By John Helmer in Moscow
The Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Andrei Kozyrev, will visit six Arab states of the Persian Gulf next month, in a move to obtain
economic support in return for Russia’s political re-alignment in the Middle East.
Mr Kozyrev will substitute for Mr Pyotr Aven, the Minister of Foreign Economic Relations, whose visit to the region had been planned earlier to return the Moscow visit in February of the Kuwait Minister of Finance, Mr Nasser Al-Roudan.
Russian strategy in the Middle East is undergoing rapid change, forced in part by Moscow’s re-orientation towards the West, including Israel, and in part by the practical difficulty of sustaining the cost of military alliances with Syria, Libya, and until its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, with Iraq.
The Iraqi adventure caused internal division among the Soviet Union’s policymakers, with the Foreign Ministry, headed by Mr Eduard Shevardnadze, favouring a tilt towards the Western alliance, and the KGB and Defence Ministry tilting towards Baghdad. Iraq’s intransigence in negotiations and its subsequent defeat was paralleled by the loss of influence and purge of its Soviet supporters, after the abortive putsch in Moscow last August.
What has happened inside the Russian government since then has been the strengthening of Israel’s supporters, and a further deterioration in the position of the so-called Arabists. The most important of these, Dr Yevgeniy Primakov, has retained his post as head of the foreign intelligence service, but not without trouble from those in the government who consider him, notwithstanding his Jewish origin, to be too sympathetic to the Arabs. Dr Primakov has also shifted ground, suggesting to the Gulf Arabs that he is expanding his view of Russia’s interests in the Middle East from the Cairo-centered perspective he developed when he was a Tass correspondent in Egypt twenty years ago.
In an attempt to offset substantial economic losses from unpaid debts and unfulfilled orders from Iraq and Syria, the Russian government is now trying to negotiate new trade and credit arrangements with those in the Arab world who can afford to pay — primarily, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Arab emirates.
In turn, these Arabs have an interest in reciprocating the political support which Moscow provided for the liberation of Kuwait last year, and reinforcing other governments in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which are under pressure from nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist groups seeking arms, money and other support from Iran and from shiite groups in Lebanon.
Mr Kozyrev’s first move into Middle Eastern politics was as host in January of the Moscow round of talks between Israel and Arab representatives on the Palestine issue. Inheriting the Soviet place as co-sponsor of these negotiations with the US, the Russian government was uneasy about its involvement and embarrassed by its cost.
Since then Mr Kozyrev visited Egypt last month on his way home from South Africa.
Next month’s visit to the Gulf Arabs represents an acknowledgement by Moscow that it needs cash urgently, and that for this the Arabs may be more obliging than almost anyone else at the moment.
For its own special reasons, Kuwait is keen to show support for the Mr Yeltsin’s government which has picked up the obligation to repay US$1 billion which the Soviet Union owed Kuwait from earlier credits.
The Emir of Kuwait is one of the few Gulf leaders to have met Mr Yeltsin, and as a result of their undertakings, given late last year in Moscow, a fresh Kuwaiti credit of US$500 million is likely to be confirmed to Mr Kozyrev. In addition, the Kuwaiti finance delegation to the CIS decided last month that another US$ 1 billion in development credits and project finance will be made available. Depending on the specifics of each republic’s proposals, Russia is likely to gain about half of that amount, which is to be provided on concessional terms by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.
The Kuwaiti finance minister also agreed on a swift assistance plan to provide refined oil products and fuels to the Baltic republics from Kuwait petroleum company stocks in Europe.
A similar combination of direct government cash, credits, project loans and commercial finance is being assembled by the Saudi government.
An indication of the political problem which the Gulf Arab states would like to avert surfaced following a meeting last week in Moscow between a group of 70 deputies of the Russian parliament and Iraq’s Ambassador to Russia, Mr Ghafil Jassim.
A spokesman for Ambassador Jassim confirmed the meeting took place on March 18, and included a number of well-known Russian nationalists in the Supreme Soviet. There is a sentiment among these deputies that the realignment of the government’s Middle East policy toward Israel and toward the Arab oil kingdoms has gone too far, and amounts to a “betrayal of national interests”.
The Iraqi ambassador is reported to have offered negotiations on repayment of Iraq’s billion-dollar obligations to Moscow.
A spokesman for Mr Kozyrev at the Foreign Ministry said the Minister’s itinerary in the Gulf is not yet complete nor official; it is not (repeat not) anticipated that he will visit Iraq.