Embarrassment and some confusion appeared to characterize Moscow’s reaction yesterday to the fact that Russia was not represented at the emergency Middle East summit conference which took place in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh. In addition to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat, U.S. President Bill Clinton was there, as were Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The expanded format of the talks only underscored the absence of Russia, which had been a cosponsor of the original peace accord between the Israelis and the Palestinians and which has in recent years tried to rebuild its influence in the region. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov paid a four-day visit to the Middle East last week, where he joined a host of other high-profile envoys in a desperate diplomatic effort to rein in the escalating violence which many believe could plunge the region into war. But Ivanov’s trip appeared only to increase the sense of bewilderment in Moscow yesterday over Russia’s absence from the peace summit. His talks with Middle Eastern leaders had received wide coverage in the Russian press and had helped to raise expectations that Moscow might play an important role in surmounting the current crisis.
Initial Russian reports and comments provided no precise reason for Moscow’s absence. Russian sources suggested that there was support from the Palestinians for a Russian presence at the summit, and that Israel had not specifically objected to the idea. That led some to point the finger at host country Egypt, which issued the invitations to the hastily arranged conference. Others fell back on the standard position that Moscow had been squeezed out by Washington, which, they said, wanted to ensure its own domination of the proceedings. But that did not explain the presence of the UN secretary general and the EU foreign policy supremo. At least a few Russian observers reached the sad conclusion that Russia’s exclusion was a factor primarily of Moscow’s fading influence in the region, a development brought on by the country’s economic and military weakness. Russia was not at the peace summit, according to this view, because it had nothing substantive to add to the proceedings (Reuters, AP, AFP, October 16; Segodnya, October 17).
But whatever the reasons for Russia’s absence, the seeming confusion in Moscow over the matter the past several days only increased the appearance of impotence. Russian officials had appeared earlier to confirm Moscow’s intention to attend the peace summit, and there were even reports that preparations were underway for President Vladimir Putin to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh. Ivanov suggested yesterday, however, that Moscow had waited in vain for an invitation which never came. “There has been no invitation,” Ivanov said, “and I don’t even know whether they were sending any or what the format of the meeting was.” Meanwhile, other sources suggested that Moscow had indeed received an invitation, but that the problem lay in the fact that it was directed at Ivanov rather than Putin. Russia’s Foreign Ministry had said on Sunday that Moscow was prepared to attend the summit “on equal footing with other participants.” Given that President Bill Clinton was traveling to the summit, the statement appeared to mean that Moscow would attend only if Putin was invited as an equal participant. He was not, and the Kremlin found itself in the embarrassing position of suggesting that the Russian leader had not wanted to go to Egypt in any event (AP, Reuters, October 15; AFP, October 15-16).
Despite the obvious disappointment in Moscow, Russian officials were surprisingly subdued and constructive in their reaction to the events of the past few days. Ivanov went out his way to express hope that the Egypt summit would be a successful one, while Putin appeared to wish Clinton luck in his effort to hammer out an agreement. This sort of constructive response was paralleled by the balanced approach which Russian lawmakers took to the Middle East conflict. During an appearance before the State Duma on the night of October 13, Ivanov had explained the many obstacles to a peace settlement and his own inability to overcome them during his visit to the region. At his bidding, and apparently in cooperation with the Russian Duma’s International Affairs Committee, the lower house overwhelmingly passed a resolution that called both on Israel to immediately stop its armed attacks and on the Palestinian autonomy to refrain from terrorism (Russian agencies, Russia TV, October 13).
This sort of even-handed approach was a departure from Moscow’s usual one-sided criticism of Israel and its support for the Palestinians. Indeed, the moderate Duma statement was adopted despite earlier efforts by Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party to “use the current Middle East situation to restore normal relations between Russia Iraq, Iran and Palestine” (RIA, October 13).
Some commentators suggested that Moscow’s relatively balanced statements reflected several developments which have left Russian policy toward the Middle East, at least for now, in a bit of limbo. As expressed by a commentary in the Russian daily Segodnya, Moscow recognizes that a significant portion of Israel’s population is made up of former Russian citizens. It also sees, the newspaper says, that the conflict in Israel is being instigated by forces (presumably it means Islamic fundamentalist) similar to those waging the rebellion in Russia’s North Caucasus. At the same time, Russia cannot openly support Israel, the paper says, because doing so would provoke an outcry from Russia’s millions of Muslim citizens and from hardline “friends of Palestine” in the country’s political elite. For all of these reasons, Segodnya says, Moscow is striving to be neutral in its approach to the latest Middle East violence (Segodnya, October 14).
This may be something of an oversimplification–or misreading–of Moscow’s broader intentions, however. It is worth keeping in mind that Russia has also moved in recent weeks to further improve its relations with Baghdad, and has spearheaded growing international defiance of the air embargo on Iraq. Moscow has also continued to pursue friendlier relations with Iran. Indeed, even as Russia’s Foreign Ministry was mulling its absence from the Middle East peace summit, the Kremlin was dispatching Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov to Tehran. Reports said that discussions there would focus on what Moscow says is the threat from the Taliban movement of Afghanistan. But one Russian commentary referred to the Russian-Iranian talks as an “alternative summit,” and suggested that Ivanov’s visit to Tehran constituted an effective counterpunch to Russia’s exclusion from the Sharm el-Sheikh conference (Segodnya, October 17; BBC, October 16).
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