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from issue no. 10 - 2006

Alexander Saltanov speaking

Almost all roads lead to Moscow


The Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation lays out guidelines for diplomacy in the Middle East. In the name of pragmatism


Interview with Alexander Saltanov by Giovanni Cubeddu and Pierluca Azzaro


Talking with Alexander Vladimirovich Saltanov, deputy foreign minister of the Russian Federation, whose brief is the Middle East, it leaps to the eye that Moscow has picked up all the threads from the period in which she was rightly called a superpower. And the post-ideological approach that now characterizes Russian initiatives is enabling Moscow to make the most of its leverage (first in terms of the energy supplies, but also of technological skills in sensitive sectors such as nuclear power and armaments). Pragmatism is the password.
The Kremlin Palace in Moscow

The Kremlin Palace in Moscow

Unpretentiousness, direct but also prudent, is one of the deputy minister’s qualities. Involved in diplomacy since 1970, Saltanov has always been concerned with the Middle East, in increasingly responsible posts, and he embodies the great Soviet orientalist tradition, given his reputation as an “Arabist” and his knowledge of the language. We met Saltanov at the World Public Forum in Rhodes.

Mr. Saltanov, your brief is the geopolitical area currently most complicated. What are the prospects?
ALEXANDER SALTANOV: We’re deeply concerned about the Middle East. The whole region is out of kilter, while the situation in Iraq remains hazardous, despite all the great and real efforts made by the country and by the Iraqi people to establish new civilian institutions, a parliament, a government… which Russia has naturally welcomed. Nevertheless, the balance remains unstable, to use a truly diplomatic expression: every day killings, terrorism, crimes. And naturally we also know that resistance to the foreign military presence continues.
In concrete, which operational indications would you suggest?
SALTANOV: To give life to a real and local political process large initiatives must be taken, based, for example, on the proposals of the Iraqi prime minister Al-Maliki. Certainly without national reconciliation it’s difficulty to foresee economic resurgence, greater security and so on. The international community should go along more with the Iraqi people and government to make further steps ahead.
And Moscow in all that?
SALTANOV: Not only are we ready to do what I’ve said, but we are already helping to concretize international aid for Iraq, through contacts with our friends in the region, the countries close to Iraq and then with the United States, Great Britain, France and Italy. With the latter we cooperate very well on the Middle East.
The Arab-Israeli conflict?
SALTANOV: Naturally it remains the most important issue today. Unfortunately the peace process is not making headway and the recent war in Lebanon has shown that without the start of real Arab-Israeli negotiations we shall inevitably see new conquerors at work and new military clashes … which is very dangerous. Russia proposes the restart of negotiations. But without global action it will be very difficult to achieve any sort of peace in the Middle East. Efforts in various directions are needed and in this scenario the “Quartet” [made up of the UN, EU, United States and Russia, ed.] is fundamental. In the recent meeting in New York the Quartet spoke very encouragingly about what needs to be done. We declared both the importance of an overall agreement and our backing for the Palestinian president Abu Mazen in his intention of forming a government of national unity. This is a salient point in the Quartet declaration, that concretely engages not only its members but also the important “players” in the region such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. At the same time however…
However?
SALTANOV: We Russians must pay attention to increasing our bilateral relations with the Arab countries and with Israel. We are expecting the visit of some Middle Eastern leaders to Moscow, and naturally we are doing our best to improve relations, cooperation and trade with countries in the area, such as Algeria, Egypt, Syria. Additionally, we have helped the Lebanon to reconstruct its infrastructure and we are making the most of all our links with the countries of the Gulf.
First and foremost a pro-Arab policy …
SALTANOV: But naturally Israel is one of our fundamental partners in the region, because of the interweaving of relations and our work of cooperation, in different fields.
Suggest to us a realistic solution of the problem with Teheran of nuclear proliferation. Some analysts believe that Syria should be distanced from Iran, as a way of bringing pressure.
SALTANOV: Those are really matters of detail, minimal… that might even turn out to be useful, but our feeling is somewhat different from those who talk loudly of the idea. We think that negotiations with Iran should be kept up, so that the common purposes can be really achieved. And our objective is clear: no to nuclear proliferation, for which we will continue our efforts and our bilateral dialogue with Iran, also within the group of the nations that are holding the negotiations.
Russian president Vladimir Putin with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2006

Russian president Vladimir Putin with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2006

