Post-Communist Eastern Europe and the Middle East: The Burden of History and New Political Realities
Kreutz, Andrej, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
The collapse of the communist system in Eastern Europe and the emergence of a completely new geopolitical and social reality which is strikingly different from its forerunner, probably represented the most important breakthrough in modern world history, by far exceeding the limitations of their regional boundaries and the relatively brief period of time. However, the results for almost all Third World nations were unfortunately, predominantly negative,(1) even though their direct impact on and the importance for those nations varied greatly, depending on the strength and character of their links with the post-Communist region and the available option(s) of other alliances and directions of development. For a number of reasons to be discussed later, the impact of the historic events in Eastern Europe on the situation in the Middle East-particularly in the Arab World and Israel-has been especially dramatic and important, and some of the future consequences are still difficult to predict. In discussing the relations of post-Communist Eastern Europe with the Middle East, I would like to focus on three different and yet strictly interwoven issues:
I. The role of the Soviet bloc countries in the Middle East and the importance of its collapse for the region.
II. Russia and its former Eastern European allies, and the Middle East-the burden of the past and the search for new prospects in the region.
III. The Middle Eastern policies of Yeltsin's Russia - its basic features and directions.
At the very end of this essay, I would like to take a look at Eastern European-Middle Eastern relations from the general historical and geopolitical points of view and to indicate some repeated patterns of the mutual relations between various parts of both regions which, despite all their great differences and frequent mutual hostilities, also seem to have quite a few similarities in their cultures and political history.
THE ROLE OF THE SOVIET BLOC COUNTRIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE IMPORTANCE OF ITS COLLAPSE FOR THE REGION
The collapse of the Soviet bloc might be seen as one of the greatest blows to the interests and aspirations of all Third World countries. The collapse first of all caused the disappearance of the bipolar international structures which, in spite of all their inherent risks and inadequacies, nevertheless secured a global balance of power and provided smaller and/or weaker states with a freedom to maneuver and the opportunity to defend their own interests. The more radical regimes in the developing countries have now lost their mighty protector and source of military and economic aid and assistance. In the new situation nothing now seems to be able to restrain the power of the only remaining superpower, the U.S.A. and the economic forces of the global market and the international financial institutions which are supported by it.
Because of the special geographical proximity and well established historical links between Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the impact of the changes was particularly important and noticeable in the Middle Eastern region at large from Noah Africa to the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. It is useful to be reminded here that the southern tier of the former Soviet bloc countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia and even parts of Hungary and Ukraine had for centuries been part of the Ottoman Empire, just as the Arab World had been. The historical Ottoman, and at least the partly Muslim background of countries such as Yugoslavia and Albania which were not Soviet allies but still socialist and anti-Western, was even stronger. The northern tier of the former Soviet bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the G.D.R. had far fewer historical connections with the Middle East, but as a part of the socialist camp did not deviate greatly in their policies from those of the other members and basically followed the Soviet leadership without any challenge. Russian links with the Middle East and the Islamic World at large have been unusually deep-rooted and long-lasting. Located on the Eurasian lowland, Russia has always been a territory having a "natural coexistence, mutual influence and interaction between the Eastern Slavic and Turkish, Caucasian and Persian peoples" which, as many Russian scholars argue, "created the foundation for a positive relationship between Russians and Muslims."(2)
Russia's relations with the Arab World have always been particularly friendly. The origins of the Russian diplomatic, religious and commercial presence can be traced back as far as the early medieval period of Kievan Rus when numerous Russian pilgrims, merchants and soldiers had already found their way into the region. One of them, Father Superior Daniel, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1104-1107 and wrote an original and very interesting account of it.(3) Also, in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, the Russian Empire was not involved in the colonial carve-up of the area and its "moral credentials among the Arabs, both on the official and popular level were considerably higher than the West's."(4) As early as 1901, the Emir of Kuwait applied for Moscow's protection, and some other Arab rulers also looked for communication, trade and cultural links with the Russian Empire.(5) Tsarist Russia had generally supported the renaissance of the local Christian Orthodox communities, always siding with the indigenous Arab elements against both the Turkish authorities and the high clergy, who were often of Greek origin and inclined to disregard the vital interests of their faithful.(6)
The Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society established in the second part of the nineteenth century founded schools, hospitals and hostels there and provided substantial material aid to the indigenous population, thus earning their gratitude and general sympathy.(7) After the October 1917 Revolution, the victorious Bolsheviks inherited a strong base to build on and were able to add a new ideological dimension to it. The Communist revolutionary appeal was at that time enthusiastically greeted by many Muslim and non-Muslim peoples of the Middle East and Asia who saw in it a historic chance for the fulfillment of their social and national aspirations which had long been suppressed by the Western Powers' domination. The Bolsheviks condemned their underhanded diplomacy toward the Muslim countries and published a number of secret agreements from the archives of Imperial Russia's Foreign Ministry, including the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which particularly compromised France and Britain among the Arab population of the Middle East. Going even further, the Soviet government's appeal of 20 December 1917 to "All the Working Muslims of Russia and the East", which was signed by Lenin himself, officially declared that "the Arabs as well as all Muslims had the right to be masters of their countries and to decide their own destinies as they wished."(8) In 1920 the Bolshevik government consequently refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the British-mandated rule in Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan, and of France in Syria and Lebanon. The very concept of the mandate system was also repudiated by the egalitarian Treaties of Friendship and Brotherhood concluded in 1921 by Soviet Russia and the Muslim countries of Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran. The USSR was the first country to establish full diplomatic relations with Hijaz (after 1932 the name was changed to Saudi Arabia) and in 1926 recognized an independent Yemen.(9) Although the Stalinist period and Stalin's own denial of the progressive values of the national liberation movements had put a long freeze on further Soviet Middle Eastern involvement, by the mid 1950s, Khrushchev's rise to power and the Egyptian President, Gamel Abdul Nasser's political turnabout opened a new period of the USSR's political and military presence in the region.(10)
During the following decades up to the second half of the 1980s, the USSR and her Eastern European allies supported the Arab people's cause, and in practice, all fronts of their national liberation straggle towards economic and social development. Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Libya, South Yemen and, last but not least, the most difficult clients to protect-the Palestinians-had all in their own time received generous diplomatic, economic and even military help from the Soviet bloc countries which, in addition, often protected them in the international arena against threats of direct Western intervention and annihilation. The relations between the Soviet-led Eastern European counties and the Arabs consequently had multifaceted political, military, economic and cultural dimensions and the Soviet leaders did not have economic benefits in mind, but rather the goal of winning Arab support for their regional and global policy.
