Mark N. Katz is associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University.
In the West, we all know that the collapse of the USSR left Russia absorbed with its domestic problems. To the extent that it has a foreign policy, Moscow now focuses on relations with the West and with the former Soviet republics. The Middle East, like much of the rest of the world, is pretty much beyond its interests. Not only is competing with the United States for influence in the region out of the question but Moscow no longer even has the resources to involve itself heavily in the Middle East cooperating with Washington.
Oddly, however, many in the Middle East don't want to see this. They not only hope for a revival of the old power but think it a real possibility. The many Russian leaders who proclaim that Russia is still a great power encourage this illusion. But when it comes down to specific cases, the two sides are, in the end, forced to see that Moscow cannot play its old role in the Middle East.
LONGING FOR A STRONG MOSCOW
Most of the world welcomed the decline of Soviet power, but not the rulers of radical Arab states. They had looked to the Soviet Union as their primary source of support. Soviet arms made them powerful; power made them somebodies on the world stage. In August 1991, the Arab radicals enthusiastically embraced the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, hoping against hope that Moscow's changed role in the Middle East did not result from such profound matters as economic decline and ideological exhaustion but simply reflected the policy preferences of a few leaders. Moscow, they thought, could still be a superpower if only it chose to act as one.
This dream parallels one that prevails among many current Russian leaders to look for acknowledgment that Russia remains a great power. Right-wingers like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Alexander Rutskoi want this, but so do many of the "moderates" in Boris Yeltsin's government. They cling to the outward trappings of power, such as the fact that they are co-sponsors of the Arab-Israeli peace process. They also make a real effort to maintain good relations with their old allies--especially those who can afford to pay hard currency for Russian weapons.
Thus, elements on both the Arab and Russian sides wish to see the old relationship continue. But it just hasn't worked out because Moscow can no longer afford to play a great power role in the Middle East. It faces too many other problems closer to home.
RUSSIA AND YEMEN
The case of Russo-Yemeni relations provides an instructive example of Moscow's former allies vainly hoping that Russia can still play a great power role in the region. Before May 1990, two Yemens existed, a North and a South, and Moscow gave military and economic assistance to both. In return, the South provided the USSR with military facilities and the right to fish off its coast. For its part, the North provided Moscow with . . . well, nothing tangible. If it provided anything in return, the North gave the impression that Moscow's aid was preventing the country from falling completely under the influence of Saudi Arabia and the West. The North also accepted aid from Saudi Arabia and the West so that they would feel reassured about it not falling completely under Moscow's sway. Very clever, really. (And very Middle Eastern: Gamal Abdel Nasser first developed this scheme in the 1950s.)
The two Yemens merged in May 1990. (As this is being written, though, a civil war is turning Yemen into two states again; some leaders in the South want to secede from the North.) Absorbed by their own problems, the Soviet leaders stopped giving aid to the newly united country. And shortly thereafter, Saudi Arabia and the West virtually halted all aid too. Not only did they not have to worry about a Soviet Yemen, but the Yemeni government sided with Iraq during the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis. The authorities in Sanaa didn't have much choice; as in Jordan and some other Arab countries, public opinion in Yemen was overwhelmingly pro-Iraqi. The government probably would have been overthrown had it not expressed the same sentiments.
With the Kuwait war over, the Yemeni government wanted to restore its relations with Saudi Arabia and the West, hoping that this would turn the spigot back on. The Saudis, furious, refused. They had given billions of dollars over the years and in return got their hand bitten. The West too, especially Washington, was angry for the same reason. But the Yemenis, obviously, still wanted aid, and this led them to try the Russians again. Things wouldn't be the same as before, but perhaps Moscow could provide something. Russians and Yemenis, after all, had been friends for decades. The Russians had never tired of saying so in the past. If Moscow gave something, maybe--just maybe--the West and even the Saudis would still feel competitive enough with Russia to kick in a little too.
A FULL DAY'S MISUNDERSTANDING
This seems to have been the thinking of Yemeni officials at the start of a three-day conference on "Unified Yemen in a Changing World," sponsored by the Yemeni Foreign Ministry in Sanaa in September 1992. But if they thought this way at the start of the conference, they did not think so by the end of it.
The Yemenis initially intended the conference to focus on Russo-Yemeni relations alone but, deciding that other countries might also be important to Yemen's future, they broadened its scope. Still, most of the second day was devoted to the future of Russo-Yemeni relations--a sign of how important the Yemenis anticipated their ties with Moscow should be.
