnership and investment." In this regard, I must mention that Russia was present in all of the events held at the international conference – Tunisia 2020 – supporting the economy and investment. In addition to this, the Tunisian foreign minister did not hesitate to invite the Russians to invest in the projects included in the 2016-2020 development plan, especially in the infrastructure field.
Furthermore, the Russians did not do what the Europeans and Americans did when they encouraged their citizens not to travel to Tunisia under the pretext of terrorist dangers after the Bardo Museum and Sousse hotel attacks. On the contrary, Moscow encouraged the Russians to visit Tunisia, which led to the number of Russian tourists in Tunisia to reach over 600,000. This alleviated some of the burden of the crisis still suffered by the Tunisian tourism sector.
Hence, it has become clear that the current developments on the regional and international level may push a country like Tunisia, sooner or later, towards getting closer to the Russian bear which already has a foot in deteriorating Libya, at a time when the Westerners are busy with their own internal affairs and sometimes small calculations.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 14 March 2017
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