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Sands of change
Amid spreading protests, Russia is scrambling to work out a new Middle East policy

Arab Street Protest with Stone-Throwing Protester Atop a Military VehicleMore North African and Middle Eastern countries have joined the wave of popular revolutions that have already seen leaders in Tunisia and Egypt step down. Protests are growing in Libya and Bahrain, while opposition members are also gathering in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Iraq and Iran.

- - While citizens of these countries are protesting against authoritarian regimes, Russia has not yet shown any significant interest in the regional unrest. Since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost its viable influence in both the Middle East and North Africa. But its foreign policy will change after the unrest, experts say.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on February 23, stressing that Russia's main priority in the region is securing the safety of Russian citizens and working to consolidate the Russian position in accordance with the new status quo.

At present, the main players in the Middle East and North Africa are the US and the EU, but it is not yet clear what paths of political and economical development new regional governments will choose. And Russia has yet to decide on the right foreign policy steps to satisfy its own political ambitions and help stabilise the situation.

"It's in Russia's main interest to build relations with any regime that will be installed in these countries, whether liberal or Islamist," Alexei Vasilyev, head of the Africa Institute at the Russian Academy of Science, told The Moscow News.

Vasilyev pointed out that Russia should be able to achieve partnerships with these countries "that will meet mutual interests - but what is important is that Russia must not teach these countries how to be more liberal and open, since we have yet to learn that lesson ourselves," he said.

"There is nothing clear about the future of politics in North Africa and Middle East," Yelena Suponina, a Middle Eastern studies expert, told The Moscow News.

Suponina stressed that Russia's presence in the region is small and the country currently has no real ties with the new forces in play in Egypt and Tunisia. "This is a problem, because the opposition there consists of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom Russia should establish some sort of relationship," she said.

Medvedev cautious

President Dmitry Medvedev has warned of the possible influence of radical Islamist groups in the south of Russia at a meeting of the Russian Anti-Terrorist Committee in Vladikazkaz on Tuesday, RIA Novosti reported. "Turmoil in the Arab world could lead to disintegration of large, populous states into small fragments and the rise of religious fanatics to power," Medvedev said.

Warning that the protests could lead to greater radicalism around the world, Medvedev said that Russia would fight radical Islam with economic and social weapons, saying: "More jobs for youth in the North Caucasus will help get rid of the Islamists there."

Arab interest in Russia

According to Alexei Podtserob, who has served as Russia's ambassador to both Tunisia and Libya and currently works for the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the countries of Middle East and North Africa are interested in Russia as a geopolitical player.

"The Arab world is still interested in having us as a friend and counterweight to the US and EU," Podtserob said.

The US has urged Middle Eastern countries to take concrete action to stabilise the situation and meet democratic demands, and the European Union has also expressed hopes for a peaceful transition of power in the region.

The EU has also threatened Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with possible sanctions against his regime in Libya to punish him for his brutal suppression of anti-government protests in the country, RIA Novosti reported.

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