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    FIRST STOP IRAQ - RUSSIAN BUSINESS EXPANDS MIDDLE EAST CONTACTS

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    Moscow. (By Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's foreign affairs committee, president of the Russian society for solidarity and co-operation with Asian and African nations)

    A year after the war in Iraq, which changed the balance of forces in the Middle East, it is now time for Moscow to analyse its current political interests in the region. Have these interests changed or are they the same? Indeed, does Russia have any interests or does everything boil down to Iraq re-paying its debts and Russian firms gaining access to the country's oil deposits once again?

    Russia, of course, has always been a guarantor of peace and stability in the Middle East, which has been a foreign policy priority and will remain so.

    Russian policy should now become more active in Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Libya, while also focusing on the Kurd issue. In addition, more substantial economic and business activity is required because stability and business always go hand in hand.

    Among other things, Russia must protect its corporate interests in the Middle East and facilitate expanded business contacts with the region. This foreign-policy task is becoming particularly important in the context of the Iraqi situation.

    It's an open secret that Russian companies have been pursuing significant business interests on Iraqi territory for quite a while now. The state must render comprehensive support to all Russian companies, which have signed contracts worth more than $4 billion in line with preliminary estimates. Russian businessmen are ready to start work in Iraq. A crucial point in this is that the implementation of these contracts will help create new jobs for Iraqis and, therefore, help stabilise the political situation, which is closely linked with the economic situation.

    It is obvious that Iraq's re-construction depends primarily on investment in the country's economy, rather than an international military presence there.

    Politicians and experts all over the world now attach priority to the specific motivation behind sides' actions in times of crisis, the role of military force in attaining specific goals and the art of lightning wars. However, aspects of the post-war settlement remain untouched. There is a belief that the situation will fix itself, once the enemy is defeated and the guns fall silent.

    Foreign troop contingents are being stationed in more and more countries, thereby maintaining an illusion of post-war stability. Pre-war contradictions, though, have by no means vanished into thin air, but at times become aggravated to an even greater extent. Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq are the latest examples of this. Naturally, it is impossible to completely withdraw foreign military units from Iraq, but their mandate must be defined by the UN Security Council.

    Washington should understand that it is hardly possible, at least in the foreseeable future, that Iraq can be used as a successful example of inserting Western democratic principles into a Muslin country. Neither Iraq's traditions nor its neighbours can help this process.

    The Arab world has the following political systems: monarchies, lifetime presidencies and ostensibly democratic countries that are, in reality, run by the military and secret services. This kind of rule is considered the norm, especially if the life in these states is distinguished for its material prosperity.

    Even if Western democracy cannot be established in Iraq, then there is still the very real possibility that it can become a stable and prosperous country. There is every opportunity for this, because Iraq has impressive raw material and human resources.

    The local security situation, as well as the nationwide situation, primarily the infrastructure and social sector, must be improved. It would then be possible to reconcile existing political forces and allow new leaders capable of reuniting the country to emerge. However, this objective can only be accomplished if Iraq receives humanitarian aid on a regular basis and attracts significant investment to revive the economy.

    A report prepared by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and the World Bank stresses that economic recovery is one of the Iraqi political settlement's main aspects. According to the World Bank, it will take $36.5 billion to restore Iraq from 2004 to 2007 period, including $9 billion to be spent this year alone. The provisional Iraqi authorities have put the figure at $56 billion. Donor countries have so far contributed $33 billion. Gratis aid, though, totals just $4 billion, as the rest is in loans. Japan, for one, wants to get oil in return.

    Predictably enough, Russia wants to settle the issue of Iraq's debts, which now stand at about $8 billion. Moscow believes that they can only be restructured in the context of any specific country's subsequent involvement in large-scale investment projects on Iraqi territory.

    However, irrespective of potential solutions to the debt problem, Russia is returning to Iraq. This can be proved by quite a few more or less important examples.

    For instance, the Russian society for solidarity and co-operation with Asian and African nations, Emergency Situations Ministry and LUKoil intend to conduct a humanitarian operation in Iraq this summer. Moreover, the former would like to open a permanent office in Baghdad. We believe that Russia's humanitarian and public organisations should help to re-establish peaceful life in the country. As I see it, we can and must accomplish objectives that diplomats, generals and businessmen simply cannot accomplish on occasions.

    Throughout the difficult situation that has confronted Russia with regard to Iraq over the past year (Iraq's debts, Russian companies having to stop work, and the global oil-price situation), Moscow's foreign policy has been distinguished by its high professionalism. Moscow's flexible position gives one hope that Russian interests in Iraq will eventually be upheld and that constructive relations with Middle East and South-West Asian countries will develop further.

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