In the period 1955-1973 only, the USSR provided Egypt with military aid, to the tune of over three billion dollars,(11) and the volume of its trade with the Arab World rose from $50 million in 1956 to 4.48 billion in 1981.(12) Soviet specialists built the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Euphrates Dam in Syria, and helped in the construction of numerous other projects at a time when many thousands of Arab students completed their cost-free university education in Eastern Europe.(13) However, even at the peak of Soviet Middle Eastern involvement and that of their allies, there were some serious limitations to the scale of their engagement and the effectiveness of their influence. Despite its apparent increase, the economic exchange of the Soviet bloc countries with the Arab world was still, in global terms, relatively negligible and much less attractive to the mainly Western-oriented Arab elite. In 1973 at the height of their influence the USSR and its Eastern European allies accounted for only 3.7% of the Arab countries' exports, compared with 47.9% for the European Union, 12% for Japan, and 5.2% for the United States, and only 7.7% of Arab imports compared with 42.3% in the case of the European Union, 10.4% for the U.S. and 7.3% for Japan.(14)
The class structure of Arab societies and the Western cultural influences which were still predominant among their elite, prevented the Soviets from getting a firm foothold there and, as the history of Egyptian-Soviet relations under Sadat would abundantly prove, made them susceptible to the vagaries of local Arab politics. However, the most important limitation was probably the fact that the Soviet's Middle Eastern policy had always been subordinated to their global outlook and requirements. The USSR had never withdrawn its recognition of Israel and had never provided its Arab protegees with its most sophisticated weapons which they had desired.(15) The perestroika period which started after Gorbachev's rise to power in 1985, brought to Soviet politics a completely new outlook and new directions. Following the so-called "new political thinking", and trying both to bring to an end the Cold War with the American superpower and alleviate Soviet economic problems, Gorbachev and his advisors looked for better Soviet-Israeli relations and limited the previous Soviet support for the more radical Arab regimes-especially Syria, Iraq and Libya. Further victims of the new political line were the Palestinians, even though Soviet relations with the PLO. who represented the Palestinians, had in the past always been complex and not free from a certain noticeable ambiguity. During the Iraqi-Kuwaiti crisis in 1990-91 and the Second War in the Persian Gulf, the Soviet Union basically supported the U.S., even though at a later stage of the drama, Gorbachev's envoy, Y. Primakov, tried to conclude some form of agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.S.sponsored coalition, and to prevent its ground military attack. However, his efforts were apparently spurned by the Americans and the collapsing Soviet Union was in fact both too weak and too internally divided to take a stronger position.(16)
The political attitude of the former Soviet Eastern European allies - especially Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary-was much more pro-American and anti-Arab. When, in the fall of 1989 both the Socialist system and Soviet influence collapsed, all those countries which were now led by staunchly antiCommunist politicians of a very pro-American and neo-liberal orientation moved swiftly to the Western and pro-Israeli camp. They did not only participate in the economic sanctions against Iraq, but according to some sources their intelligence services made use of their previous knowledge of the area to provide the U.S. and Israel with valuable political and strategic help and information.(17)
At the time when in the fall of 1991 the Americans chose Moscow as their partner in the Middle Eastern peace process conceived by them, the Soviet Union was on the verge of total collapse. It was giving ground on strategic negotiating points and was ready to normalize its diplomatic links with Israel without asking in return for any Israeli concessions.(18) According to an American analyst(19) Moscow might have been motivated either simply by a desire to appease the U.S. or by a wish to cut its own costs by reducing arms supplies to Syria. It might also have been persuaded by the U.S. argument that reassuring Israel would provide a chance for her to have a more positive political attitude toward the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors in general. Whatever the causes, and probably due to all of them, as early as mid 1989 the Soviet authorities had reopened Jewish immigration to Israel, thus greatly contributing to the further transformation of the domestic Israeli and regional balance of power.(20) In October …
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Publication information: Article title: Post-Communist Eastern Europe and the Middle East: The Burden of History and New Political Realities. Contributors: Kreutz, Andrej - Author. Journal title: Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ). Volume: 21. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1999. Page number: 1+. © 1998 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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