MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya.) The Middle East was a major part of Russia's foreign policy in 2005, which saw a number of crucial events in its relations with the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin made his first visits to Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian National Authority, and Russia was granted observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
In 2006, Russia will take the rotating chair of the G8, which advanced the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) at its summit in the Untied States in 2004.
Russia will organize several functions within this program, which may help formulate goals and opportunities in the region more clearly. Russia's Middle East policy should become more transparent, so that the West and the East stop wondering about its goals in the region.
Unfortunately, in 2005 Russia had to answer many embarrassing questions. All sides wondered where it was leaning, toward the West or the East, Israel or the Arab (Islamic) world.
But Russia does not want to make the unequivocal choice; it wants to cooperate with all sides but is being forced to make a choice. Some people outside the country do not want to accept the fact that Russia is not the Soviet Union and the time when it made friends with somebody against a third country is over. This is the era of business pragmatism, when policy serves economic and security interests.
This is why Russia has decided to form closer relations with the OIC. President Putin addressed this issue in his opening speech to the first session of the Chechen parliament in December. "Russia has been and remains the foremost partner of the Islamic states," he said.
Making his speech in Chechnya was intentional, as Russia's policy in the Middle East or the Islamic world as a whole, its role in settling regional conflicts, and its balanced policy on some issues that sometimes looks overcautious are rooted in a desire to ensure internal security. Chechnya is only part of this problem; there are seats of other regional conflicts in direct proximity to the Russian borders. This is why Western criticism of Moscow for supporting the alleged "axis of evil" countries, among which the United States also counts Iran and Syria, is merely part of a propaganda campaign.
The loudest anti-Russian PR actions were provoked by the sale of the Russian Igla air defense systems to Syria and Russo-Iranian nuclear power cooperation.
Israel and the U.S. regularly raised the issue of Iran in its relations with Russia, but its essence has changed when the new Iranian president assumed power. Russia has done its best to maintain standards of cooperation, primarily in the economy, achieved with the previous Iranian government without damaging relations with the West. It has dealt with the situation nobly, though its position was greatly complicated by Tehran's policy and the anti-Israeli statements of President Ahmadinejad.
But the main battle for Iran is still ahead; the final decision on forwarding the "Iranian nuclear dossier" to the UN Security Council will be made in March 2006. Russia will again have to choose between voting "for," "against," or abstaining.
The situation around Syria will be complicated also. The outgoing year was crucial for Russo-Syrian relations. President Bashar Assad was in Moscow in late January when the problem of Syria's debts to Russia was settled, boosting bilateral economic cooperation. On the whole, Assad's visit and the fact that the two presidents found a common language predetermined Russia's policy in the region for the year.
Who knows what would have happened if Assad's visit came later in the year? Barely three weeks after his coming to Moscow, Damascus became embroiled in an international scandal over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. If not for a firm stance of Russian diplomacy, Syria would have barely avoided international sanctions. However, like in the case of Tehran, Russian diplomacy is not omnipotent and it is sometimes very difficult for it to take the side of Damascus.
The Kremlin is worried over the possible appearance of new areas of conflict in Iran and Syria, as well as the situation in Lebanon. The Iran-Syria-Lebanon triangle will be a very hot area next year. At the same time, there are no clear signs promising a settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict or in Iraq.
This year began with the election of the head of the Palestinian National Authority and the first post-Hussein parliamentary election in Iraq. American diplomats say democracy is taking deeper root in the Middle East, but Moscow's assessments have always been more cautious, especially regarding Iraq. Though Moscow respects democratic processes in the region, it is more concerned with its real stability. The situation was not stable in 2005 and the outlook for 2006 is vague.
However, the issue of democratic change in the region remains high on the agenda and Russia will highlight it during its G8 presidency.
A growing connection between policy and economy, where political initiatives should have a clear-cut material aspect, may become another issue for Russia in the Middle East. Russian companies working in the region should focus their attention on this connection. So far, they are spurring ties with Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iran and may promote them with Israel and Iraq. But the economic aspect of Russia's policy has not become strong enough, at least not in all directions, though this is crucial in view of the political changes in the Middle East.
Russia's relations with the Middle East mirror its policy with regard to emerging countries at large, including in Africa. Russia is the Paris Club's leader for writing off and restructuring the debts of African countries, including those that are part of the Broader Middle East. Russia's writing off debts of Iraq and Syria has propelled their economic development.
During Russia's G8 presidency it will raise the issue of economic assistance to Africa and the Middle East, as well as the settlement of military conflicts within the region. But this is only the initial stage of a clearer and stronger regional policy.
On the whole, 2006 promises to be an interesting, and most probably, difficult year for the Middle East. Ironically, diplomats say that they do not remember a time when the region was at peace and working there was easy and simple. Every year brings new surprises, most of them unpleasant; 2005 was no different and 2006 will hardly be an exception to this rule either.