Russian President Vladimir Putin’s post-September 11 embrace of the West and his more general efforts over the past year or so to present Russia as a serious and trustworthy diplomatic partner paid some small dividends last week when it was announced in Washington that Moscow will be one of four parties cosponsoring a Middle East peace conference planned for later this year. Although details of the conference have yet to be worked out and its prospects remain questionable, the May 2 announcement places Moscow, for the time being at least, exactly where it would like to be–grouped as a leading international power with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations in a broad international effort aimed at bringing peace to the Middle East. The Soviet Union had, of course, been an influential player in the Middle East, and Moscow parlayed that status into a cosponsor role along with the United States in the Oslo peace process. But Russia’s influence in the region withered over the past decade, along with its economic and military might, and recent years have seen it seeking desperately for a meaningful role in a diplomatic process dominated increasingly by the United States. Against that background, Russian diplomats have called repeatedly for exactly what was decided upon last week–a broadening of the peace effort to include Russia, the EU and the UN.
Indeed, the Strana.ru website, which often acts as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, suggested in a commentary published on May 3 that the meeting of the so-called “quartet”–that is, the United States, Russia, the EU and the UN–had produced two significant results. The first was the decision to go forward with a Middle East peace conference, probably sometime early in the summer. The second, the site claimed, was that the next meeting of the quartet will likely be held in Moscow, where officials will define when and where the peace conference is to take place, as well as who is to be invited to participate in it. Strana.ru reported that Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov had offered the proposal for a Moscow meeting, and that other participants had reacted positively to it. In what may reflect some wishful thinking by the Kremlin, Strana.ru went so far as to top its report with a headline proclaiming that “the center of the Middle East settlement is shifting to Moscow.”
The contents of the Strana.ru commentary, however, appeared to reconfirm what any number of Western commentaries said about Washington’s surprise decision last week to back a Middle East peace conference: that it is an uncertain undertaking fraught with risks–political and strategic–especially for the Bush administration but also for the leading players in the region. Thus, while the commentary suggested that the May 2 meeting had produced a greater degree of agreement than had been expected, the website also pointed to tensions that it said continue to divide its participants. The commentary claimed, for example, that other participants of the May 2 meeting were angered by comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during a press conference that followed the talks. Those comments, Strana.ru said, were excessively pro-Israeli and failed to reflect the EU’s outspoken demand that Israel halt “aggressive actions” aimed at the Palestinians. The website claimed that only one conclusion could be drawn from all of this: that “Colin Powell had used his authority as temporary chairman of the ‘quartet’ only in the interests of the American side, forgetting about the other participants.”
Such squabbling aside, Strana.ru also described how the quartet countries planned to proceed next. It quoted Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique, who represented the EU along with foreign policy chief Javier Solana at the May 2 meeting, as saying that the four parties could convene again, this time in Moscow, “in a matter of weeks, if not days.” But before that could happen, the website said, Russia, the United States the UN and the EU all planned to dispatch envoys to the Middle East for talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. The scheduling of the quartet’s next meeting would depend on those contacts, Strana.ru reported. Meanwhile, Russia’s special envoy for the Middle East, Andrei Vdovin, said that he would depart within a few days for the Middle East, and that his itinerary would undoubtedly include a meeting with the recently freed Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat (Strana.ru, Itar-Tass, Washington Post, New York Times, May 3-4).
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