Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 47

While Russian differences with Europe and the United States over Chechnya have received considerable attention in the Western press, parallel but quieter Russian moves to blunt Arab criticism of the Caucasus war have received notably less. Moscow’s efforts in this area were on display again over the weekend during Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s official visit to Egypt. In the course of his two-day stay in Cairo, Ivanov met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Musa and the secretary general of the League of Arab States, Ismat Abdel Maguid. The Middle East peace process was reportedly also on Ivanov’s agenda during these talks, as were developments in Iraq, but Chechnya appeared to get the most attention. Growing Arab anger over Russia’s brutal war in the Caucasus–which has taken a heavy toll on the republics predominantly Moslem civilian population–was manifested in anti-Russian demonstrations held by students in Cairo and the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria.

Ivanov reportedly went out of his way during the Cairo talks to deny that Russia’s Chechen conflict has hurt Moscow’s traditionally friendly relations with Arab world nations. In defending Moscow’s actions, Ivanov stressed many of the same themes that Russian leaders have repeatedly stressed in talks with Western leaders over Chechnya. He repeated Moscow’s contention, for example, that Russian military operations in the Caucasus are “not a fight against Islam… [or] the Chechen people [but]…a fight against international terrorism.” He also equated the bloody Russian war, which has leveled Chechen cities and created several hundred thousand refugees, to the Egyptian government’s own problems with Muslim extremists. Russian leaders have attempted to make common cause with Western leaders in much the same way by characterizing the Chechen war as part of the broader battle being fought by the civilized world against international terrorism.

Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts, which have tried to present the horrors of the Chechen war as an anti-Russian, Western media creation, apparently continued during Ivanov’s talks in Cairo. Indeed, an interview with Ivanov broadcast yesterday by Russian television suggested that these Russian efforts may have taken a new and even more cynical twist. Just back from Cairo, Ivanov spoke on NTV of an “information propaganda campaign which has been launched in the West to portray events in the North Caucasus… as a fight against Islam and the Chechen people. Unfortunately, this propaganda… this version causes concern in Arab countries” (Itar-Tass, March 6). Ivanov appeared to be arguing, in other words, that the West is deliberately trying to undermine Russia’s position in the Middle East by presenting a distorted version of events in the Russian Caucasus, and that Arab anger is caused not by Moscow’s murderous treatment of the Chechen population, but is the result of Western machinations.

Such considerations aside, the talks in Cairo–and parallel consultations which took place in Saudi Arabia between Russian envoy Ramazan Abdulatipov and Saudi leaders–appeared to develop in a fashion similar to those that have taken place between Russian and Western leaders over Chechnya. That is, Moscow stonewalled calls by Arab leaders for a quick end to the fighting and made only grudging concessions on the issue of introducing monitors and humanitarian aide groups into the region. The twenty-two member League of Arab States, for example, announced after Ivanov’s talks in Cairo that Moscow was prepared to allow a delegation from the League to visit the North Caucasus. It was not clear, however, whether the group would be allowed into Chechnya itself (AP, March 4; Russian agencies March 4-6).

It might be worth noting that an Iranian-led delegation from the Organization of the Islamic States (OIC) visited the Caucasus in December of last year. Some OIC representatives had earlier criticized Moscow for its crackdown in Chechnya and had called not only for an early negotiated settlement of the conflict, but also suggested that the OIC might be willing to play a mediating role in any such negotiations. Moscow has steadfastly refused to allow outside mediation of the conflict and apparently rebuffed the OIC also (see the Monitor, December 8, 1999). The organization has done little since then to increase pressure on Moscow over Chechnya.

Indeed, just as Western leaders have found reasons to avoid taking strong action against Russia over Chechnya, many Arab leaders probably also see little point to pushing the issue beyond occasional denunciation. Moscow does not carry the diplomatic weight in the Middle East that it did during the Soviet period, but it has remained friendly to the Arab countries and is still seen as something of a useful counterweight to the United States. That factor may be of some added importance right now, given the problems which have developed in recent weeks relative to negotiations between Israel and both the Syrians and the Palestinians. Moscow’s actions in Chechnya seem nevertheless to be generating some genuine popular anger within the Arab world. That anger could yet come back to haunt Russia, and to make its linkage of the Chechen rebels to international fundamentalist terrorist groups something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.