Russia Doesn't Play 2nd String

Moscow squeezed a pledge from Iraq to recognize Kuwait, but few in the West seemed impressed

THERE is nothing Russia likes less than to be treated as a second-rate power.

And nowhere does Moscow have so many opportunities to try to prove that it is more than a has-been than in Iraq, its old client-state.

So when Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev managed to exercise his influence over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the week of Oct. 10, extracting a pledge from Baghdad to recognize Kuwaiti sovereignty, he rather hoped that the world would pat him on the back.

Instead he got the cold shoulder, as Western diplomats played down the significance of Saddam's promise. ``Words are cheap,'' US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright said Oct 17, dismissing a Russian bid to speed up an end to UN sanctions against Baghdad.

Even before the Oct. 17 UN debate, Mr. Kozyrev was upfront about his frustration with Western governments. ``Rather influential'' circles ``have gotten it into their heads that Russia will be a secondary, at best regional, power locked within the Commonwealth of Independent States,'' Kozyrev told the Interfax news agency.

``Russia will never accept such an attitude,'' he insisted. ``Although we hold consultations with our partners, we have pursued an independent line and will actively pursue it. In the long run they will get used to it.''

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow has had precious few opportunities to flex its diplomatic muscles, and for some time it had little enough energy either.

But that is changing - as is evident from Russia's prominent role in the Bosnian crisis - and the authorities here would like the world to recognize this.

Although there are few enough places in the world where Moscow's voice carries weight, there is one corner of the Middle East where Russia has more clout than anybody else - Iraq.

Kozyrev used that clout on his recent visit to win a concession that Saddam had resolutely refused to offer until now - unconditional recognition that Kuwait is not the 19th province of Iraq, as it was declared after the August 1990 invasion, but an independent country.

Russian observers here shared Kozyrev's perplexity at the West's reluctance to cheer this achievement. ``The West seems to have simply refused to recognize Moscow's success,'' complained Dmitri Gornostayev, foreign-affairs commentator, in the Oct. 18 issue of the independent Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

But as in any other country, Russia's diplomacy is driven by more than pride: Hard cash determines much of its direction.

Moscow and Baghdad, old allies who still find tactical interests in common, are keen to undermine Washington's hard-line policy toward Iraq for the same reason: The oil embargo and other economic sanctions imposed on Iraq for the past four years are hurting both of them.

Before the sanctions were slapped on Baghdad, the Iraqis were faithful clients for Soviet weapons and other goods, and they paid their debts on time.

Today, Iraq owes Moscow more than $7 billion, which it has promised to repay as soon as the ban on its oil exports is lifted, and Iraqi officials were in Moscow last month planning economic reconstruction deals that could go into effect as soon as the UN gives the go-ahead.

Those deals, according to officials here, could be worth as much as $10 billion to Russia's struggling enterprises. Clearly, the sooner UN sanctions are abolished, the better it will be for the Russian economy.

And it wouldn't do Kozyrev's ego any harm, either, if he were allowed to claim a little of the credit.

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