Russia's New Role in Mideast: Debt Collector, Not Donor

With no aid to give, Primakov won't get red carpet

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov visits the Middle East this week seeking to recapture a trifle of his country's waning influence in the region. But among his Arab and Israeli hosts, he will have a hard time dispelling the notion that Moscow has become an impotent bystander.

As a specialist on the Arab world and former Cairo correspondent for Pravda, the official Politburo mouthpiece, Primakov no doubt hopes to infuse some sort of personal dynamism into his six-nation tour, which includes Syria today and Lebanon tomorrow. Old ties notwithstanding, even a veteran strategist like Primakov will have a hard time convincing skeptical Mideast leaders that Russia can play the kind of role it did in the 1960s and '70s.

Iraq owes Russia $8 billion

The visit looks all the more dubious because Primakov appears to be coming empty-handed. If many Arab leaders once relied upon the Soviet Union as their closest ally, financial and military backing was the key Soviet influence in the area. Syria received $1 billion a year from the USSR before 1991 and Iraq, Libya, and Yemen were beneficiaries of generous military and economic "friendship treaties."

Today, Russia appears immobilized by its own economic and military hardships, and Moscow looks more concerned about collecting on debts than handing out gifts. Russian officials continue to devise strategies to get back at least part of the estimated $8 billion owed by Iraq, $4 billion by Libya, and $2 billion by Syria. Iran's debt to Russia was rescheduled earlier this year.

"It is clear to everyone that no amount of effort on Primakov's part will change the fundamental dilemma of Russian foreign policy today: No money, no policy," quips Sergei Postagonov, Mideast correspondent of Komsomolskaya Pravda, a popular Moscow daily.

Primakov also inherited priorities elsewhere. NATO expansion in Europe and turmoil along Russia's southern flank keep policy makers busy. And Andrei Kozyrev, Primakov's predecessor, made little effort to cultivate friendships in the Arab world, going so far as to rekindle ties with Israel, the chief adversary and nemesis of most Arabs.

At the same time, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's eagerness to maintain good relations with the United States has jeopardized much of the leverage Russian diplomacy formerly had in the Middle East. "Gone are the days when the Kremlin could score points with the misdeeds of bugbear allies like Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi," says one East European diplomat.

Worse, Russia squandered much of the sympathy capital it once had in the Islamic world by engaging Muslim separatists in Chechnya and supporting Serb nationalists in Bosnia. "Russia has a miserable image with the Arab man in the street," adds the east European diplomat, "and Primakov needs a miracle to mend that image."

Damage control appears to be the key to Russian Middle East policy for the time being. "Russia has been trying to placate Arab public opinion of late by taking position against Israel as much a possible," reflects Mohsen Dawoud, member of Lebanon's erstwhile Communist Party. "But," he concludes, "even that seems to be winning few friends."

For instance, Russia's Ambassador to Syria Victor Gogitidze condemned the recent decision of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drill for oil on the occupied Golan Heights: "Israel must stop making such provocations which set the peace process back."

Another Russian policy goal now appears to be developing markets for Russian goods. Vladimir Volkov, head of Russia's Parliamentary Academy, recently led a commercial delegation on a six-nation tour of the region. "We are working hard to increase our interests in the Middle East," he told a group of Beirut businessmen, "and the Americans are working hard to keep us out."

Playing catch-up

Moreover, Russia seems to be reacting more to other nation's efforts in the Mideast than initiating its own moves, says Abdallah Abbadi, correspondent for the Moroccan Press Agency. "The Russians see [French President Jaques] Chirac visiting the Arab world and [US Secretary of State Warren] Christopher shuttling to the region, and they feel they too must do something."

But Moscow is no longer on the circuit of diplomatic visits. Yasser Arafat, once a protege of the Soviet Union, has taken to visiting France and other European Community states, leaving Moscow off his itinerary. Arafat enthusiastically sought out "Doctor Chirac" for behind-the-scenes mediation after relations began to sour with Israel.

While Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Posovalyuk has toured the Mideast extensively of late, only one major dignitary from the region, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been to Moscow.

Russia's controversial offer to complete construction of a nuclear power plant outside Tehran appeared to be sufficient motivation for the visit.

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