Wed, 18 Oct 2000

No more invitations for Russia to Mideast table

By Oleg Shchedrov

MOSCOW (Reuters): Russian President Vladimir Putin put a brave face on Moscow's humiliating failure to win an invitation to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East summit on Monday.

But some Russian experts said the presence at Sharm el-Sheikh of European Union envoy Javier Solana was even worse news for Moscow -- a signal that its Cold War-era role as counterbalance to U.S. influence in the Middle East had been superseded.

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who spent most of last week shuttling between Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, acknowledged that Moscow's services had gone unsolicited.

"Russia has not received an invitation to Sharm el-Sheikh talks," Ivanov told reporters. "In fact I do not know whether invitations have been sent to anyone, what the principle was of organizing the conference and how its participants were chosen."

Israeli diplomats said Moscow pressed hard until midday on Sunday for Putin to be invited, even threatening at one point that if it was shut out, others might not attend. That was an apparent veiled reference to the Palestinians.

On Monday, Putin looked all but indifferent.

"Russia is ready to kake part in the process of a peaceful settlement, but only in a form which would be found useful by the parties at talks, including Israel and Palestine," Russian news agencies quoted him as saying.

"We have enough of our own problems," he told reporters after a meeting with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Before the Sharm el-Sheikh talks, Russian media widely quoted officials as saying that their aim was limited to ending two weeks of violence in the Middle East. Doubts were expressed that long-term progress could be achieved, given the broad differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

Ivanov said Russia was not too upset at being left out of the talks and hoped for a future role.

"It is a complicated process and one meeting cannot solve all problems," he said.

But some experts suggested Russia might not get another chance.

Moscow, the major patron of Arab countries during the Cold War, has lost most of its influence in the region due to economic decline and domestic turmoil which have forced its leaders to focus more on domestic issues.

What remained was a reputation of an uninvolved party in contrast with the United States which is accused by most Arab states of pro-Israeli bias.

"Neither Israel, nor the Arabs want to leave the whole thing to the United States and still need a neutral party," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy head of the influential Institute of the United States and Canada.

"But they seem to have found a new player for the role -- the European Union. Solana's invitation to the talks clearly shows this."

Israeli officials appeared skeptical about Moscow's future role in the region.

"Russia's presence was justified when it was a major arms supplier to the Arab states and was able to deliver them to an agreement," one official told Reuters in Jerusalem.

Russian political experts said the snub, though even more painful after Moscow played a major role as a broker between the Yugoslav opposition and President Slobodan Milosevic, was hardly unexpected.

"It's not only about the money," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies independent think tank. "Russia has the nostalgic instincts of its imperial past rather than a coherent foreign policy in the region.

"Comments by some of its diplomats show that the old Soviet theory of Zionist conspiracy against the Arabs is still alive in their minds, while others focus on the threat of international Islamic extremism," he added.