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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 / February 5, 1992


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.

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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."

"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."