In the meantime, however, Moscow is signing agreements that are furthering cooperation with Teheran in the civilian nuclear sector.
SALTANOV: In Iran there is the Bushher nuclear plant, it is a lawful project and works within the framework of international law and of the negotiations between us and the Iranians based on the Non-proliferation Treaty. However, frankly speaking, I see no connection between this issue – our cooperation on civilian use of nuclear power – and negotiations on Iran’s atomic program.
How strong are liaisons between Moscow and Damascus now?
SALTANOV: Relations with Syria are friendly and solid, and on that basis we go ahead in political and economic terms, also having projects of cooperation in the country. Relations of this fashion certainly help us improve our dialogue with the Syrians on issues of primary importance, including the general situation in the Middle East.
And what suggestions are reaching the Syrians from Moscow? For example to resolve the Lebanese deadlock and prevent future crises...
SALTANOV: Naturally between us and the Syrian government there are exchanges of opinion... You know that recently our Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Damascus and before him I was also there. We encourage our Syrian friends and our partners in actions that build toward a simplification of the situation in the region, and our impression is that Damascus is ready to play its part. Believe me, the attempts to isolate Damascus are truly of little use if we want to improve the situation in the Middle East area. On the contrary, the more we heighten the level of dialogue the better we shall be able to help Damascus develop its positive role, engaging it in a peaceful solution.
You referred to the Russian initiatives to help Lebanon. But the deployment of the troops established by the UN resolution 1701 is still not achieved, and above all the Hizbullah repeat that they won’t give up their weapons voluntarily.
SALTANOV: First of all, I believe that resolution 1701 should be implemented totally, and in any case I see implementation is going ahead. Naturally we’re faced with a process that takes time and, as regards the Hizbullah weaponry, we Russians are keeping to the position we took from the beginning: the solution should come out of an agreement among the Lebanese. It’s a question the Lebanese people are entitled to settle for themselves, it’s a national issue.
Hamas and Israel. President Abu Mazen says that Hamas will be a part of the government of national unity and will immediately accept the agreements signed in the past by the Palestinians with Israel. On the other hand the Palestinian Prime Minister, belonging to Hamas, retorts that at most he can offer a truce with Israel lasting ten years. Do you believe that meanwhile it would be better to accept this truce, to negotiate, or is Abu Mazen right?
SALTANOV: There are three conditions for the restarting of negotiations, that are well known to everybody and that Hamas would have to respect [an end to terrorism, acceptance of the agreement already signed between the PLO – the Palestinian Liberation Organization – and Israel, and acknowledgement of the existence of the State of Israel, ed.] But it’s scarcely realistic to think that all these conditions will be fulfilled one hundred percent by Hamas in a single day. Again: it’s a process, it takes time. Our perception is that a government of national unity is a step in the right direction, but we naturally see the leaders of Hamas hesitating, at times they say yes, at others no. The gesture that would, however, give everyone a boost, at the highest level, would be the acceptance by Hamas of the famous peace initiative taken by the Arab League in 2002, or, precisely, ratification of the agreements formerly arrived at between the PLO and Israel. Whoever has the opportunity should help that result to come about, through contacts with the Arab countries and with the leaders of Hamas. We Russians, for example, have the possibility, and are doing our duty.
The problem of the Palestinian refugee camps is still enormous. Can the old promise made to the Palestinians of having a State of their own be kept and help them avoid the trap of terrorist manipulation?
SALTANOV: You will remember that the agreements speak of the “right to return” of the Palestinians refugees, or the right to financial compensation, which is more probable... and that however is more my personal opinion. As I’ve said, Russia believes that the Israelis and the Palestinians should restart negotiations, without which not even this problem can be dealt with, and I believe that the two sides are capable of contriving some formula to resolve it. At the same time I doubt the utility of extrapolating one or the other issue from the overall program of negotiations, aimed at a global agreement, which includes fundamental issues: the occupied territories, Jerusalem capital of two States, the borders and the subdivision of powers between the two States…
Mr. Deputy Minister, working on the Middle East you experience at first hand the state of the real relations between Moscow and Washington on crucial issues. Do you foresee tougher confrontation or, on the contrary, greater cooperation? In any case, has Russia really decided to win back its leading role in international politics?
SALTANOV: Well, yes, we are pragmatic people. Naturally we are defending our position today forcefully, but through dialogue and not conflict. And this approach enables us to have very open discussions with our American partners. For example, I visited Washington recently together with my colleague Ambassador Yacovlev, the Russian special envoy for the Middle East. We had talks both at the State Department and at the National Security Council and with other diplomatic colleagues, but always very clear and positive…
Saltanov with Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister

Saltanov with Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister

Why have you been attending all the work of the World Public Forum in Rhodes?
SALTANOV: Dialogue, which we prefer to conceive as partnership between civilizations, has indeed begun to represent an important part of our diplomatic work. That is why so much attention is paid in Moscow to the Rhodes Forum, for example, or to other forums of similar calibre. We have also set up a body for strategic dialogue called “Russia-Islamic world”, chaired by the former prime minister Evgenij Primakov, that has already held various meetings, and it is a very valid and fruitful means. In July, furthermore, there was a gathering of world religious leader in Russia, organized by Patriarch Alexis II, and President Putin made a memorable speech at the opening ceremony, focused on “who is trying to stir up the so-called clash of civilizations”. President Putin stressed the dangers of such moves and the role of religious leaders in bettering understanding between different civilizations, cultures, countries.
The Russian Federation is multi-ethnic and multi-religious, Orthodoxy and Islam historically co-exist there. Has Russian political – and diplomatic – culture therefore something more to teach in the matter of dialogue?
SALTANOV: I don’t believe there is a magic formula. I think rather that, first of all, we must preserve the identities of the different cultures, but at the same time we must come together more. As for example at the Rhodes Forum, to listen to and to discover the features and characteristics of those around us, who have qualities that might rightly be different from our own... Understanding means respecting, and respecting means that a common basis for working together can be found, for cooperating, interacting. All of us having a great goal, that of making this world a better place and above all saving it from the dangerous challenges that are unfortunately increasing.


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