Russia backs PLO-Israel pact in its new role

September 11, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The Russian government said yesterday that the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is as historic and "decisive" as the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A statement like that helps to show how perspectives on the Middle East have changed here since the Cold War days -- not to mention how they've changed on Eastern Europe, too.

Moscow was once one of the PLO's chief sponsors in its struggle against the Israelis. Yesterday, Russia was saying it had used its ties with the PLO to help persuade the organization to sit at the bargaining table in the first place.

Even if the Israelis and Palestinians worked out their agreement in the end without benefit of much Russian, or U.S., help, still the Russians were co-sponsors of the original talks and were happy to claim some credit for the outcome.

Israeli Ambassador Chaim Bar-Lev said that Russia's role had been "extremely positive."

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement said that this "courageous and promising step" will likely lead to further agreements between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.

That assessment, according to the statement, was based on talks by Russian diplomats with representatives of both the Syrian and Jordanian governments.

Yet in helping to remove the Cold War overtones from the Middle East scene, Russia in a sense has also removed its own reasons for playing a role there.

"Nobody cares any more about the Middle East strategically, militarily or even politically," Vitaly V. Naumkin, deputy director of the Institute for Oriental Studies here, said yesterday.

Russia simply has no strong national interest in the region, he said.

The great question now is who will pay for the peace. Who will pay, he asked, for the infrastructure, schools, and economic development of the Gaza Strip that will be necessary in order to make autonomy work?

"Our financial, economic capabilities are very limited," he pointed out. "That will be the main obstacle to Russia's having a large role there."

If anything, in fact, Russia will be a likely competitor for Western aid.

But if Russia is withdrawing as a major factor, Russians definitely are not. The thousands of Russians who have emigrated to Israel in the past few years voted solidly for the Labor Party in the most recent elections and gave it the popularity it needed to pursue talks with the PLO.

The Russian emigres are not religious, ideological or bent on revenge, Mr. Naumkin said. In fact, they have nothing at all against the Arabs, and see little reason to oppose autonomy for areas in which they themselves have no interest.

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