Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 202

In Baghdad, however, the leader of Russia’s ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party was singing a different tune. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is in Iraq at the head of a Russian parliamentary delegation, met yesterday with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. Afterwards, the Iraqi news agency INA reported that Zhirinovsky had reiterated Russian support for Iraq and called for an immediate lifting of the UN embargo on Baghdad. Zhirinovsky also reportedly criticized U.S. policy toward Iraq. He urged the Russian government and other governments around the world to show their backing for Iraq (INA, November 1). Zhirinovsky arrived in Baghdad on October 31 aboard an aircraft carrying humanitarian aid (see the Monitor, October 30). He will, reportedly, meet today with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (Itar-Tass, November 2).

Zhirinovsky is in Baghdad, presumably, on an unofficial basis. His statements yesterday should be considered in that light. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to say that his views are shared to a greater or lesser degree by many in Russia’s political elite, including some of Russia’s top government officials. Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, to name the most obvious one, is an Arabist by training and a man with long-standing ties to the Iraqi leadership. Since becoming foreign minister in early 1996, Primakov has labored to strengthen anew Moscow’s ties with Baghdad. Some in the West have wondered if those efforts could, at times, have led Moscow to a less-than-full observance of the UN sanctions against Iraq.

In addition to looking at friendly relations with Baghdad as a way to restore Moscow’s influence in the Persian Gulf, Russia has another–more pragmatic–reason for backing Baghdad and seeking an early lifting of the UN sanctions on Iraq. Baghdad owes Moscow an estimated US$7 billion in Soviet era debts. It will not be in position to repay that money until sanctions are lifted and it can resume exporting oil. Moreover, a host of Russian companies have signed deals–related mostly to the Iraqi oil industry–which are estimated to total more than US$10 billion. Activation of those deals also awaits the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq.