Post-Communist Russia Meets World

Its Iraq dealings irked US, but overall Moscow is learning the rules

When Russia scored a diplomatic coup last week by apparently defusing the international crisis with Iraq, officials here were quietly proud of their achievement.

In Washington, however, the Kremlin's moves sparked fears that Russia might be slipping its moorings as a reliable partner.

But such concerns overlook the underlying trend of the last few years, during which Russia has been anchoring itself ever more firmly in the international community, observers here say.

And as Moscow continues to make serious efforts to join international organizations, it is learning to play by the rules they set.

Heir to the defeated foe of the cold war, dragged to its knees by an obsolete ideology while the country collapsed, Russia has been busy reassessing its interests and priorities around the globe, and the process is not over.

"We are a big country with a place in the world, and we are still looking for this place," explains Alexander Dzasokhov, a prominent member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Russia's record and ambitions show that it has clearly defined its desire to be seen as a full and respected partner in the international community.

President Boris Yeltsin's attendance at meetings of the "Group of Seven" big industrialized nations has transformed it into a "Group of Eight," even if Mr. Yeltsin does not sit in on the economic discussions. Moscow has successfully joined the Council of Europe and is knocking at the door of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) and the World Trade Organization.

Russia has to juggle its desires with others' expectations, while taking into account both domestic and foreign interests. Still heavily dependent on international aid - primarily a crucial $10 billion loan over three years from the International Monetary Fund - Russia is on a tight leash in the financial field. Yet it is finding that its burgeoning diplomatic ambitions find an echo in other capitals.

During Mr. Yeltsin's first presidential term, the Washington-Moscow axis prevailed. Since his reelection last year, though, other world leaders - particularly the Europeans - have courted him with numerous visits.

The French have been particularly assiduous. Both French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin have come to Moscow in the last two months.

Here, France finds a sympathetic ear when it voices unhappiness with a world dominated by the United States.

"The Europeans whisper in our ears, 'What a pity that you lost your position as America's counterweight. It was so nice and so cozy for us back then,' " confides Mr. Dzasokhov. "At the same time, when we begin discussing our unification with Belarus, they are terrified."

RUSSIA is indeed walking a tightrope. It wants to spread its wings, but it must also show it has no intention to dominate other nations, and prove its democratic credentials. At the same time, its very ambitions to regain a leading international role are pushing it down the right path as far as the West is concerned.

When Russia became a full-fledged member of the Council of Europe 18 months ago, for example, it committed itself to abide by the European Convention on human rights. And today's Russia is not the Soviet Union of 1975, which signed the Helsinki Accords but then proceeded to violate them for years.

As a member of the Council of Europe, Russia is obliged to abolish the death penalty. And although it has not done so yet by law, "There have been no executions in Russia for the past 18 months," points out Diedrich Lohman, head of the local Human Rights Watch office. "If Russia had not been a member of the Council of Europe, there would have been no guarantee of that."

Russia's acceptance into the Council of Europe raised many eyebrows, given that Moscow was then engaged in the war in Chechnya that included gross violations of human rights.

But European leaders appear to have had their own motives for taking Russia on board. "It was to give a card to Yeltsin in his reelection bid against his opponents," Mr. Lohman says.

Russia would have liked to find the same conjunction of interests with the OECD. "Russia has a much better understanding of why it is important to join the OECD and what it means to do so," said OECD Secretary General Donald Johnston after a trip here last month. "They recognize that we can help Russia toward a fully fledged market economy."

But Moscow still has some way to go, says OECD Deputy Secretary-General Kumiharu Shigehara. "They wanted their admission to the OECD to be a symbol that would give momentum to the reforms undertaken," he explains. "But double standards are not in the interests of the OECD. Russia needs more transparency" in its economic policy, fairer privatization, and more efficient tax collection.

These are goals the Kremlin says it espouses. As it steps into the international arena again, this time without a Communist ideological shield, Russia has not renounced competition with the rest of the world. But it has found itself co-opted into playing by the rest of the world's rules.

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