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#13 - JRL 7029
Wall Street Journal
January 22, 2003
Russians Show Apathy To U.S. Moves on Iraq

MOSCOW -- It was billed as a show of solidarity for an old friend, Iraq, at a time when the American aggressor was cranking up its war machine, but a protest rally on a gloomy afternoon in central Moscow last weekend drew only 150 people.

The feeble turnout helps explain why President Vladimir Putin isn't likely to use his vote on the United Nations Security Council to oppose U.S. strikes against Iraq. Even as the rest of Europe raises the volume on its opposition to war, arguing that U.N. inspections have uncovered little evidence of an Iraqi weapons program, Mr. Putin has kept a low profile. He knows his electorate has more pressing concerns than defending its onetime Soviet ally.

Officially, Russia is calling for a peaceful settlement of the crisis and warning the U.S. not to attack unilaterally. But as the Security Council heads toward a possible debate on military strikes next week, Moscow is striving hard to avoid a public rift with the U.S. Political analysts say Mr. Putin is trying to stay on President Bush's good side to ensure that Russian companies are included in a post-Saddam Hussein oil carve-up, or to win Washington's silence on his own campaign to quell a separatist rebellion in Chechnya. But equally important to Mr. Putin's stance, pollsters say, is the mood of his electorate.

About 40% of 1,600 Russians polled last October said Russia should "stay on the sidelines" and remain a U.S. ally in the larger war on terror if Washington attacks Iraq. Another 14% said Moscow should endorse U.S. strikes. Only 3% thought Moscow should defend Iraq militarily.

While Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has won votes in Germany by speaking out against a U.S. attack, "Putin is sensitive to public opinion and sees it's not worthwhile to get bogged down [in Iraq] and risk our relations with the U.S.," says Leonid Sedov, senior researcher for the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, which conducted the poll.

That doesn't mean Russians give Washington a free pass. Asked why the U.S. wants to wage war with Iraq, 43% said "to show the world who's boss." Another 34% said Washington wanted to "establish control of Iraqi oil fields." And Russians could theoretically take a more active stance against military intervention if U.N. inspections continue to yield no smoking gun. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov called a military solution "an extreme and last resort."

But with so many economic problems at home -- from widespread unemployment to citywide power failures in the countryside -- few Russians want the Kremlin wasting precious energy on foreign affairs. At the rally in Moscow, a right-wing legislator dressed in camouflage took the microphone to urge his countrymen to "put aside their teacups" and fight American imperialism. But the crowd was thin and listless, and after an hour everyone dispersed. Even rally organizers conceded defeat. "Russia is tired of protests -- people just want to live normally," said Yuri Boldarev, a footsoldier for the nationalist LDPR party.

Reaction was different to the 1999 U.S.-led bombing of Serbia, which sparked big protests among Russians who felt strong ethnic ties to their Slavic neighbors. Back then, protesters threw eggs and paintballs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and about half of those polled thought the Kremlin should protect Belgrade via diplomacy. Only 21% feel the same toward Iraq today.

Analysts say Russia's long-running war against Muslim rebels in Chechnya has helped foster distrust of the wider Muslim world. "People don't feel real sympathy to Iraq, or to any of the Arab world -- they are seen as our most likely opponents," Mr. Sedov said.

This marks a stark departure from Soviet times, when Moscow cultivated strong ties to Arabs, and particularly Iraqis, as a way to check U.S. influence in the Middle East. Soon after Mr. Hussein came to power in the early 1970s, the Soviets won his favor by sending an army of engineers to help tap the country's first oil fields. Later, Russia acted as Baghdad's principal arms supplier in its decadelong war with Iran.

Many of Iraq's scientists and political elite were educated at Russian universities, and some of the cooperative spirit of Soviet times remains. Abbas Khalaf, Iraqi's ambassador to Russia , told a Moscow newspaper this week that Baghdad "believes in Russia and sees her as a loyal partner to Arabs and Muslims."

Some Russians still speak passionately in Iraq's defense. Sergei Yesin, director of Moscow's Gorky Institute of Literature, belongs to the Iraqi-Russian Friendship Society, a Soviet-era coalition of intellectuals and military veterans who gather occasionally to sip tea and discuss culture and history.

"I don't believe in opinion polls -- I think Russia will support Iraq very actively if the U.S. attacks," says Mr. Yesin, who developed a fondness for Iraqis after traveling to Baghdad five years ago to teach students about Russian literature.

The last time Mr. Yesin saw his colleagues from the friendship society, however, was a year and a half ago, and as far as he knows the group isn't taking active steps to protest war. "We will meet when they start bombing," he says.

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