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Published: Saturday, 10/28/2000

Putin wins in Clinton Mideast scramble

Russia's controversial President Vladimir Putin got a major image boost last week.

It all began with a phone call.

President Clinton called Mr. Putin Oct. 20 as the President flew from Washington to Missouri to attend the funeral of Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Mr. Clinton - was urging his Russian counterpart to go to the Middle East negotiating table as a moderator, international news agencies reported. Mr. Clinton, who obviously has little or no problem with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, reportedly asked Mr. Putin to put pressure on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat to help end the violence.

Mr. Putin obliged Mr. Clinton and Mr. Barak - who spoke to the Russian president soon after Mr. Clinton did - by calling Mr. Arafat late last Tuesday.

Thursday, Mr. Putin dispatched his special envoy, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Sredin, to several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Mr. Clinton's appeal for Mr. Putin's help appears to be an ill-advised act, however.

First, Russia - a major crude oil exporter - is not interested in peace in the Middle East, which would bring higher crude-oil supplies, which would undermine Russia's huge oil export revenues, likely triggering an economic crisis.

Second, Russia - as most independent experts agree - has lost much of its influence with the Arabs in the region following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its former influence resulted from handouts of weapons to the Arabs. As Russia became broke, this help trickled to virtually nothing. Now that the Arabs have to buy their weapons and military know-how, Russia is one of many sources.

Third, Russia would be driven by ulterior motives even if it comes to the negotiating table. Driven by its already proverbial angst for Western economic concessions such as rescheduling or a partial write-off of its multi-billion dollar foreign debt, it just can't be an impartial moderator. This would only irritate the sides and further complicate the negotiations.

But - regrettably - the Middle East peace process appears doomed anyway, so all these considerations only point out the futility of Mr. Clinton's act while not indicating any immediate and practical fallout.

Most important is the political effect of Mr. Clinton's much publicized phone call: It effectively exonerates Mr. Putin - the architect of a genocidal war in Chechnya - in the eyes of the international community.

Come on, Mr. Putin can't negotiate peace with his own ethnic minority in Russia. He has been methodically wiping the Chechens out, with all the military might he's got. What a nice negotiator he would make!

On top of that, Mr. Clinton's request for Russia's help came just days after Russia was left out of the Middle East peace summit at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, about which Russia prudently did not protest.

And now the president of the world's only superpower is humbly asking Russia to join in. What a triumph for Russia's diplomacy!

That's to say nothing about the damage done by Mr. Clinton to efforts of the U.S. legislature to keep the pressure on Russia to free the cancer-stricken U.S. spy suspect, Edmond Pope.

Obviously Mr. Clinton sees himself and the Democratic Party as a hostage of the sinking Middle East peace process and is grasping at straws to help Vice President Gore's chances Nov. 7.

And Mr. Putin, who has been purposefully sitting on his hands in the Middle East, is the one who stands to benefit from the U.S. election year politics.

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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