Russia Relegates Mideast Ties in Wooing West

Although Russians inherited Soviet role in regional peace talks, domestic crises take priority

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SNOWED under by a domestic economic crisis and desperate for Western aid, Russia's new leaders appear content at the moment merely to follow Washington's lead in the Middle East, once a focus of superpower rivalry.

But this will not always be the case, according to senior officials and experts close to the government here.

Russia's readiness to cooperate tightly with the West on Middle East policy "is just a confusion of a transitional period," says Sergei Tarasenko, a close aide to former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. "It cannot go on forever."

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"The Middle East is always a special case for us because of our geographical location, our historical ties, and our strategic interests amplified by our economic interests," explains Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky.

"Russia was, is, and will be a great power, regardless of the problems we are passing through," adds Oleg Derkovsky, deputy head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Middle East department. "Sooner or later, with economic reform, we will be able to play the role of a great power again."

Less than two months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian policymakers have had little time for detailed thinking about their interests in the Middle East, or how to promote them. Inheriting the Soviets' co-sponsorship of the peace process, they did host last week's multilateral conference here on regional issues. But President Boris Yeltsin's failure to address the meeting indicated the low priority he gave it.

Still, Middle East experts, who advised the Soviet government and are doing the same for the Russian authorities, worry that this blurred focus threatens to harm Russia's long-term standing in the region.

"The lack of vision of what Russian interests are in the Middle East is still playing a negative role," warns Vitaly Naumkin, deputy head of the Institute of Oriental Studies. "We have some heritage there, and it would be very stupid just to lose it."

Officials in the Foreign Ministry insist that Moscow's role in the Middle East peace process - with its roots in Soviet support for the US-led war against Iraq - is driven by more than just a desire to help the United States.

"That would be a very oversimplified analysis," Mr. Derkovsky says. "We are interested in peace and stability ... because in times of war, like it or not, we become involved, and that puts us in a predicament. If in one area or another our interests coincide with US interests, there's nothing wrong with that," he adds.

Such an outlook underlines the fundamental difference between Russian policy toward the Middle East and the former Soviet policy.

"The Soviet Union was the base of the socialist camp, the base of confrontation" with the West, explains Leonid Medvedko, once an adviser to the Soviet military on Middle East affairs.

"The Soviet Union had to follow a more internationalist than nationalist policy; it was part of the ideology," he says. "Now we follow a policy of national security."

Stripped of its Soviet ideological component, though, Moscow still has strategic concerns in the Middle East which will not always harmonize with Washington's viewpoint, analysts here say.

Prime among them is oil, as Russia's own production falls off because of dwindling reserves and the industry's inefficiency.

"Oil will increasingly be a cause of divergence with the West, because supplies, even in the Gulf, are finite, and the West wants to control them," says Ratchik Avakov of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "Is the West going to give Russia access to them?"

At the same time, the Russians are already looking to the time when their economy is in sufficiently good shape to export, yet recognizing that their goods will have little chance of penetrating US or European markets.

"We will need markets, and we have a lot of material expertise in the Middle East," with traditional partners such as Egypt, Syria, and others, Mr. Tarasenko says. "If one day the opportunity arises for Russia to be active in the Middle East again ... it will be in the field of trade and joint ventures," in competition with the West.

On the security front, fears of unrest in the Muslim former Soviet republics that lie along Russia's southern flank are another motive for Moscow's concern with the Middle East.

"Now powers in the Middle East have a chance to play a role far outside their traditional region," Tarasenko says. "Saudi Arabia can reach to Kazakhstan" with its Islamic influence, "and Russia will have to deal with a bigger Middle East than the Soviet Union did."

Many members of Moscow's large community of orientalists hope the government's anxiety to befriend the West will not blind it to Russia's Eurasian nature.

"Historically Russia can and should be a bridge between Europe and Asia," Dr. Medvedko argues. "We can be an ally of the West, but not on the basis of confrontation with the Orient."

"If we pursue our own interests, not threatening the United States but developing our specific relations with certain Arab countries, it could be useful," Mr. Naumkin says.

For instance, he suggests, "it would be better for everyone if Russia remains a partner for Syria," Moscow's biggest weapons customer in the Middle East, "because then there will be some restrictions, some control and some knowledge" of weapons sales.

At the same time, Moscow's new diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel illustrate how keen it is to widen its range of partners in the region. "This is not a betrayal of the Arab cause, it is a less-ideologized policy based on real interests," Professor Avakov says.

"In the future," he predicts, "Russia will have its own independent policy, abandoning ideology and confrontation, but based on our own economic and strategic interests, and the West is going to have to take that into account."

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