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The Economist (UK)
January 25-31, 2003
Russia and the Middle East
Walking on a tightrope
Russia is not so much leaning towards the Arab world as desperately
trying to keep its balance

ANYONE watching Russia's recent Middle East diplomacy might conclude
that it is trying to recapture the golden age of Soviet-Arab
friendship. This month Syria's vice-president was in Moscow to talk
about "closer relations", with hasty denials that Russia plans to
help Syria build a nuclear reactoras it is doing in Iran, with
several more planned. Meanwhile Iraq said yes to deals with three
Russian oil companies, including a previously cancelled project for
Lukoil, Russia's second-biggest oil company, to develop the huge West
Qurna-2 field. And Russian officials went to Saudi Arabia, huddling
with OPEC to agree on oil output levels that will ensure a nice price
for all.

And that is just one month's work. Last year, says Mikhail Bogdanov,
head of the foreign ministry's Middle East and North Africa division,
was choc-a-bloc with Arab state visits and co-operation agreements.
Russia, he insists, never distanced itself from the Arab world.

All this may unnerve some of Russia's newer western allies. The
Bushehr reactor project in Iran is "not only a danger to the region,
but to Russia's own long-term interests," said the American
ambassador to Moscow, Alexander Vershbow, recently. But such frenetic
Russian diplomacy in the Muslim world is really little more than a
veil for the fact that Russia is now far closer to another Middle
Eastern country: Israel.

This was partly inevitable. Even in the old days, Syria, Iraq and
Libya were the only big buyers of Soviet arms, and those sales have
dwindled. With the cold war's end, Russia's strategic need to be
close to the Arab states evaporated too. "Russia doesn't have enough
money to finance significant projects in the Middle East, no big
economic interests except for the oil companies in Iraq, no military
clout anymore, and it's still seen as treacherous by many Arab
regimes because they think Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin
[Russia's former presidents] unjustly abandoned them," says
Konstantin Eggert, editor of the BBC's Russian service in Moscow and
a former military translator. Talk of multi-billion-dollar
four years ago it was an arms deal with Syria, last year it was huge
investments in Iraqtend to dissolve into thin desert air.

These days Russia and Israel have much more in common. Both their
governments are increasingly fed up with west European criticism of
how they handle their respective conflicts in Chechnya and Palestine.
Russians, says Yuri Shtern, chairman of the far-right Israel Beiteinu
party and himself an immigrant from Russia, don't boycott Israeli
products; Russian pop singers don't stay away from Israel in
solidarity with the Palestinians. He thinks that Russia, already a
member of the peacemaking quartet that includes the United States,
the European Union and the UN, could become a closer ally of Israel.

Quid pro quo, Israel's leaders help Russia smooth over its
differences with America, even those that ought to disturb Israel
just as much. "Ariel Sharon has been an important asset in winning
over the US on a number of foreign-policy issues, like blunting US
criticism of Russia," says Vladimir Frolov, the deputy staff director
of the Russian parliament's foreign-affairs committee. Israel takes
care not to criticise publicly Russia's repression in Chechnya, and
the two countries' special forces swap experience and training.
Thanks to the Chechen conflict, with its increasingly radical-Islamic
undertone, Russians have a growing distrust of Islam and sympathy for
Israel, especially after the bloody events last year, when Chechen
rebels took hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theatre in October and
suicide-bombers blew up Russia's administrative headquarters in
Chechnya in December, each incident leaving more than 100 dead.

Even on oil, Russia circumvents the Arab world when it has to. It may
be cosy with OPEC now, but a year ago it was quietly breaking agreed
production limits. And a plan to start pumping Russian oil this year
through a disused Israeli pipeline from the Mediterranean to the Red
Sea would both ensure Israel's oil supply and help Russia break the
Arab states' near-monopoly on selling oil to Asia.

Russian-Israeli connections reach into domestic affairs too. Israeli
politicians go to Moscow at election time to woo Russian television
stations, which still reach the 15% of Israelis who immigrated from
the former Soviet Union. Amram Mitzna, Labour's candidate for prime
minister in Israel's upcoming election, would have a better chance
were it not for his almost total lack of support among Russian-
Israelis. Russia's politicians, for their part, now cultivate ties
with Jews at home; some are powerful in business. The anti-Semitism
that infected Soviet thinking is now, says Evgeny Satanovsky, head of
the Russian Jewish Congress, "the last in a long queue of other
Russian xenophobias".

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