Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
13 August 2006

The Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 took place when the Soviet Union was at the height of its power. In that period, the average Homo Sovieticus found the middle east – and by extension the "far abroad" generally - an easier place to understand.

Israel was an aggressor, and carried the flag for the interests of the American imperialists. Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria were friends and allies who promoted peace and brotherly solidarity – as well as being heavily armed and subsidised by the Soviet Union. The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat himself was always a welcome guest at Soviet-sponsored peace gatherings.

The anti-Zionist rhetoric of Soviet diplomacy was an echo of domestic anti-Semitism. Citizens with Jewish backgrounds could forget about reaching the party’s top jobs, along with those in the military, security and diplomatic services, or foreign trade organisations.

The Soviet Union had been one of the main supporters of Israel at the time of its foundation, but after the six-day war of 1967 it forced all the nations in its orbit to break diplomatic relations with Israel. Only the Romania of Nicolae Ceausescu dissented.

By this point Soviet Jews were highly disaffected, and dreams of emigration to Israel were common. Many risked long prison sentences in their fight for the right to leave the communist paradise. In the 1970s, their stories started to make headlines around the world, and human-rights organisations started to campaign in their defence.

In January 1975 the United States senate passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, placing trade restrictions on all communist countries that denied their citizens the right to emigrate. The main target was the USSR. Only after 1985, with the initiation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, were Soviet borders opened up for those who did not want to stay.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of the book Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow" (3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise" (26 April 2006)

"Russia’s corruption dance" (15 June 2006)

" Kinoeye: Russia’s reviving film industry " (15 June 2006)

A double standard?

Now, fifteen years after the collapse of the entire Soviet system, Russia’s attitude towards the middle east – including the conflict in Lebanon - is far more complex. Divisions over how Russians view the war mirror divisions in Russian society. While "official" Moscow has talked about the urgent need to stop the gunfire and blamed Israel for its disproportionate response to Hizbollah’s initial operation on 12 July, "unofficial" anti-Kremlin Russia has a far more nuanced response to the fighting. It sees events through the tint of history, and with Soviet-Israeli relations as their backdrop.

Thus, the Kremlin-controlled television channels have concentrated in the past month on bloody scenes from Lebanese towns and villages; but unofficial Russia has called for a show of solidarity with the 1-million-plus Jews who emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union (they included Anatole [later Natan] Sharansky, the legendary dissident who went on to form Yisra'el Ba'aliya [a political party representing Russians in Israel] and becoming a government minister and author of The Case for Democracy).

When the foreign and emergency-situations ministries in Moscow were busy in the early stages of the war arranging a rescue operation for 1,407 citizens of Russia and neighbouring countries trapped in Lebanon, unofficial Russia was more concerned about the safety of more than 250,000 Russian citizens living in Israel.

Volodia Dolin, a journalist at the Moscow news station City Radio, says that 5-6 million Russians have relatives or friends in Israel. They believe, he says, that Russia should side with Israel and the United States, fighting terrorists and defending democracy.

This concern is easy to understand. Direct flights now connect Israel with a number of provincial Russian towns. Artists from Moscow and St Petersburg are keen to perform in Israel to Russian-speaking audiences. Russian-born Israeli businessmen are investing in their old motherland.

Volodia and Russians who think like him see Vladimir Putin’s government as demonstrating a large degree of hypocrisy. In fighting "its own" terrorists (mainly in or from Chechnya), Russia has shown little restraint. For example, in two major incidents - the October 2002 siege of a Moscow theatre occupied by Chechen militants, and the September 2004 school siege at Beslan (in the north Caucasus republic of North Ossetia) - the actions of the security forces are widely considered to have led directly to the deaths of hundreds of innocent audience-members and schoolchildren respectively.

People remember too that in December 1999, on the eve of the second Chechen war, President Putin made the promise to hunt down Chechen terrorists without mercy. "We’ll follow terrorists everywhere", he vowed. "Should we catch them in an outhouse, we’ll whack them in an outhouse." That is why Volodia confesses that it feels strange hearing the Russian foreign ministry criticising Israel for acting disproportionately, attacking civilian targets while pursuing terrorists. It looks to many Russians as though Vladimir Putin’s own diplomats have forgotten about their commander-in-chief’s own uncompromising position on such matters.

Many Russians also find it difficult to understand how a recent list of terrorist organisations, released by the Federal Security Service (FSB), omitted Hizbollah or Hamas. Many were outraged to discover that one of Hizbollah’s most efficient weapons in strikes against Israel was the Russian-made RPG-29 portable anti-tank grenade launcher.

But within the walls of a Kremlin busily playing its own political game of chess against the United States, the concerns of such Russian citizens remain unheard.

Anti-Israeli or anti-American?

A phrase once uttered by Russia’s former foreign minister (1996-98) and prime minister (1998-99), Yevgeni Primakov, has again found favour in Russian newspapers during the Lebanon war: "One should not burn the house in order to get rid of the mice".

Primakov, whose early career included spells as correspondent for the Soviet press in Beirut and Cairo, is considered by many to be the country’s leading expert on middle-east affairs. A fluent Arabic-speaker, Primakov (who helped rescue Russia from the 1998 financial crisis) acted as Putin’s special envoy in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Saddam Hussein to resign and thereby prevent the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Primakov has called for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations in Lebanon. He has also posed a rhetorical question which is pointedly directed at Israel’s methods: should Russia have bombed Iraq in revenge for the kidnap and murder of four Russian diplomats there in June 2006.

But such reactions represent more than just a return to the stiff, uncompromising, anti-Israeli attitudes of the Brezhnev-era USSR. Russian ministry officials now phrase their anti-war statements very carefully. Viktor Loshak, a liberal journalist and editor-in-chief of once legendary liberal news magazine Ogonyok believes that unlike Soviet leaders of the past, the current Russian government does not want to alienate Israel. After all, Russia has its own points of vulnerability in relation to terrorism, and is well aware of the dangers that Islamic fundamentalism is posing to southern Russia and some of its post-Soviet, central-Asian neighbours.

In an interview with the opposition radio station Echo of Moscow, Loshak characterised the current Russian position as anti-American rather than anti-Israeli. In his opinion, the Kremlin is lining up in opposition to the United States on almost every major political issue. Washington’s refusal at the G8 summit in St Petersburg to give the green light to Russia’s application for World Trade Organisation membership was a serious blow to Putin; sanctions imposed on 4 August by the United States on two Russian arms-exporting firms angered Moscow even more.

The Kremlin now wants the Bush administration to realise that without Russian help, sorting out the present middle-east crisis will be even more difficult. After all, Moscow has better channels of communication with Damascus and Tehran. But the price for this help is clear – Washington will have to help Russia on other issues.

But even if these tactics pay off, the Kremlin may find that they may not be enough to silence the loud and numerous domestic critics of Russian policy towards Lebanon and the wider middle east.

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