Russia hesitant to endorse US' Greater Middle East Initiative

Posted in Russia | 07-Jun-04 | Author: Sergei Blagov| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Kremlin still has concerns over Iraq

Editor's note: This is the second article in a series looking into the US' Greater Middle East Initiative, to be unveiled June 8 at the upcoming G8 meeting.

MOSCOW: On the eve of the Group of Eight (G8) annual summit to be held on Sea Island, Georgia, this week, Russia's stance on US President George Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative (GMI) remains somewhat muted. Officially, Russia would have no objection to the democratic and economic reforms' plan, otherwise known as the Broader Middle East and North African Initiative. The initiative also calls for combat against terrorism, which is now a key part of Russia's official policies.

With little public debate on the issue, Russia's stance on Iraq arguably serves as a litmus test concerning Moscow's perception of the GMI. Russia welcomed the establishment of the Iraqi interim government, urging the soonest possible restoration of Iraq's sovereignty. However, Russia said it still had many concerns over the draft UN resolution on Iraq proposed by the US and Britain.

Russia's diplomats argue the resolution on Iraq should specify who will be responsible for searching for alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as for the weapons already unearthed by UN inspectors before the war. Russia is also demanding that a date be fixed for ending the presence of the US-led multinational occupation forces in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has made a number of friendly gestures toward Washington as of late. The US finally succeeded in its efforts to persuade Russia to join the US-backed non-proliferation initiative.

Russia's Foreign Ministry announced that Moscow would join the group of core countries in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). Yet Moscow backed the PSI with some reservations as the Foreign Ministry said Russia would contribute to the PSI as long as its actions did not violate international law or its own legislation.

The purpose of the GMI is to showcase the US-led drive to promote democracy in the Islamic world, while the plan's actual goals could involve some economics as well, said Alexander Salitsky, researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Moscow-based think-tank. Therefore, Russia may want to use it to achieve some of its own strategic goals, he told The Daily Star. In all likelihood, these would include promoting Russia's global energy role, Salitsky said.

Subsequently, Moscow has made another overture to Washington. Russia is going to increase oil output and exports regardless of world prices, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has said.

"If the oil prices are high, we will use this opportunity. We will boost production," he said. "In the event of the price decline, we will not try to artificially prop it up, since such actions will hamper economic growth worldwide."

Russian advances were made not only to Washington. Last week, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller traveled to Israel for talks on natural gas exports via a Russian pipeline to Turkey.

On the other hand, with its some 20 million Muslim population, Russia has been keen not to alienate the Islamic world.

Earlier this month, Veniamin Popov, Ambassador-at-Large at the Russian Foreign Ministry, reiterated that Russia aimed at boosting ties with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Russia disapproves of the notion of "Islamic terrorism" because it ignites hatred toward Islam and the Muslims, Popov stated. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the OIC conference in Malaysia and requested an observer status in the organization.

Furthermore, it was hardly a coincidence that Egyptian President Mubarak, who makes no secret of his opposition to the GMI, traveled to Moscow last week to exchange views with President Putin over regional issues.

The Russian president has decided against attending this month's NATO summit in Turkey, where the GMI is set to be further discussed. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave no reason why Putin would not attend, but insisted he was not snubbing the 26-nation talks in Istanbul.

Nonetheless, Putin's refusal came as yet another blow to an event for which ambitions had already been scaled down with the decision not to invite Arab states. Putin's reluctance to attend the NATO summit in Turkey appears to be another indication of Moscow's hesitant approach to Bush's Middle East initiative.