Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 227

For domestic political reasons, Russian politicians have thus far been more than happy to exploit widespread anti-Western sentiment in Russia by thumbing their noses at European and U.S. criticism of Moscow’s war effort in Chechnya. However, in political terms at least, Moscow may have a more difficult time dealing with still muted, but growing Arab criticism of the Chechen crackdown. That is because an accompanying element of Moscow’s broader policy of defying the West has been an effort to establish friendly relations with other states around the globe–including especially the rebuilding of ties with former Soviet client states in the Arab world.

The potential dangers to Moscow in this regard were in full display the day before yesterday (December 6), when an Iranian-led delegation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called on the Russian government to halt the fighting in Chechnya and to turn instead to diplomacy in order to resolve the conflict. Indeed, in Moscow the OIC began to sound off in very much the same way as Russia’s Western critics. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi described Moscow’s use of force in Chechnya as “disproportionate,” and expressed concerns about the “large number of Muslims being sacrificed.” He warned that the Russian military offensive could “not solve the issue” in Chechnya, and said that a continuation of the offensive would “lead to more casualties and an exacerbation of problems.” The delegation, which is comprised of about sixty members, was scheduled to leave yesterday for visits to Ingushetia and Dagestan. It was not clear whether the group would travel to Chechnya itself.

The OIC groups over fifty Muslim states and is based in Saudi Arabia. Its rotating chairmanship is currently held by Iran.

Meanwhile, there were echoes yesterday of more widespread dissatisfaction with Moscow in the Arab world. In Riyadh, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, reportedly urged Muslims to send donations to their Chechen “brothers” who, he said, were facing a Russian “war of extermination.” Sheikh Abdel Aziz is the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia. It was a similar story in Egypt yesterday, when the leader of Egypt’s own Muslims called on “the Islamic world to boycott Russia politically and economically until it recognizes the rights of the Chechen people and gives up its illegal policies.” Mufti Sheikh Wassel also urged the international community to act swiftly in order “to save the Chechen people from the savage massacres of which they are victims” (AFP, December 7).

For many Muslim countries, the decision to criticize Moscow is a difficult one. Russia (like the Soviet Union) is seen as a friend of the Arab world on a number of key issues affecting the Middle East, and in that same way as a potentially important counterweight to the United States. Russia’s war in Chechnya–should it continue with the same savage disregard for civilian casualties–could conceivably complicate Moscow’s determined efforts to reestablish itself as a powerful player in the region. It could also lead to some discomforting moments for President Boris Yeltsin during his planned trip to the Holy Lands in early January.