The first speaker that second day was an ex-Soviet diplomat who had previously served in both Yemens. He began with verbiage about continued Russian interest in the Middle East, including the peaceful resolution of conflicts in the Arab-Israeli arena, the Gulf, and elsewhere. Finally, he got around to discussing the issue of Russo-Yemeni bilateral relations. He described how the Soviet Union had provided a large amount of economic assistance to both the North and the South. He ticked off several of the larger projects: roads, hospitals, and a cement factory in the North; a water desalinization plant, hospitals, and oil exploration projects in the South.
At present, he noted, Russia was undergoing an enormous transformation. Its economy could only be described as being in a state of severe crisis. Not only could Russia no longer give economic help to others, but it now sought economic assistance itself. Since Russia had helped the Yemenis for so long, he continued, Moscow now hoped that the Yemenis would in turn help Russia in its hour of need. The best way they could help Russia would be to begin repaying the debt of roughly three billion dollars, which the two jointly owed Moscow. In a tone of voice that indicated he was being very generous indeed, the Russian added that Yemen could repay Moscow either in hard currency or in any mutually agreed upon commodity that Yemen produced--such as oil. The choice was Yemen's, he concluded.
Furrowed brows, shaking heads, and blank stares suggested that this statement was not what the Yemeni delegates expected to hear. A senior Yemeni diplomat rose and indicated--in very diplomatic language--that united Yemen was also experiencing severe financial difficulties and was not in a position to repay anything to Russia, especially not in hard currency or oil.
The Russian diplomat seemed to take this in stride. He said that Moscow fully understood the problem and would never press its old Yemeni friends for repayment. But at the same time, they must realize the desperate situation Russia was in. Moscow hoped they would understand if Russia's sold its Yemeni debt to a third party for cash at a discount. Sanaa and the new holder of the debt could then reach whatever arrangement for repayment they found convenient.
This left the Yemenis stunned. A younger Yemeni participant asked, "But would Russia sell the debt to a third party which Yemen disapproved of?" In other words, to someone who actually expected the Yemenis to pay up. The Russian smiled blandly and made no response. He didn't have to.
On this cheerful note, the first session ended and the second one began. The next speaker represented the Russian Chamber of Commerce. Despite the negative publicity about privatization's slow progress in Russia, he said, it actually was occurring. He proceeded to give a glowing account of the many investment opportunities now available in Russia. He concluded by urging Yemenis to seize this golden opportunity and to invest in Russia now while the best deals were still available. To which the Yemeni sitting on my right whispered, "Ah yes! With our enormous wealth, first we'll pay off our debt to the Russians and then invest the rest in their new businesses."
During the Q&A session, several other Russians participants expanded on some of the points which their colleague had made. Although some of the Western participants asked questions, none of the Yemenis did.
After lunch, the third session featured a Yemeni specialist on international law. He began with a painstakingly detailed discussion about how international law requires new governments to inherit all the obligations undertaken by their predecessors. The Yeltsin government acknowledged Russia as the legal successor to the USSR, just as the government of united Yemen was legal successor to the North and the South. With this much established, he pointed out that the USSR had signed agreements with both North and South Yemen promising future aid to them, aid that had not yet been provided. Russia, he concluded, was obliged under international law to provide Yemen with the pledged assistance. He concluded by acknowledging that because of Russia's current economic problems, Sanaa could not expect Moscow to deliver this aid immediately. It was prepared to wait.
"The wait may be a long one," whispered the Russian scholar sitting on my left.
The Russians did not have much to say during the discussion period but a Yemeni mentioned that Soviet aid had often been less than an unalloyed blessing. He raised the case of the Soviet-constructed cement plant in North Yemen, built upwind of a sizeable town. That town ever since has been literally covered in cement dust. He proposed that in addition to fulfilling its contractual aid obligations, Russia ought to pay for damage caused by the cement factory and other Soviet aid projects. The Russians made no response.
For the remainder of the conference it was quite clear that Russians were annoyed with Yemenis, and Yemenis were annoyed with them. Neither side, though, should have been surprised. Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that "where the bond [between two friends] was one of utility or pleasure there is presumably nothing odd about breaking it when they no longer have these attributes; for it was these that underlay the friendship, and when they fail it is reasonable to feel no affection" (Ethics IX.3). The conference in Sanaa demonstrated to Russians and Yemenis that neither could expect much more "utility or pleasure" in their relationship.
What was most surprising about the conference was that the two sides seemed to expect that somehow the old relationship could continue. How could they possibly have thought so when it obviously could not? The explanation may have to do with nostalgia. Each side has its memory of the glory days and hopes against hope that somehow they will return. Their attempts to realize this hope may fail but neither side is willing to give up hope, for to do so would force each to acknowledge that it is no longer as important as it used to be.