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Forgetting the Debt Is Nice, But Syrians Still Miss the Soviets

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1993



DAMASCUS, SYRIA

CLAUDE ABBOUD, a shopkeeper, stocks all the goods one would expect to find in a neighborhood store here: nuts, olive oil, cooked meats, hummus.

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In the cold chest next to the goat cheese, he also stocks pots of smetana, the sour cream beloved of Russians.

Smetana in Damascus?

Mr. Abboud caters to the Russian community. And he is feeling the pinch as Syria's former superpower ally folds its tent here.

Sales are down, he says. ``If the Russians go, I think I must find another business.''

Once, in the heyday of fraternal relations between the Soviet Union and Syria, 12,000 Soviets lived here, training Syrian soldiers, building railways and ports and power stations, and supervising development projects.

Today, after the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the end of Moscow's special relationship with Damascus, only about 1,000 civilian experts remain in Syria, says a Russian diplomat, ``and every year the number is falling.''

The disappearance of the Soviet Union has been a hard blow for Syria, both economically and politically, leaving the country without protection or aid. ``We regret the Soviet collapse more than the Russians do,'' says one Syrian official, only half joking.

But the effects of 25 years of close and strategic ties have outlasted the relationship itself - as indeed have personal relationships.

Most of the Russians living in Syria today are Russian women married to Syrians, whom they met as students in the Soviet Union. Some of them now staff the Russian language radio that broadcasts from Damascus.

``The Soviet legacy is divided into two parts,'' says Sergei Medvedko, correspondent for the Moscow weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, and one of only two Russian reporters left here from a stable of 12. ``There is the material, and the nonmaterial.''

The material legacy is obvious from the moment one arrives - either at Damascus airport, where almost all the jets owned by the Syrian national airline are Soviet made, or at the port of Latakia, which was built by the Soviets.

``Our main field of cooperation was infrastructure,'' recalls the Russian diplomat, and Moscow was heavily involved in building Syria's rail network, power-generating plants, and irrigation systems, and in helping to develop its nascent oil industry.

The Syrian military became a creature of the Soviets, from its tactical doctrines, taught to Syrian officers at the Frunze military academy in Moscow, to its weaponry, provided by the Soviet Union and sometimes even manned by Soviet soldiers.

As the Soviets used Syria as a pawn in its superpower rivalry with the United States, and as Syria used the Soviets to advance its regional strength, the Syrian Army became the second-best-equipped in the Middle East, behind Israel's. But now the Army is a shadow of its former self and soft loans for spare parts or new weapons are a thing of the past.

``It is a psychological problem for them, having to pay cash dollars within one year,'' says one longtime Russian resident here. ``They had some hopes that the Soviet Union would be restored, and our officials were trying to make them understand that things had changed. They thought that if they waited, the good communists would come back.''

The generals are not the only ones suffering as a result of their past dependence on the Soviet Union. Managers of power plants and other Soviet-built facilities are having a hard time finding and paying for spare parts.

``Before, when they needed something, they just sent off a telex to Moscow and it came,'' says one Western economic analyst here. ``Now they have to hunt around all the `ikistans' and `akistans' to find the stuff.''

But the downfall of the Soviet Union did have an upside for Syria. Over the past 25 years, Damascus amassed a debt to Moscow that the Russian authorities calculate at $11 billion. Arguing that they cannot now work out what they owe to each former Soviet republic, the Syrians show no sign of paying their debts.

As for the nonmaterial legacy, it is perhaps more pervasive, operating through the thousands of Syrians who studied in the Soviet Union, and who now hold influential government positions.

Respect for the Soviet system ``rooted itself more deeply in their souls than in ours,'' Mr. Medvedko says. ``They had huge hard-currency student grants and had a great time, but they never saw the real life, they just saw things through restaurant windows.''

Many of the expatriate Syrians adopted Soviet habits that Russians are now shaking off - authoritarianism, official secrecy, and tight control of society.

But Russians here disclaim complete responsibility for the eastern European style of government in Syria. The ruling Baathist ideology, they point out, was founded by Michel Aflaq, a man who admired European fascism.

If the Soviet-style secret police found fertile ground in Syria, though, Soviet economic policy certainly did not. ``Thirty years of socialist economic ideology does not seem to have made much impression,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But then the Syrians never gave it a fair shot; they were always keeping money under their mattresses and smuggling.''

Today, Russian observers wonder about the real meaning of their country's erstwhile relationship with Syria. ``They saw America and colonialism as the enemy, so the enemy of their enemy became their friend,'' Medvedko says of the Syrians. ``Cynically speaking, they were right: They got everything from us free.''

Adds one Russian official: ``The Baathists declared themselves socialist just to bind themselves more tightly to the Soviet Union. They had no idea of socialism as it was built in the Soviet Union, and they were playing on the superpower conflict.''

His conclusion? ``They were never real allies of ours.''