Russian leadership preoccupied with domestic woes Middle East talks take back seat

January 29, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The Russians have become bit players even in their own production.

Officially, they are co-sponsors of the two-day Middle East peace talks taking place here, as well as hosts, but in practice they have been content to stay away, busying themselves with other problems.

Where once the Kremlin was a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East, today it barely seems to have the time to pay the region even polite attention.

A few other issues seem closer at hand just now:

* Shipments of natural gas to Poland and oil to Lithuania had to be cut off because of the economy's tailspin.

* President Boris N. Yeltsin's chief economic adviser warned of mass hunger and dictatorship if the economy wasn't put right.

* The issue of what to do with the armed forces of the former Soviet Union remains as knotted as ever.

Mr. Yeltsin, who canceled a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister Monday, flew off to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea to meet with naval commanders about Ukrainian claims to the Black Sea fleet.

Although he plans to see Secretary of State James A. Baker III today in Moscow, they will talk about aid to Russia. Mr. Yeltsin will not attend the peace conference, his aides said.

He will instead be preparing for a trip beginning tomorrow to Britain, the United States and Canada.

Russia is looking for help from the West, once its enemy-by-proxy in such caldrons as the Middle East. Yesterday, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev found himself in agreement with the United States on the issue of which Palestinians are acceptable at the negotiating table.

But not everyone here was content to lie low and avoid the somewhat discomfiting comparisons with past Soviet muscle.

Yuri Glukhov, writing in Pravda, took note of the "colossal strategic imbalance that has evolved in the Middle East in favor of Israel and the USA" following the war against Iraq, a former Soviet client.

The alliance between the United States and Israel still exists, he wrote. But the agreements of "friendship and cooperation" between the Arab countries and Moscow have turned, as he put it, "to ashes."

In fact, he concluded, the main reason for the current imbalance in the Middle East is the disappearance of the Soviet Union as a superpower.

Moscow's new relations with Jerusalem exemplify the changes.

Today, instead of supplying missiles to the Arabs, Russia (and Ukraine) supply emigrants to Israel. A Russian trade delegation visited Israel Monday and came back with plans to launch three joint ventures here. David Levy, the first Israeli foreign minister to visit Moscow, promised he would return to discuss purely Israeli-Russian issues.

Monday evening, he gave a speech at a packed Moscow synagogue. As the new Israeli ambassador, Ariel Levine, noted, "We have many antecedents in our relations with this great country."

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