Amid Russian opposition, two opinions on U.S. war

Most citizens don't back a strike against Iraq - but for varying reasons

October 11, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - She is an idealistic scholar at one of Russia's most prestigious centers for the study of Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. He is a pragmatic freshman just starting to study in her institute.

The two come from sharply different backgrounds and points of view. But like most Russians, they oppose the Bush administration's looming military campaign against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

To Dilara Solodovnik, vice director of international affairs at Moscow State University's Institute of African and Asian Studies, the Bush administration's call for a war with Hussein disregards the perils of such a policy and displays a disturbing readiness to resort to brute force.

"We have got very close to the United States lately in terms of fighting terrorism," she says. "But as for Iraq? There are still many doubts. The political proof is very weak."

To 19-year-old Vasily Osmakov, a first-year student in the institute, an attack on Baghdad over Moscow's objections would serve as a humiliating reminder of Russia's shrunken power and a threat to its economic future. "Financially speaking, I hope we save Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq," he says. "Because it's rather friendly to Russia and to Russian companies."

Divided on many issues, Russians find common ground on Iraq. A Sept. 4 poll by Russia's National Opinion Research Center that was reported in the newspaper Pravda found Russians oppose American military intervention in Iraq by a margin of almost 2-to-1, with 53 percent of respondents rejecting the move and 27 percent supporting it.

Solodovnik and Osmakov, of course, represent just two voices in a sprawling country, but they come from a well-regarded institute that has educated many influential politicians and public figures - from the ultranationalist legislator Vladimir Zhirinovsky to the liberal television news anchor Yevgeny Kiselyov.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin stunned many by supporting the United States, his nation's former adversary, in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaida. In part, Russians felt tremendous sympathy for the United States after Sept. 11. And Moscow saw a common enemy in Afghanistan's ruling Islamic fundamentalists, who tried to export religious revolution to former Soviet states in Central Asia and parts of Russia.

Hussein is mistrusted here by Communists, who recall his brutal repression of Iraq's Communist Party, and liberals, who compare his bloody reign to Josef Stalin's. "Neither the Soviet Union nor the new Russia could be ideological partners with Iraq," Solodovnik says.

But now, the memory of Sept. 11 is fading here, and Russia has pragmatic reasons to work with Iraq - a longtime trading partner regarded as one of only a few remaining markets for cheap Russian consumer goods and military hardware. If international sanctions against Hussein were lifted, his rogue nation could also become Russia's chief strategic partner in the oil business.

Putin has vacillated on Washington's call for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would set the stage for military action. But some analysts think Russia won't veto such a resolution, as long as the White House guarantees that Moscow's economic interests in Iraq are protected.

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair flew here yesterday to discuss Iraq with Putin and try to win him over to the American and British side. Blair's arrival was greeted with speculation that he would assure Russia of a major role in a post-Hussein Iraq.

Lukoil, the Russian oil giant, has a $6 billion investment in Iraq. The company, which is 14 percent owned by the Russian government, controls almost 70 percent of the consortium that plans to develop Iraq's mammoth West Kurna oil field.

Osmakov approves of his country making a deal over Iraq. "The war seems inevitable," he says, speaking in a sparsely furnished student lounge, talking with other students on a bitterly cold fall day. "So Russia must try to gain everything it can gain from it."

Osmakov is one of about 55 students in the institute's Arabic faculty, out of a total of 450 in the institute. Drawn to study the Arabic language by the beauty of Islamic culture, he chose his second major, economics, in hopes he could get a job in the Middle East.

Osmakov's father is a rocket scientist who helped develop one of the Soviet Union's most formidable weapons, the SS-20 multiple-warhead intercontinental missile, and his parents still live north of Moscow in a military city, which was once closed to foreigners. Many of the town's highly trained scientists were thrown out of work by the collapse of Soviet power and Russia's military cutbacks.

Like many of his elders, Osmakov laments that Russia has been too poor and weak to stop the United States from doing pretty much as it pleased - whether that meant bombing Belgrade, scrapping its anti-missile defense treaty or expanding NATO to Russia's borders. "Somehow, we have to act as a superpower, as a great country, again," he says.

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