Sergei Lavrov, the relatively new foreign minister of Russia - a sharp-witted and charismatic diplomat, who possesses analytical acumen and a sense of humor - is known for his love of rafting. He likes the rush of the turbulent water, and the adrenaline triggered by the precipitous undulations of the current. A great deal of adrenaline, of a completely different sort, flowed through his veins this week as Northern Ossetia faced the hostage crisis.
Nevertheless, at the height of the crisis, the minister - who landed last night in Israel as part of his first visit to the Middle East - found time to answer questions posed by Haaretz. Lavrov was interested in sending three principal messages to the Israeli public. They concerned terror, Russia's involvement in the Middle East peace process, and the nuclear collaboration with Iran.
Lavrov feels that Russia and Israel share a common fate: Both are the target of fundamentalist terror. They must join forces and undertake a resolute struggle against what he calls "universal evil." To that end, he intends to sign in Israel a memorandum calling for deeper cooperation between the two states in the war on terror.
Just as Israel is not willing to see Palestinian terror as deriving from its occupation of the territories, Russia, too, refuses to view its hold on Chechnya as the source of this "universal evil." Thus, Lavrov also refuses to differentiate between the beard of Osama bin Laden and that of the Chechen Shamil Basayev. On the basis of this same comparison, he attacked the EU in May, after it called on Russia to initiate negotiations with the Chechens.
Based on statements made since he entered office in March, the minister is making a noticeable effort to strike the right balance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, he deplores the "inhumane acts of terror against Israeli civilians," while on the other, he criticizes the "tough moves taken by Israel in the Palestinian territories." He states that "the occupation of Palestinian lands is damaging for Israel and does not build up its security," but also that terror "discredits the righteous aspiration of the Palestinians to real sovereignty." He wants to confirm the death of the old, biased Soviet foreign policy. As he told Haaretz: "Russia's policy is neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israeli. It is directed at securing Russian national interests, which include maintaining close and friendly ties both with the Arab countries and with Israel."
Lavrov belongs to the generation of diplomats whose careers took off precisely at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse; he wants the world to see Russia as a superpower, as the successor of the Soviet Union - not in ideological terms, but in terms of its international standing, says one Russian commentator. The Russians therefore place particular significance on the international frameworks in which they are active, for instance, the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia). An active Quartet means a living, kicking Russia that can still play with the big boys.
Some might discern other influences in Lavrov's worldview. They would claim that he views the Middle East conflict through the prism of the UN, where he served for 17 years - 10 as ambassador - and to which, in addition to international law, he assigns a decisive role: he reiterates that the road map was accorded international legal status following its approval, at Russia's initiative, in the Security Council. He repeatedly notes that there is no alternative to it; that disengagement cannot replace it and that any withdrawal should be coordinated with the Palestinians.
Lavrov refuses to enter a direct dispute with the Americans, but sharply warns against carrying out unilateral steps at the time of disengagement, or creating facts on the ground, such as expansion or "natural growth" of settlements. Disengagement is not an object unto itself, he emphasizes, but a stage in a rejuvenated peace process that will lead to an end of the conflict.
His approach to the Iran issue is unsurprising. While the EU expressed increased concern at the end of last week over Tehran's intent to resume uranium enrichment processes, Lavrov prefers to rely on a virtual alibi. "The prospects and scale of our partnership with Iran are defined with regard to Tehran's fulfillment of its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency," he asserts.
The Russian foreign minister says that to ensure that nuclear development is limited to peaceful aims, "we encourage Iran to resume a freeze on all activities connected with the enrichment of uranium." To which he then adds, with candor, "At the same time, Iran is our neighbor and traditional partner, with which we maintain mutually beneficial ties."
Aside from the economic benefits involved, commentators say that the nuclear-security cooperation with Iran can also symbolize the independence of the Russian foreign policy. It is not surprising, then, that when representatives of Iranian television congratulated Lavrov in March on his 54th birthday, he responded with a promise that "partnership with Iran, in the nuclear sphere as well, will not be subject to any opportunistic change."
By the end of the visit, Israel will discover in Lavrov a rare and empathetic partner in the war on terror. It will also find that there is nearly complete unanimity between Moscow, Paris and London on the subject of the peace process; and it will once again be made aware of the wide gap between Russia's Iranian policy and that of the Western community.
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