A Russian government delegation traveled to Syria over the weekend to take part in a session of a joint Russian-Syrian commission for trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation. The Russian delegation was led by Justice Minister Sergei Stepashin and included Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov. On February 23, the two sides signed agreements on bilateral cooperation in the energy sector, tourism, investment and avoidance of double taxation.
Stepashin met one day earlier with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, during which he handed the Syrian leader a message from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. The message confirmed Russia’s intention to play an active role in Middle East peace negotiations and described friendly relations with Syria as a priority of Russian policy in the region. (Russian agencies, February 23-24)
Moscow maintained close relations with Syria during the Soviet period and was Syria’s main supplier of military hardware. But Syrian debts to Moscow accumulated during that period — estimated at around $10 billion — have hamstrung efforts to renew those ties. (Itar-Tass, February 23) Earlier this month, sources in the Russian Justice Ministry had suggested that Stepashin’s trip would be devoted in part to resuscitating Russian arms sales to Syria. (Russky telegraf, February 14) Reports of this week’s talks in Damascus, however, gave no indication that any progress had been made on that issue.
Meanwhile, a Russian parliamentary delegation, led by speaker Gennady Seleznev, launched two days of talks with Syrian leaders in Damascus yesterday. Seleznev is expected to meet with the Syrian president tomorrow. (Itar-Tass, February 25)
Russian Trade with Asia in Doldrums.