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Moscow Enjoys Banner Year In 2006

Nowadays Christmas comes often as the oil revenues flood in to Moscow.
by Marianna Belenkaya
Moscow (UPI) Dec 29, 2006
In 2006, Russia's policy in the Middle East has achieved better results than that of any other country.

Washington, for instance, has to come up with a new strategy for the region, whereas Russian diplomats are happy to announce that they have made correct forecasts and chosen the right policy.

Summing up the year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that "Russia has assumed a level of responsibility in world affairs commensurate with its potential and has not shirked its duty when it felt it could play a leading role in a joint search for solutions to common problems." His words primarily apply to Russia's foreign policy in the Middle East and Iran.

The Russian president's invitation to Hamas leaders to visit Moscow was probably the highlight of the year. Their victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 came as a shock to the Quartet of mediators in the Middle Eastern conflict (Russia, the U.S., the EU and the U.N.). It was obvious that peaceful talks between Palestinians and Israelis were going nowhere, at least for the time being. Moreover, Washington and Brussels could not even act as go-betweens because they had refused to have any contact with Hamas. Under the circumstances, Russia assumed responsibility for talking with the Islamists with the tacit approval of the rest of the Quartet. The Russian diplomats were not so naive as to expect Hamas to make an about-face, but they tried to find a compromise that would suit the Islamic movement, Israel and the rest of the world. It was not Moscow's fault that these efforts did not produce the desired effect. It is probable, however, that Russian diplomats will be useful as intermediaries in the future. Their contacts with Syria have proven helpful.

The Palestinian Islamists and Syria are in a similar position: the West has isolated both of them. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's first visit to Moscow in January 2005 created quite a stir, particularly among Israeli officials. In December 2006, RIA Novosti received reports that those officials would be happy if Russia had levers of influence on Syria. RIA Novosti's Israeli sources emphasized the word "influence," considering "pressure" to be out of place.

Both London and some quarters in Washington have spoken about the need for dialogue with Damascus because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be resolved without Syrian and Lebanese participation, and neither can Iraq's problems be resolved without Syrian and Iranian involvement. Russia fully agrees with this view.

Lavrov paid special attention to the fact that the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group mentioned the need to involve Iran and Syria in the dialogue on Iraq. "We have been talking about it for a long time," Lavrov said, adding: "In general, the region's problems should be resolved through the involvement of all parties in the negotiating process rather than isolation. I believe attempts to isolate a nation or a political movement are one of the main obstacles to resuming the peace process." The Russian minister was clearly referring to the situation which had developed around Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

In 2006, Russia and Syria have maintained an active political dialogue on regional problems (Lavrov said that Syria had adopted the right attitude to Moscow's position on Lebanese-Syrian efforts to normalize relations) and on bilateral cooperation, primarily in the economy. The number of Russian companies taking part in projects in Syria is constantly on the rise.

After the start of the war in Iraq in the spring of 2003, Moscow seemed to have lost its only serious economic partner in the Arab world. However, Russia's positions in the region ended up becoming even stronger. In 2006, President Vladimir Putin visited Morocco and Algeria. His latter visit not only boosted bilateral contacts, but also caused a sensation in the world arena. Russia and Algeria, which account for just under 40 percent of European gas imports, decided to sell natural gas together to third countries. Russia's Gazprom signed a memorandum of understanding with the Algerian fuel company Sonatrach, its main rival in Europe.

Russia has stepped up its contacts with Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Vladimir Putin is planning to go there next year, and his visit will probably result in big new contracts for Russian companies.

It is essential to mention two more events. The murder of Russian diplomats in Iraq was probably the heaviest blow to Moscow in the Middle East in the last few years. For the first time Russians were deliberately attacked abroad. Previously, Russians were taken hostage in Iraq either by mistake (having been taken for the Americans), or because the terrorists wanted to do damage to the Iraqi economy. Partly a consequence of the chaos in Iraq, the murder of diplomats was primarily caused by the global war on terror, which Russia has been waging along with other countries for several years now. It was probably no accident that the diplomats were murdered on the eve of the G8 summit, which Russia presided over for the first time.

The second event is linked with the G8. At its summit in the U.S. in 2004, the G8 adopted a program on Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa. During its G8 presidency in 2006, Russia organized a whole number of undertakings as part of this program. Importantly, the Russian concept prevailed in this respect. Together with some Arab and European countries, Russia insisted that the U.S.'s plan for introducing democracy to the Middle East be transformed into a program of partnership, under which all projects for reform would take into account the local features and would be carried out with the mandatory consent of the countries involved. In 2006, Russia has done all it could to bring together the positions of different countries and political groups on the transformation of the region.

Needless to say, Russia has not achieved everything it wanted in 2006. We cannot take credit for facilitating a Middle Eastern settlement, or the resolution of the Iranian problem. We have not found a way of stopping radicalization in the Middle East. However, Russian diplomats have done better than their Western colleagues at the U.N. Security Council. No country can parry today's challenges on its own. Moscow has suggested its solutions to different regional problems, and events in the Middle East in 2007 will depend on the extent to which the U.S. and Arab countries will use Russia's ideas and on the willingness of other nations to engage in dialogue and compromise. At any rate, the Russian Foreign Minister was quite optimistic when talking about the world's growing realization that there is no alternative to the consolidation of collective efforts in international relations.

Lavrov declared: "Regrettably, this realization rests, among other things, on the sad experience of unilateral use of force and on countless casualties. But let me repeat that this realization is paving the way forward -- we and other nations are coming to appreciate better and better that the unilateral use of force will only fuel new conflicts in world politics and create new deadlocks. In general, I'd say that the real limits of the use of force are being revealed, and it is obvious that nobody can suggest the right recipe for the settlement of any problem, and that no problem can be resolved by force." It is clear that these words primarily concern the Middle East and Iran.

(Marianna Belenkaya is a RIA Novosti political commentator. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti. This article is reprinted with kind permission of RIA Novostli.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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