Moscow's Middle East maneuverings

Posted in Russia | 15-Dec-04 | Author: Sergei Blagov| Source: Asia Times

Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin
MOSCOW - Russia, previously dismissive of the US-backed "Broader Middle East" initiative, now appears to be moving closer toward Washington's stance on the issue. Nevertheless, Russia remains deeply skeptical over the showcase of the Bush administration's Middle East policy - Iraq.

Russia will negotiate debt restructuring with its borrowers in the Middle East-North Africa region, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told the US-sponsored "Forum for the Future" in Morocco on Sunday. "Russia sees its participation in the Forum for the Future above all in terms of economic development," Kudrin said on the sidelines of the conference. "It is obvious that the region's economies need liberalization," he said, adding, "We have to settle debt issues with Afghanistan, Algeria, Yemen, Syria and Libya."

The forum was the centerpiece of the so-called Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA). Russia's talk about debt restructuring as well as its suggestion that the region needs liberalization arguably indicate that the Kremlin is dropping some of its reservations regarding the Broader Middle East initiative.

The forum was attended by foreign and finance ministers from more than 20 countries of the Middle East and North Africa, along with their counterparts from the Group of Eight (G8) countries - the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia.

The forum was part of an initiative launched by US President George Bush at the 2004 G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia, in June to find ways in which wealthier nations and international institutions can promote change in order to attack problems that breed Islamic extremism.

Initially, Russia somewhat disapproved of BMENA, but officially, Russia would have no quarrel with the partnership's democratic and economic reforms plan. But Moscow did argue that reforming the region is something that should be done by the Middle East countries themselves. Notably, the forum is said to have actually rebuked US efforts to curb Islamic extremism and promote democracy in the Middle East due to its one-sided stand in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Iran boycotted the forum, while Israel was not invited.

Full of energy
Meanwhile, Moscow's state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom reportedly proposed the sale of an unlimited amount of gas to Israel via a pipeline passing by Antalia in southern Turkey, and ending at Haifa. Gazprom is said to have offered to finance and handle construction of the US$1 billion pipeline in exchange for a long-term contract. A pipeline from Russia could also serve to supply Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria. Such a project, if fulfilled, would come as Russia's significant economic contribution to the BMENA initiative.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed deep skepticism over Iraq, including US plans to hold a parliamentary election there next month when foreign troops will still be present. "I cannot imagine how elections can be held under a full occupation of the country by foreign troops," Putin said.

Moscow also remains hesitant about becoming more involved in Iraq. Iraq is still too dangerous for Russian firms to work there, Putin was quoted as saying last Thursday. "Our companies are ready to return to Iraq as soon as the necessary conditions are established from the point of view of security. As we can see, such conditions have not been established," Putin said.

Yet despite its skepticism over Iraq, this month Russia indicated it expected a larger role in Iraqi reconstruction after its decision to reduce Iraqi debt. "Initially, we had pledged to write off 65% of Iraqi debt, then we joined the Paris Club decision and we will write off more than 90% of Iraqi debt," Putin told visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during a meeting at the Kremlin on December 7. "We are doing this [based] on solidarity with friendly Iraqi people," Putin said.

"Simultaneously, we assume that your administration and the future Iraqi government would respect interests of Russian companies," Putin told Allawi. Russia's decision to write off Iraqi debt will help Russia to play a leading role in reviving Iraq's industry and economy, Allawi reportedly said.

Last month, Russia backed a deal agreed on by the Paris Club to write off some 90% of Iraq's debt. Previously, Russia had offered to reduce Iraq's debt to Moscow from more than $8 billion to $3.5 billion and pledged up to $4 billion in investments to help rebuild Iraq.

Russia's writeoff sparked rumors that Moscow was tempted to play a bigger role in Iraq. Last month, some Russian media speculated that Moscow had agreed to send a small number of troops to Iraq to protect oil wells and support the US-led military campaign there.

On the other hand, oil-for-food graft accusations remain a major irritant for Moscow. Russia reportedly declined to clinch a deal with a United Nations probe into the contentious oil-for-food program. Russia has refused to sign documents that would govern how witnesses and documents are handled in the investigation. In mid-November, four UN Volcker Commission investigators traveled to Moscow for consultations, but no details of what was discussed were released.

Russia reportedly tops the list of nations that helped Saddam Hussein circumvent sanctions and embezzle up to $21 billion through illegal surcharges and kickbacks from foreign companies and individuals participating in the program.

Coincidence or not, Moscow opted to balance its tentative approval of the US-backed Broader Middle East initiative with a simultaneous overture toward Washington's regional arch-foe, Iran.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has praised what he described as Russian support of Iran's right to use nuclear energy "for peaceful purposes". "Moscow and Tehran stand against unilateral policies and terrorism and we support the joint struggle against this evil and consider double-standard policies in the fight against terrorism unacceptable," Khatami reportedly told visiting Sergei Mironov, Speaker of Russia's Federation Council, the upper house of parliament. In response, Mironov, on a visit to Tehran on Saturday and Sunday, said that Moscow would continue nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Tehran's dismissal of "evil" unilateral policies and double-standard approaches hardly came as a surprise. However, Russia's synchronized gestures toward Tehran and the US-backed Broader Middle East initiative are somewhat confusing and it is unclear what Russia plots to achieve in the Middle East by more or less backing the BMENA, writing off Iraqi debt and simultaneously reiterating nuclear ties with Iran.

Based in Moscow, Sergei Blagov covers Russia and post-Soviet states with special attention to Asia-related issues. He has been contributing to Asia Times Online since 1996. Between 1983 and 1997, he spent some seven years in Southeast Asia, mainly in Vietnam. In 2001 and 2002, Nova Science Publishers, New York, published his two books on Vietnamese history.