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Russia, in swift about-face, recognizes Libyan rebels

The Kremlin opposed NATO's air war and called for negotiations between the rebels and Qaddafi. But its concern about keeping billion-dollar contracts with Libya seems to have caused the switch.

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Experts say that by dumping Qaddafi, with whom Russia has long enjoyed good relations, Moscow is only acknowledging the inevitable. But as nations gather in Paris to consider Libya's way forward, the backroom scramble over economic contracts, past and future, is already underway.

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"Yes, Russia's recognized the (rebel) government, what else could it do?" says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow.

"This drama is reaching the final curtain, and until today the Russian Foreign Ministry has been in a kind of paralysis. So, at last they understood that if they continue waiting, everyone will move on without Russia," Mr. Kagarlitsky says.

Some analysts suggest the imminent rebel victory in Libya may politically benefit Mr. Medvedev in his increasingly fierce but still undeclared competition with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the establishment nomination in Russian presidential elections, now barely six months off.

Medvedev has consistently been gentler than Mr. Putin in expressing Moscow's criticism of NATO for "going beyond" the UN Security Council's Libya resolution – which authorized the use of force to protect Libyan civilians – by using airpower to help the rebels overthrow Qaddafi. At one point Medvedev publicly chastised Putin for referring to the NATO action as a "crusade."

Analysts say that the Kremlin's fast footwork on Libya may cause momentary embarrassment, but no lasting pain in Moscow.

"Russia's relations with Qaddafi were never based on love, but were all about mutual pragmatic interest," says Irina Zvigelskaya, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.

Now, she says, there is a worry that the "Libyan provisional government may give economic preferences to Western companies, because it was the West that supported them directly. ..."

"But now's the right time to acknowledge the realities on the ground. We had pragmatic relations in the past, so there is reason to hope that they can be restored in future," she says.

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