Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 51

A high-ranking Russian lawmaker managed yesterday to create a minor diplomatic scandal–and apparently embarrass his government–when he unexpectedly canceled a planned meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during an official visit to Jerusalem. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov’s action left the Russian Foreign Ministry scrambling to repair the damage done to Russia’s ties with Palestinian authorities and triggered the publication of several scathing reports in leading Russian dailies. The consensus in Moscow appeared to be that Mironov’s action reflected both his own inexperience on the international stage and the Russian government’s failure to properly prepare a senior leader for an important trip abroad.

A commentary published on the Kremlin-backed Strana.ru website had a somewhat different take, however. By suggesting that Mironov’s action had actually helped underscore what it said was increasing harmony between Moscow’s and Washington’s approach to the crisis in the Middle East–and on the eve of U.S. envoy General Anthony Zinni’s arrival in the region, no less–the commentary may simply have been trying to make the best of a bad situation, particularly considering Mironov’s close ties to President Vladimir Putin. But it also raised at least the possibility that Mironov’s snub of the Palestinian leader might have been something other than a misstep by an inexperienced Russian official, and in fact represented a trial balloon of sorts floated by the Kremlin.

What several Russian news sources described as a “sensation” began yesterday when Mironov decided to cancel a planned meeting with Arafat so as to continue his consultations with Israeli officials. Mironov described the decision as his own “personal initiative.” Russian sources said pointedly that he had consulted neither the Russian Foreign Ministry nor the Kremlin before making it. Mironov appeared to imply, moreover, both in his remarks at the time and in a subsequent interview given to the Izvestia daily newspaper, that his decision was based in part on a recognition that Israel’s struggle against the Palestinians was not unlike Moscow’s own against Chechen rebels and that both paralleled the battle against international terrorists in Afghanistan. The “terrorist acts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Israel have the same roots,” Mironov was quoted as saying, “most of all with respect to finances” (Strana.ru, Izvestia.ru, Interfax, March 12; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vremya Novostei, March 13).

Russian diplomats scrambled to repair the damage. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov emphasized that Mironov’s actions should not be construed to indicate a change of any sort in Russia’s position on the Middle East crisis. Mironov’s visit to the region, he said, had included plans for visits with both Israeli and Palestinian representatives. More to the point, he expressed regrets that the action of so highly placed an official as Mironov–as Federation Council speaker he is officially Russia’s third ranking leader–would likely be interpreted by both parties in the Middle East conflict and the world community as a change in Russia’s policies.

Meanwhile, another Russian diplomat also rushed into the breach. Andrei Vdovin, the Foreign Ministry’s special representative for the Middle East, emphasized that, for Russia, Yasser Arafat remains the recognized leader of the Palestinian people and the man with whom Russia would negotiate. Vdovin, who was already in the region, also indicated that he would remain there for a bit more time so as to maintain contacts with representatives of both sides of the conflict, including those subordinated to Arafat (Interfax, RTR, March 12).

There was criticism of Mironov in Moscow from officials outside of the Foreign Ministry as well. The most noteworthy came from Yevgeny Primakov, former Russian premier and foreign minister, a man who in earlier times had been an architect of Russian policy in the Middle East and who continues to enjoy friendly ties with Arab leaders in the region. He described Mironov’s actions as a serious mistake and emphasized that such a highly placed official simply must act in accordance with the government’s established foreign policies (DPA, March 12; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 13).

Several Palestinian representatives, meanwhile, went out of their way to state publicly yesterday that they would not interpret Mironov’s actions and statements as a change in Russian policy or let them undermine currently friendly relations between Russia and Palestinian authorities. Simultaneously, however, various Russian news sources made it clear that the Palestinians were in fact angry over Mironov’s performance in Jerusalem. The Palestinian ambassador to Russia, for example, described Mironov’s actions as “disrespectful toward the Palestinian people and the entire Arab world.” More tellingly, perhaps, the Russian daily Vremya Novostei quoted a Palestinian parliamentarian, who said that his people “had long been disappointed with the position of Russia.” He said further that “Russia has ever more regularly been following the United States,” and claimed that Moscow and Washington were working together “to provide cover for Israel, allowing [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon… to kill hundreds of Palestinians with impunity” (Interfax, March 12; Vremya Novostei, March 13).

Indeed, whether Mironov’s actions yesterday were the result of inexperience or something more calculated, the fact is that Russian policy has shifted over the past year away from its former pro-Arab orientation toward a more even-handed approach that is both closer to U.S. policies and even includes some openings to Israel. It was this reorientation that appeared to underlie the commentary published yesterday by Strana.ru. It underlined Moscow’s support for a Middle East settlement based on the plan drafted by U.S. CIA Director George Tenet–which calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities, an Israeli troop pullback from Palestinian population centers and Palestinian arrests of militants (New York Times, March 9)–and thus the degree to which Moscow and Washington are now in sync in their approaches to promoting Middle East peace.

Of at least equal interest, however, is the Strana.ru commentary’s suggestion that Mironov’s actions in Jerusalem yesterday may have “reflected a process of rethinking by various Russian political elites of the priority tasks faced by Russia’s foreign policy under new conditions in the world.” Those conditions are defined, the commentary goes on to say, “by the appearance of a new adversary–international terrorism–and the mobilization of the world community to do battle with it.” By placing Mironov’s actions in this context, and by suggesting that they may have served this broader harmonizing of approaches by the United States and Russia to the Middle East conflict, the Strana.ru commentary appeared to be suggesting that yesterday’s events were less an embarrassment to the Russian government than a signal that the Kremlin’s views of the Middle East conflict may indeed be changing (Strana.ru, March 12).