Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 224

While Russia’s ongoing war in Chechnya continued to dominate headlines in the West, this past week was also notable for the stream of visitors arriving in Moscow from the Middle East. These visits too had some connections to developments in Russia’s North Caucasus region. But talks between the Russian leadership and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy reflected both Russia’s ongoing efforts to raise its profile in the Middle East and next week’s visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A visit by Iraqi Deputy Premier Tariq Aziz was connected most directly to the fact that the UN Security Council–of which Russia is a permanent member–may be on the verge of making several key decisions related to UN sanctions on Baghdad as well as efforts to reestablish an arms monitoring system in Iraq.

The issue of Chechnya was nevertheless on the agenda during talks with all three Middle Eastern officials, and Moscow must have gotten some satisfaction from the results. Aziz offered perhaps the most categorical statements of support for the Russian position in the Caucasus. During a news conference on December 1 he characterized the Chechen conflict as an internal matter for Moscow and rejected “any attempt to accuse Russia of an anti-Muslim stance” because of the war. Arafat, for his part, also described Chechnya as an internal Russian affair, but called on Moscow to end the conflict as quickly as possible. The Palestinian leader also denied a report published by an Israeli newspaper on November 29 which said that Islamic militant groups–including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Hezbollah–have been recruiting and training terrorists in Russia and other former Soviet states (AFP, November 30).

Aziz’ and Arafat’s statements were of some comfort to Moscow, given the muted but growing unease in the Arab world over Russia’s bloody crackdown in Chechnya. Indeed, an Iranian-led delegation from the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is due to arrive in Moscow on December 6 to discuss the Chechen crisis. The visit was pressed on an apparently reluctant Moscow during a November 28 visit by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Iran. Moscow may be looking at the arrival of the OIC delegation with some trepidation. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi–whose own country has prioritized friendly relations with Moscow–suggested earlier this week that the visit was strictly a fact-finding mission and involved no effort by the Council to mediate the Chechen conflict. A day later, however, the secretary general of the OIC, Azeddine Laraki, suggested that the seriousness of the situation in the Caucasus had prompted the OIC to draft specific proposals aimed at ending the fighting (AFP, November 30; Reuters, December 1; UPI, December 1-2).

The Russian government, which has sharply rebuffed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) attempts to mediate the Chechen conflict, cannot be happy about the possibility of a similar effort being launched by the Arab world. Indeed, according to a Russian report, the OIC delegation intends also to travel to the North Caucasus, and would like to visit parts of northern Chechnya as well as Ingushetia and Dagestan (Itar-Tass, December 1). Earlier this week Moscow brusquely rejected a request by OSCE Chairman Knut Vollebaek to visit Chechnya. It will be interesting to see how accommodating the Russians are in dealing with the OIC request.

If Russian news sources are to be believed, then Moscow also got a strong show of support for its Chechen operations from the Israeli foreign minister. David Levy equated Russia’s Chechen campaign with Israel’s battles against terrorists, and was quoted as saying that “Russia has no other way out in the North Caucasus today than to fight against terrorism with all the accessible methods” (Itar-Tass, December 2). According to an Israeli news source, Jerusalem has responded positively to recent Russian requests for Israeli cooperation in Moscow’s war against Chechen rebels. The Israeli government reportedly hopes to keep that cooperation low-key however, and to limit it to the technical level while at the same time coordinating its actions with Washington (Ha’aretz, December 1).