Russia also found itself at loggerheads with European and North American governments during a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) held in Vienna on November 27-28. Moscow clashed sharply with other OSCE states over their criticism of the Kremlin’s failure to honor commitments made by Russia during the group’s 1999 summit in Istanbul. Those commitments obligated Moscow to permit an OSCE observers group to return to Chechnya and also involved Russian military withdrawals from Georgia and Moldova (see below). Moscow placed its truculent, hardline rejection of these OSCE demands in a familiar context: It argued that Chechnya is an internal affair of the Russian government and that the West more generally has no right to “lecture” or dictate to Moscow. For all the unpleasantness, however, the determination of European leaders to mend fences with Moscow and the hopes of European countries to procure new energy supplies from Russia seem likely to ensure that broader relations will suffer little.
Against this background, Moscow also moved aggressively to raise its profile in other parts of the world. The Kremlin followed up an assertion of its intent to play a greater political, security and economic role in the Asia-Pacific region (see Fortnight in Review, November 17) with initiatives aimed at increasing Russian influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. The talk of new arms deals with Iran was part of that effort, but Moscow also stiffened its backing of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq by dispatching its foreign minister to Baghdad and by hosting a visit to Moscow by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. At the same time the Kremlin labored to bolster its role in the Middle East peace process and thereby to erase the humiliation of not being invited to the emergency Middle East summit conference which took place in Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-October. Although it may prove of little significance over the long run, Moscow’s key success in this area was a telephone call between Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak brokered by Vladimir Putin during a visit by Arafat to the Russian capital.