Indonesia is caught between Russia and the West ahead of the November G20 conference

Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo (Left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Right) shaking hands in 2016. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons used via (CC BY 4.0)

The 2022 G20 conference, an intergovernmental meeting of the world’s largest economies, is scheduled to be held in Bali, Indonesia on November 15 and 16. This year’s G20 is being chaired by Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who is facing pressure from allies to ban Russian representatives due to Russia’s war against Ukraine. Some nations are threatening to boycott meetings where a Russian representative is present.

Though Ukraine is not part of the G20, after initial proposals by the US and Canada, there has been a cacophony of calls in recent weeks for Jokowi to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the summit — calls that are becoming harder and harder to ignore.

Russian Ambassador to Indonesia Lyudmila Vorobieva said, “There is no need to draw attention from economic issues to a political crisis which is not related to the agenda of the G20 forum,” while the Ukrainian Embassy in Jakarta said Ukraine “will accept such an invitation” from Indonesian officials.

On April 14, the Kremlin announced that Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov will be attending the conference virtually.

As more details surface about Russia’s alleged war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, the US and countless other world leaders are getting more aggressive in their rhetoric around the war, with US President Joe Biden even referring to Putin as a “war criminal” and calling Russia’s human rights abuses in Ukraine “genocide” — an inflammatory step in international diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said allowing Putin to attend the G20 would be a “step too far,” and representatives from Canada and Europe have also called to ban Russia from this year’s event.

And caught in the middle is Indonesia.

Pressures from all sides

The G20 will be the first major international conference since Russia invaded Ukraine and is an opportunity for the international community to take a stance on the war.

Thus far, Indonesia has said it will remain “impartial” around the decision to allow Putin or other Russian representatives to attend. Indonesia official Triansyah Djani explained that the archipelago will follow the rules and guidelines established in the G20, which in this case, means inviting Russia. 

Indonesia dalam mengetuai berbagai konferensi atau forum atau organisasi baik itu dalam konteks badan-badan PBB pada saat kami memimpin dewan keamanan di PBB atau ASEAN atau organisasi lainnya selalu berpegang pada aturan, prosedur yang berlaku, demikian juga di G20.

Indonesia in chairing various conferences or forums or organizations, whether in the context of UN agencies, when we lead the security council at the UN or ASEAN or other organizations, always adheres to the rules, procedures that apply, including at the G20.

Jokowi is receiving pressure from all over the world for his lukewarm stance. One Twitter netizen wrote:

@g20org @G20Australia 

Russia's finance minister plans to attend G20 meeting next week, Indonesia.

The Russian finance minister must be shunned and not allowed to participate in any portion of the meeting.

Tell him he is not wanted, go home.

Another citizen questioned why Indonesia is still inviting Russia, sharing a video of civilian refugees in Ukraine after an apparent bombing from Russia (warning: video contains graphic images).

In a press conference, one Indonesian official Effendi Simbolon called Jokowi’s position naive and urged him to take decisive action as the current Chairman of the G20, instead of simply acting as an “event organizer.”

In a press conference at the White House, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “We believe that it cannot be business as usual for Russia in international institutions and in the international community.” US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen went on to say that the US will boycott some G20 meetings where a Russian representative is in attendance. “I've made clear to my colleagues in Indonesia that we will not be participating in a number of meetings if the Russians are there.”

This bold stance by US and Western politicians is rankling some citizens, who see it as another example of Western overreach in global south countries. Some are turning online to express their irritation, with one user tweeting:

Dear Mr. @jokowi

Indonesia should not be dictated by any other countries especially America.

If the President removing Russia from G20, u will show real face of Indonesia that we are not independent.

Even so, some G20 members are debating whether to remove Russia from the group altogether. In a March press conference, Biden said he supported removing Russia from the grouping. However, it is unclear whether the current procedures even allow for the ejection of a G20 member, as each member state would need to reach a consensus on the decision. Thus, Russia is unlikely to be officially removed.

China has already said that it supports Russia’s continued involvement in the G20 as it views it as an “important member” and reportedly asked Jokowi not to allow discussions of the war onto the G20 agenda, according to reports by the South China Morning Post. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin also emphasized, “No member has the right to remove another country as a member.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has also expressed support for Putin’s attendance at the conference. 

On Tuesday, March 23,  Poland’s development minister Piotr Nowak asked the US to consider removing Russia from the G20 and allowing Warsaw to join instead. Saying that there should be “no place for Russia in the G20” after it “violated the rules of international cooperation by attacking Ukraine. … Poland deserves a place in the G20 as the second fastest developing country in the world in the last 30 years.” 

Jokowi’s conundrum

Indonesia's G20 poster, with the theme “Recover together, recover stronger.” Photo from Wikicommons, used via (CC BY 4.0)

Indonesian officials reportedly hoped to use this year’s conference to gain the nation more leverage and recognition on the international stage.

Unfortunately, Russia’s presence and the boycotts that follow may put Indonesia in a political bind and foil Jokowi’s agenda. Jokowi — known for his strong economic focus and conservative foreign policy stances — planned to use the summit to address COVID-19 economic recovery and development efforts. The theme of this year’s conference will be “Recover Together, Recover Stronger.” 

There is a risk — particularly if Putin or Zelenskyy attend the event — that Russia’s war on Ukraine may hijack the summit and draw attention away from other major action items. 

Indonesia generally skews toward a “free and active” foreign policy, avoiding involvement in conflicts with major powers. It has taken a fairly neutral stance on Russia’s war on Ukraine. While it has made general statements about ending the war and signed the UN resolution calling for peace, Jokowi has refused to implement sanctions on Russia, will not refer to the war as a “war,” and thus far has not named Russia directly in any statement about the invasion. It also abstained from voting on a UN resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. 

To complicate matters, some polls show that a majority of Indonesians support Russia in this war.

“Our research shows 95% of TikTok users and 73% of Instagram users in Indonesia supports Russia after Zelenskyy said Ukraine needs assistance from NATO and the West,” Dudy Rudianto, founder of Jakarta-based data analysis firm Evello, told VOA’s Indonesian Service.

This could be fueled by anti-Western attitudes as Zelenskyy has repeatedly appealed to NATO and Western governments in his attempt to stave off Putin. There has also been a barrage of pro-Russia propaganda pushed in Indonesian cyberspace. As the largest Muslim majority nation in the world, some Indonesian citizens harbor a deep distrust of the US after the so-called “War on terror” in the early 2000s and the bout of Islamophobic policies that followed.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in international relations at Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Bandung told Al Jazeera:

[Pro-Russia Indonesians] do not like and trust the United States. People saw the US attacking Afghanistan and Iraq in the past for reasons that were considered fabricated like the 9/11 conspiracy and the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction. This has had an impact on them questioning the credibility of news sources, in the sense of the US mass media. Many state that they can’t just accept news from the US without reading the other side — but the root of this is their distrust of the US in general.

Like many nations in South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia also has positive historic ties to Russia.

These factors only make Jokowi's role more difficult as he has to balance alienating many other G20 members by allowing Russia to participate — potentially tanking his summit goals in the process — or appearing overly accommodating to colonialist Western governments, which may harm his position with his own constituents.

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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