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Published: Sunday, 10/1/2000

Russian's loss bearable, but Iraqi aid is not

Two recent events upset me: One has to do with international politics, the other with sports. The first happened in New York, the second in Sydney.

The first episode was the agreement of the United Nations Security Council to cut Iraq a break in reparations it pays for its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The second was a sensational loss by a Russian Greco-Roman wrestling heavyweight legend to a U.S. underdog, which occurred the day after the Security Council agreed to reduce the rate of the Iraqi reparations.

As a Russian who chose to live and work in the United States, I had mixed feelings about the victory of Rulon Gardner over Alexander Karelin, a three-time Olympic champion and a giant of a man, whose very name is synonymous with Russian national pride.

But I'd rather watch Mr. Karelin lose to an American than see Russia succeed - if only partially - in its traditional spoilsport policy of backing Iraq.

And that's not just because the latter may mean that I'll have to pay more at a gas station.

Russia, a major oil exporter and a traditional rival of Turkey in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, has been backing Iraq to counterbalance Turkey's influence in the region. Ever since the numerous Russo-Turkish wars of the 17th-19th century, it has been like that, especially in the 1980s before the downfall of the Soviet Union.

In the 1980s, Russia helped Iraq with all kinds of conventional weapons and military advisers. An assignment to Iraq was much sought after in the Soviet Union, because of high pay and perks that it carried.

I remember how proud one of my college friends was after he returned from a six-month assignment to Iraq. While there, he flew as an interpreter aboard a Soviet-made aircraft, translating for an Iraqi pilot, who would otherwise be unable to understand his Soviet flight instructor and air traffic controllers. A senior at the college of Asian, African, and Middle East studies of the Moscow State University, he was treated with deference by the Iraqi military and managed to save enough money to get married.

Backing Iraq made some sense for Russia during the cold war because it checked the influence of Turkey and its NATO allies, including the United States. But now that Russia is only a fraction of what it was - both economically and militarily - antagonizing the United States by supporting Saddam is simply foolish, at least in the long run.

But in the short run, Russia's support emboldens Saddam and makes him believe that he can blackmail the United States by threatening to cut off his oil exports, which would further boost the oil prices. Sure, that would hurt the Iraqi people by ending the oil-for-food program designed to soften the effect of the U.N. sanctions, but what does Saddam care as long as he can spite the United States?

Russia is enjoying a temporary economic break - thanks to high oil prices. Instigating Saddam helps destabilize the political situation in the world's richest region. Saddam's recent allegations that Kuwait has been stealing oil, and the resulting U.S. threats to deal with Iraq militarily, help the oil prices stay high. So Russia wins in the short term as a major oil exporter.

In the long run, however, Russia stands to overplay its hand if it continues to side with Iraq against the United States. Even if the United States doesn't impose sanctions on the already cash-strapped Russians, they will have to say good-bye to their hopes of easing a multibillion-dollar foreign debt or of massive foreign investment.

And even Russia's new buddies, such as China and France, who support Russian efforts to end the U.N. sanctions against Iraq and Russia's violation of the U.N. embargo on international flights to Iraq, won't make up for it. China has its own economic problems. And any expectations of the stingy French hurrying to Russia's aid make me laugh.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade.



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