MOSCOW, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has flown to Moscow for a visit. The Russian-Egyptian high-level dialogue being what it is, visits by the head of one of the leading Middle Eastern and African countries to the Russian capital no longer cause a sensation -- they have already become routine. Yet only recently the arrival of high-ranking leaders from the Eastern countries to Moscow was invariably commented on as "the first for many years, historic and marking a turning point." This stage is now over. The old contacts with the Middle East, lost in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been restored, and even new partners found.
Russian-Egyptian cooperation is perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of Russia's return to the Middle East, first of all, economically. Russian statistics show that bilateral trade in goods and services in 2006 totaled $1.6 billion. In the first eight months of this year, it increased 52 percent year-on-year and reached $953.3 million, up from $500 million in 2002.
Nevertheless, against the background of Soviet-era projects, such as the Aswan High Dam, today's Russian-Egyptian cooperation seems modest. But it is based on profit and is in no way ideologically motivated. Cairo and Moscow are considering joint projects ranging from gas pipeline construction to nuclear power. Time will show which of them will materialize.
Unlike economic matters, political issues are not as clear. Ahead of his Moscow visit, President Mubarak gave an interview to the Russian Vremya Novostei newspaper. In it he remarked that "Russia has restored its interests in the Middle East and regained its influence in the region." But perhaps his words are just lip service?
No doubt Russia's interest in Middle Eastern issues is great today. It is actively participating in the work of the Quartet of Middle East intermediaries of Palestinian-Israeli settlement together with the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. Its position was largely determined when the U.N. Security Council drafted its resolution on Iraq after the United States and the United Kingdom decided to restore legality in Iraq following the deposition of the Saddam Hussein regime. Still, how far can we go in saying that Russia can exert a considerable influence on the situation in the Middle East?
The most salient example is Russian President Vladimir Putin's invitation of Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections, to Moscow in February 2006. Russia took this extraordinary step despite the movement's boycott by Israel, the United States and the EU in order to break the deadlock on Middle East settlement. Did it succeed? No, it did not.
There are other examples -- an attempt to ease the situation around Syria following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in the winter of 2005, proposals for an Iraqi-to-Iraqi dialogue, and search for ways of financing the Palestinian National Authority bypassing Hamas. Most interestingly, many of Moscow's ideas were sooner or later taken up by other parties to settlement -- in the Middle East or Iraq. True, more often than not, they no longer looked like Russian initiatives. But the Russian Foreign Ministry does not object as long as they work. Which does not always happen, and not only where Russia is concerned.
Today no one can boast that they know the right way to resolve deadlocks in the Arab-Israeli peace process, or to restore political stability in Iraq. Even Hosni Mubarak, a veteran of Middle Eastern politics who has been in office for exactly a quarter of a century, when asked by Vremya Novostei how the Iraqi problem can be solved, answered: "God knows." Perhaps the same response applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although all intermediaries are proposing concrete solutions, no one knows how to implement them in practice. Cairo, Moscow, Washington, and Brussels are all trying to make their contribution but to no avail --there are too many undercurrents. And all attempts end in failure.
So one can speak neither of Russia's real influence in the Middle East, nor of its helplessness in the region. Unquestionably, the United States, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have far greater influence on local events than Russia, but ultimately all of them are equally helpless. Single-handed, nobody is in a position to find the key to resolving deadlocked regional issues. This is far too challenging a task even for joint efforts.
(Marianna Belenkaya is a politcal commentator at RIA Novosti. This article was reprinted with permission from the news agency.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)